Amish Saying? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Native American Proverb? Wendell Berry? Oscar Wilde? Chief Seattle? Moses Henry Cass? Dennis J. Hall? Helen Caldicott? Lester Brown? David R. Brower? Taghi Farvar? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: In my opinion the most thoughtful and poignant quotation about the environment is the following:
We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children
No one seems to know the origin of this saying. Perhaps it was constructed in recent decades, or perhaps it encapsulates the wisdom of previous centuries. Could you attempt to trace this quotation?
Quote Investigator: A precursor statement was attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America” by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith. The remark appeared in a section of the book discussing Wilde’s visit to Canada in 1882. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
“The things of nature do not really belong to us,” he said; “we should leave them to our children as we have received them.”
A separate QI article about the quotation above is available here.
The earliest close match appeared in the 1971 book “The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” by influential environmental activist Wendell Berry who emphasized the desirability of preserving natural areas and adapting a long-range perspective about the environment: 2
We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…
The wording in the passage above did not exactly match the modern instance of the saying, but QI conjectures that later expressions evolved from Berry’s remark.
In May 1971 Berry published an essay in “Audubon” magazine titled “The One-Inch Journey” which was based on chapter 2 of the book mentioned above. The excerpt above was reprinted in the essay, and thus it achieved wider dissemination. This appearance also linked the saying to the Audubon Society. 3
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1973 a member of a conservation group based in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts named Carleton H. Parker submitted a statement to a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate that met in July. Parker’s statement was placed into the official record, and it contained a version of the saying attributed to the Audubon Society. Parker employed the phrase “true conservationist” although it was placed outside of the quotation marks in the following excerpt: 4
I like Audubon Society’s definition of a true conservationist as “a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”
In August 1973 a newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Missouri printed an instance without ascription that was similar to the version above, but the phrase “true conservationist” was now blended into the saying: 5
A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.
On November 13, 1974 the Australian Minister for the Environment and Conservation gave a speech in Paris at a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Minister’s name was Moses Henry Cass, and his address to the Environment Committee included an instance of the saying. The version Cass spoke was longer and clumsier than modern instances. He used the word “inherited” instead of “given”: 6
We rich nations, for that is what we are, have an obligation not only to the poor nations, but to all the grandchildren of the world, rich and poor. We have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own. Anyone who fails to recognise the basic validity of the proposition put in different ways by increasing numbers of writers, from Malthus to The Club of Rome, is either ignorant, a fool, or evil.
In July 1975 a version of the saying appeared as part of an article titled “The Land Is Borrowed from Our Children” by Dennis J. Hall that was published in the periodical “Michigan Natural Resources”. Hall worked at the Office of Land Use for the state of Michigan. The above article title was listed in the table of contents, but the beginning of the article presented a different title. A compact version of the adage was placed between quotation marks and printed in a large font at the start of the piece. Hence, the adage functioned as an alternative title: 7
” … We have not inherited the land from our fathers, we have borrowed it from our children …”
by Dennis J. Hall
Office of Land Use
QI believes that the quotation marks signaled that Hall was not claiming authorship of the saying. He was simply using it as a label for his essay, but this usage was certainly confusing, and some later citations credited Hall with the saying.
In September 1975 a conference on the topic of transportation was held in Germany, and an article in the proceedings by Jorg K. Kuhnemann mentioned the adage. The Australian Minister of the Environment was credited, and this lengthy version was similar to the statement by Moses Henry Cass: 8
There is only one world and, as was pointed out by the Australian Minister of the Environment at the OECD Ministerial Conference on the Environment last November, we have not inherited the earth from our fathers and are hence entitled to use it according to our wishes. We have rather borrowed it from our children and have to maintain it properly until they can take over.
In January 1976 the maxim was printed in an editorial about school funding in an Illinois monthly “The Common Bond”. No individual was credited: 9
We have no excuse. Someone once said; “We did not inherit our future from our ancestors, we have borrowed it from our children.”
In May 1976 the saying was printed as the final paragraph of an article about the environment in a New York newspaper. The words were attributed to Dennis Hall: 10
“We have not inherited the land from our fathers, but have borrowed it from our children.”
Also in May 1976 the remarks of the incoming chairman of the Association of American Colleges were published in the journal “Liberal Education”. The saying was credited to Wendell Berry: 11
I prefer Wendell Berry’s phrase that we must act as “a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”
In May 1978 an instance was attributed to someone named John Madison in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania newspaper: 12
A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.
— John Madison.
In 1980 the United Nations Environment Programme published an annual review for the year 1978. Hence, there was delay between the execution of the review and the publication of the results. The back cover of this document displayed an instance of the maxim without an ascription: 13
We have not inherited the earth from our fathers. We have borrowed it from our children.
In March 1980 Lee M. Talbot of the World Wildlife Fund International spoke before the Royal Society of Arts of Great Britain about “A World Conservation Strategy”. Talbot employed the maxim in his talk and when it was printed it was placed between quotation marks. No attribution was given: 14
‘We have no right to destroy any other life form’, ‘We have the capability to destroy other forms of life, therefore, we have the responsibility to see that they are not destroyed’, or ‘We have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children’.
In September 1980 a poem-hymn titled “Where Silkwood Walks” by Ezekiel Limehouse was published in the periodical “The Lake Street Review”, and a contributor’s note about Limehouse mentioned the prominent physician and activist Helen Caldicott. The adage was labeled a principle of Caldicott’s: 15
His hymn “Where Silkwood Walks” is indebted to William Blake’s “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” and was written in the spirit of Dr. Helen Caldicott’s principium: “We did not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrowed it from our descendants.”
In May 1981 an article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Paul and Anne Ehrlich included the adage as an epigraph. The words were associated with an environmental organization and not an individual: 16
“We have not inherited the Earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.”— International Union for the Conservation of Nature, World Conservation Strategy.
In January 1983 a congressman writing in the Christian Science Monitor newspaper attributed the maxim to the prominent environmentalist Lester Brown: 17
The time to act is now. As Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute says, “We have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children.”
In March 1983 a reviewer of Lester Brown’s recent work “Building a Sustainable Society” noted that the adage appeared on the cover of the book: 18
“We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children” — so proclaims the cover of Lester Brown’s latest book.
In 1985 the Los Angeles Times published a story that included a profile of the influential environmentalist David Brower who expressed some confusion when he was given credit for the maxim: 19
Brower picked up a book with a jacket quote which, he said, rather pleased, had been attributed to him, although “I don’t remember when I said it.” It reads: “We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children.”
In 1986 an advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Gland, Switzerland employed the adage without attribution: 20
Taghi Farvar, a senior adviser to the IUCN, said the ultimate message of the environmentalists today is that “you can have your cake and eat it.” With proper development, the environment needed in making a living can be maintained and used again. “We have not inherited the world from our parents,” says Dr. Farvar. “We have borrowed it from our children.”
In 1988 a piece in the Los Angeles Times described the adage as an “Amish saying”: 21
“We have not inherited the land from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children.”
This Amish saying is quoted by a Glacier Bay National Park ranger in an open letter of tribute to John Muir in this 150th anniversary year of the pioneer naturalist’s birth.
In 1989 Backpacker magazine presented a version of the quotation spoken by David Brower that supplemented the adage with an additional barbed comment: 22
Remember, we don’t inherit the earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children. And if you borrow something you don’t have the capability of paying back, you are actually stealing.
In 1990 the U.S. Secretary of State ascribed the maxim to the famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: 23
Emerson, the 19th century American essayist and poet, put it this way: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
In 1991 a report from the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality ascribed the saying to the famous Native American Chief Seattle and suggested that the words were quite old. No supporting citation was given: 24
The same thought was expressed over a century ago in timeless language by the Native American Chief Seattle, who said, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.”
In 1993 the quotation expert Ralph Keyes discussed the origin of the adage in the pages of the Washington Post: 25
When James Baker was Secretary of State, he quoted Emerson as having said, “We have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children.” Emerson didn’t say that. Who did? A Celestial Seasonings tea box calls this an “Amish belief.” The saying is more often called a “Native American proverb.” Neither is likely. The maxim is a little too perfectly tailored to today’s headlines. Its origins remain a mystery.
The 1994 book “Talking on the Water” printed an interview with David Brower who stated that fellow environmentalist Lester Brown had ascribed the increasingly popular expression to Brower: 26
On the cover of the book Building a Sustainable Society, by Lester Brown, is the quote, “We do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children.” Lester says he got that quote from me, though I don’t remember having said it.
In 1995 David Brower published a book that contained a description of a conversation he had with Lester Brown many years earlier. Brown told Brower that the statement “We do not inherit the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children” was carved in stone at the National Aquarium, and the words were credited to Brower. Although Brower was pleased he was also puzzled: 27 28
At home in California, I searched my unorganized files to find out when I could have said those words. I stumbled upon the answer in the pages of an interview that had taken place in a North Carolina bar so noisy, I could only marvel that I was heard at all. Possibly, I didn’t remember saying it because by then they had me on my third martini.
Brower does not give the date of the North Carolina interview.
In conclusion, QI would tentatively assign credit to Wendell Berry for crafting the first version of this statement which has been evolving for decades. Moses Henry Cass employed the word “inherited” instead of “given” which appeared in Berry’s phrasing. Now the most popular modern expressions use “inherited” or “inherit”. This article represents a snapshot of what QI has found and it may be updated in the future as more pertinent data is obtained.
(Many thanks to Andy Behrens who told QI about the crucial 1971 Wendell Berry citation. Great thanks to George Marshall whose inquiry about this saying led QI to formulate the question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining scans of the key citation in the Australian Government Digest, and special thanks to Dennis Lien for scans of the September 1980 cite.)
Update history: On January 26, 2014 the September 1980 citation was added. On July 17, 2014, several citations were added: 1971 “The Unforeseen Wilderness”, May 1971 “Audubon”, July 1973 Senate Hearing, August 1973 “The Southeast Missourian”, May 1976 “Liberal Education”, and May 1978 “The Pittsburgh Press”. Also, the conclusion was rewritten. On June 16, 2021 the Oscar Wilde precursor quotation was added together with a crosslink to the article about it.
- 1936, Oscar Wilde Discovers America  by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, Book 4: Eastward, Southward, Northward, Chapter 2: Adds a New Horror To Death, Quote Page 350, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1971, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Wendell Berry, Photographs by Gene Meatyard, Chapter 2: The One-Inch Journey, Start Page 11, Quote Page 26, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1971 May, Audubon, The One-Inch Journey by Wendell Berry, Start Page 4, Quote Page 9, Column 1, National Audubon Society, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1973, Ninety-Third Congress, First Session, United States Senate, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs on Bill S. 1929, To Establish the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust, Date: July 16 1973, (Statement submitted by Carleton H. Parker, Concerned Citizens of Martha’s Vineyard, Inc., West Tisbury, Massachusetts), Start Page 204, Quote Page 204, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1973 August 31, The Southeast Missourian, Field And Stream Notes, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1975, Australian Government Digest, Volume 2, Number 4, (1 October 1974 – 31 December 1974), (Text of speech on Environmental Policy given by Dr. Moses Henry Cass, Minister for the Environment and Conservation for Australia, Speech was delivered on November 13, 1974 at the Ministerial Meeting of the O.E.C.D. Environment Committee in Paris), Start Page 1143, Quote Page 1145, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, Australia. (Verified with scans; Thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system) ↩
- 1975 July-August, Michigan Natural Resources, Volume 44, Number 4, The Land Is Borrowed From Our Children by Dennis Hall (Dennis J. Hall), Start Page 2, Quote Page 3, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, Michigan. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1976, Transportation Planning for a Better Environment, Edited by Peter Stringer and H. Wenzel, (Proceedings of a conference on Transportation and Urban Life held in Munich, West Germany, September 15-19, 1975), (Article: Better Towns with Less Traffic by Jorg K. Kuhnemann: Urban Environment and Land Use Division, O.E.C.D.), Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, Published in coordination with NATO Scientific Affairs Division by Plenum Press, New York and London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1976 January, The Common Bond, “Building the future for East Moline?”, Quote Page 4, Column 3, East Moline, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1976 May 13, The Warrensburg – Lake George News, Adirondack Sportsman by Bill Roden, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Warren County, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1976 May, Liberal Education, Volume 62, Remarks of the Incoming Chairman by Theodore D. Lockwood, Start Page 316, Quote Page 317, Published by the Association of American Colleges, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1978 May 28, The Pittsburgh Press, Rambling Afield: Birds of a Feather, Huh? Quote Page D-10, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1980, United Nations Environment Programme: Annual Review 1978, (Quotation is printed on the back cover), Published by United Nations Environment Programme, (Nairobi, Kenya). (Google Books Preview) link ↩
- 1980 July, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Volume 128, Number 5288, A World Conservation Strategy by Lee M. Talbot, Director of Conservation and Special Scientific Advisor, World Wildlife Fund International, (Speech delivered to the Society on March 19, 1980), Start Page 493, Quote Page 495, Published by Royal Society of Arts, London, Great Britain. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980 Summer, The Lake Street Review, Number 9, Editor Kevin FitzPatrick, Section: Notes on Contributors: Note on Ezekiel Limehouse author of the poem “Where Silkwood Walks”, Start Page 40, Quote Page 41, Published by Lake Street Review, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system) ↩
- 1981 May, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 37, Number 5, The Politics of Extinction by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Quote Page 26, Published by Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1983 January 5, Christian Science Monitor, Saving the soil — by private initiative by Ed Jones, Page 23, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1983 March, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 39, Number 3, (Review by Anne H. Ehrlich of “Building a Sustainable Society” by Lester R. Brown), Quote Page 40, Column 2, Published by Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1985 June 6, Concern Over Movement’s Direction: Environmentalists: Three Who Believe by Beverly Beyette, Quote Page E1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1986 June 12, Christian Science Monitor, “New environmental tack: development + conservation = growth” by David R. Francis”, Quote Page 12, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1988 August 14, Los Angeles Times, John Muir’s Legacy Still Strong in Glacier Country by Frank Riley, Quote Page 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1989 June, Backpacker: The Magazine of Wilderness Travel, Volume 17, Number 4, Wilderness Shows Us Where We Came From by David Brower, Quote Page 25, Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1990, Current Policy: Number 1250-1309, Diplomacy for the Environment, (Address by Secretary of State James Baker before the National Governors Association on February 26, 1990 in Washington, D.C.) Current Policy Number 1254, Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Published by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Public Communication, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link ↩
- 1991, Environmental Quality for the Year 1990: The Twenty-First Annual Report of the Council on Environmental Quality together with The President’s Message to Congress, Quote Page 4, Published by Executive Office of the President, Council on Environmental Quality, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link ↩
- 1993 May 16, Washington Post, “Some of our favorite quotations never quite went that way: Did They REALLY Say It?” Ralph Keyes, Page L10, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1994, Talking on the Water: Conversations About Nature and Creativity by Jonathan White, David Brower: The Archdruid Himself, Start Page 37, Quote Page 47, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, California. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1995, Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run by David R. Brower with Steve Chapple, Quote Page 1 and 2, HarperCollins West, San Francisco, California. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 98, 298, and 299, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩