The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Oscar Wilde? Lloyd Lewis? Henry Justin Smith? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Oscar Wilde apparently expressed some forward thinking ideas about the environment. He believed that the natural world should be preserved so that it can be conveyed to our children in the condition it was received. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde visited Canada in 1882 and delivered a lecture in Ottawa on May 16 about “Art Decoration”. The following day the “Ottawa Citizen” reported on his clothes, his demeanor, and his speech. Wilde had noticed that the Ottawa river was filled with sawdust and the air was filled with smoke, so he diverged from his main topic to discuss pollution. The newspaper responded to Wilde as follows. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

That it is a pity that the Ottawa should be dirtied with saw dust has been long admitted, and that pure sky should be dirtied with smoke may also be a pity, but Mr. Wilde goes too far when he advocates that no man should be allowed to carry on a business which produces either of these results.

The following week Wilde delivered a lecture in Kingston, Canada, and the local newspaper reported that he objected to pollution because it damaged the common inheritance of humankind: 2

He had recently been in Ottawa, and had seen a noble river choked with sawdust. This he considered an outrage, as no one had a right to pollute the air or the water, which are the common inheritance of all.

During an interview with a Kingston journalist, Wilde suggested that industrialists should be forced to perform some form of recycling: 3

The public, he thought, should compel manufacturers to consume their own smoke, make use of their sawdust, and discharge their effluvia somewhere else than into beautiful rivers or life giving atmosphere. Ruskin had induced Manchester to stop similar pollution.

The citations above appeared contemporaneously with Wilde’s North American sojourn. The earliest match known to QI depicting natural resources as an inheritance for children appeared in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America” by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith. The quotation below appeared in a section about Wilde’s 1882 visit to Canada: 4

At Ottawa, where he spoke next, Wilde realized how completely Canada had followed America into industrialism and business . . . And in that very April he had read complaints of the American Forestry Congress, which was organizing in Cincinnati against the rapid waste of forests.

As a Socialist, the poet opposed such exploitation of natural resources. “The things of nature do not really belong to us,” he said; “we should leave them to our children as we have received them.”

How this philosophy, if put into action, would have delayed the settlement of the West, was a question he did not face.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Notes:

  1. 1882 May 17, Ottawa Citizen, Oscar Wilde: Lecture in the Grand Opera House, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Scans from the Ottawa Public Library; thanks to Donna Halper who located the scan)
  2. 1882 May 23, The Daily News, Oscar Wilde On Decorative Art: A Thin Audience–Eloquent Discourse, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Kingston, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1882 May 23, The Daily News, Oscar Wilde Interviewed, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Kingston, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1936, Oscar Wilde Discovers America [1882] 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)