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.
- 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) ↩