pageok
pageok
pageok
"We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors: we borrow it from our children."

This quote, along with some close variants, is sometimes labeled as an Indian proverb, or attributed to Antoine de St. Exupery, or to Ralph Waldo Emerson or to David Bower. Like Chief Seattle's famous environmental speech from 1854 (which was actually written by a screenwriter in 1971),the quote strikes me as a late-20th century idealization of what some revered figure in the past must have thought, supposedly.

Does anyone know the actual origin of this quote? Does it appear in any reliable collection of famous quotes?

Loren (mail) (www):
According to The Quote Verifier, the origin is uncertain, but it was likely coined by 20th century environmentalist David Brower.
5.1.2007 9:14am
mrshl (www):
It would be good to find out soon because I'd certainly like to be relieved of this terrible metaphorical burden.
5.1.2007 9:30am
Ken Hirsch (mail):
Looking on Google Book Search, I found a book called The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes. It says that the National Aquarium in Baltimore attributes the quote "We do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children" (chiseled in stone) to David Brower and that, in a 1995 book, Brower said he found them in a record of a North Crolina interview buried in his files.

On Amazon you can read the first few pages of the book, Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth, including:
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.

I decided the words were too conservative for me. We're not borrowing from our children, we're stealing from them--and it's not even considered to be a crime.

Let that be by epitaph, when I need it.

He doesn't give any other details about the inteview. He has since gone on to the Great Compost Bin, but maybe somebody at The Brower Center would know where and when it was published.
5.1.2007 9:44am
how profound (mail):
I have told my father and grandfather how angry I am that they stole the earth from me. Lousy bastards.
5.1.2007 10:43am
Dennis Nolan (mail):
This sounds like a bastardized, and much less wise, version of Edmund Burke's description of society as "a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." (From his Reflections on the Revolution in France.)
5.1.2007 10:50am
Mongoose 388:
I have no children. Who did I steal it from? More useless Liberal bs
5.1.2007 11:24am
ak47pundit (www):
Mongoose 38:

You clearly stole it from the liberals children, of course. Yours is an offense committed against the collective good, of which the libs are the all-knowing guardians.

Now go back to doing something environmentally unfriendly like killing a cobra like you're supposed to.

:)
5.1.2007 11:48am
Zyzzogeton:
Yeah! And what has posterity ever done for us?!
5.1.2007 11:49am
Jeek:
I bet it was this guy.
5.1.2007 11:53am
Falafalafocus (mail):
Now I have to write a scathing letter to Micropose for falsely attributing that quote in their computer game "Civilization IV".
5.1.2007 11:55am
Sissy Willis (mail) (www):
Echoes of Kahlil Gibrain's 1923 The Prophet?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
5.1.2007 12:01pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Since my descendents will be vastly wealthier than I am and live for 200 years or so (if they're not immortal), I would think that they owe me.

I doubt that we should forego consumption in favor of those who will be much better off than we are.

Pace of technological change, time preference function, etc.
5.1.2007 12:08pm
R:
I came up with that when I was sixteen. Only it involved the car, not the Earth.
5.1.2007 12:09pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors: we borrow it from our children.

It can't have been widely circulated, because it's easily improved, and surely would have been once offered as a contest, possibly by Mary Ann Madden : ``We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our inlaws.''
5.1.2007 12:13pm
x (mail):
Could the reactions from the commenters possibly be any more smug? It's one thing to disagree with the idea this quote expresses, and it's another thing to let knee-jerk anti-liberalism blind you from recognizing that the quote is essentially an argument for conservatism. At least Mr. Nolan can see that it's not too different from Burke's ideas.
5.1.2007 12:17pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Could the reactions from the commenters possibly be any more smug?

I especially like how amusing it is to some commenters to think of having any duty of care to today's children. Laugh it up, folks -- you're not making anyone else look dumb.
5.1.2007 12:40pm
BGates (www):
Could the reactions from the commenters possibly be any more smug?

Anderson has demonstrated that the answer is 'yes'.

You guys who are so annoyed at previous commenters should keep in mind that you didn't inherit this thread from them, you're borrowing it from me.
5.1.2007 12:47pm
Spitzer:
Actually, it is quite different from Burke's idea. Burke thought of society as a flowing stream, and we the living have obligations to those upstream and downstream. Burke looks at it as a partnership - this is a good metaphor, because partnerships often create fiduciary duties. In any case, the duties in Burke's idea are owed to the past as well as to the future.

In the modern quote, however, the duties are owed only to the future. In some respects this is actually the target of Burke's wrath - whereas he thought of society as an ongoing enterprise that needed to be husbanded and managed carefully, the French radicals sought to create the Utopia of their imagination by breaking with the past entirely. When we reject the past in favor of creating a new world for ourselves (or our children), we are freed from moral, social, and cultural constraints of our ancestors - and this liberates us to do whatever we imagine to be best for today (or tomorrow) with no thought paid to the past (or, worse, rejecting the teachings of the past in a kneejerk fashion). Thus, rejecting the past for the future (or rejecting the present for the future, in the fashion of millenarians and revolutionaries throughout history) unmoors society. Burke was simply reminding us that we cannot reject the past in toto without risking a dangerous and chaotic future.
5.1.2007 12:48pm
dpatten (mail):
Snopes is your friend...

Chief Seattle
5.1.2007 12:51pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

Could the reactions from the commenters possibly be any more smug?



I don't know. It seems worth a try, though.
5.1.2007 1:06pm
some poets/philosophers are overrated (mail):
Kahlil Gibrain is full of crap. (And the people I know who quote this poem are usually both arrogant and childless.)

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.


Perhaps that's why a platitude like "We do not inherit the earth," etc., can come into being. This is surely not the thought of an adult.

Please forgive me for my smugness, and for my obvious inability to recognize any obligation to take care of "today's children" (who do not belong to me, for they are their own).
5.1.2007 1:13pm
Jeek:
the quote is essentially an argument for conservatism

Except, it's not. The quote, like all quotes in the service of environmentalism, is essentially an argument for socialism, i.e. centralized governmental control over all human and natural resources. The individual cannot make free choices or control his own property or advance his own economic interests, because that would be bad for the environment, you see, and Bad for the Children.

Dear God, what about the children???
5.1.2007 1:28pm
dearieme:
Be nice to your chidren, they choose your nursing home.

Now, who first said that?
5.1.2007 1:42pm
Sigivald (mail):
I don't know - is an old Volvo or Volkswagen* driven by a hippie a "reliable collection of famous quotes"?

If so, then yes, I can totally place it in/on one.

* Which brings to mind an interesting theory about hippies or leftists and cars starting with "Vol".

Obviously we need more data; time for more makes of car starting with "Vol". Do they need to be Northern-European? Time for Science!
5.1.2007 2:28pm
r78:
This thread provides a sad, but entertaining glimpse into the paleo-conservative mind, circa 2007.

For years they denied that acid rain caused harm, that car exhaust could have any detrimental effects, that there was no need to fret about mercury levels in rivers and lakes, that the ocean's fish stocks were endless, and so on.

But the world has moved on. Even the Shrub, the fearless leader they once idolized has admitted that there just might be something to all of this global warming talk.

But the true-believers soldier on, looking for any tiny defect or inaccuracy in they can harp on endlessly - as though it somehow proves they have been right all along.

Its the same strategy created by holocaust deniers and popularized by the tobacco lobby.
5.1.2007 2:36pm
Hattio (mail):
Jeek,
Gee I consider myself an environmentalist, but not a socialist. As a matter of fact I think the environmental movement should focus more on market solutions. I guess I must be schizophrenic.
5.1.2007 2:38pm
Jay Manifold (mail) (www):
Fortunately, the world has also moved on from the idea that there are limits to growth, that hundreds of millions are doomed to starvation, and that billions are doomed to endless poverty - among the other tiny defects and inaccuracies of the enviro-hysterics. Bring on the nuclear power plants, the genetically engineered crops, and the nanotech, and no one's children will be in danger of the eco-phantoms we're being told to fear today.
5.1.2007 3:02pm
triticale (mail) (www):
Ah yes, acid rain. Another one of those big scares, like the coming Ice Age, which was supposed to have destroyed the Earth by now. I remember them well. They come and go with the passing seasons, and in the meantime Capitalism does more than Socialism to improve environmental conditions.
5.1.2007 3:13pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"For years they denied that acid rain caused harm, …"

And they were right. Where were you when the big government report about acid rain came out in the early 1990s? This was a massive and expensive undertaking designed to determine the nature and extent of acid rain damage. I know people who worked on that report by doing laboratory experiments on plants. It also did a complete survey of the acid levels of Appalachian lakes. Guess what? The acidification of the lakes was primarily the result of ground water hydrology and not acid rain falling into the lakes. Careful surveys of forests showed they were not dying. Remember those scare stories that German forests were dying form acid rain? Well the forests are still there 30 years later. In short the whole acid rain threat was mostly an exaggeration. Why do you suppose we hear so little about acid rain today? Don't you think we would be seeing pictures of all those dead forests?

I think the man is right: liberalism is a mental disorder.
5.1.2007 3:39pm
r78:

Why do you suppose we hear so little about acid rain today?

could have something to do with the emissions controls and regulations of pollution coming from coal-fired power plants.

duh

I think the man is right: liberalism is a mental disorder.

Not nearly as much of a mental disorder as thinking that a) massive environmenmental pollution does not have a negative effect on our quality of life or b) that "conservatism" means that you don't have to give a crap about one person's actions affects others.
5.1.2007 4:18pm
Justin Northrup:
I prefer the more realistic "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors: We take it from those who fail to defend it sufficiently." Of course, if you want one to really piss off folks like r78, its hard to beat

"Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill." - N. Morgan
5.1.2007 4:18pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"could have something to do with the emissions controls and regulations of pollution coming from coal-fired power plants."

Except that's not what the report said. The report didn't say it was a problem that got fixed. It said it was a non-problem all along. The lakes did not become acidified from the effluents of coal-fired power plants. It was a natural condition.

"Not nearly as much of a mental disorder as thinking that a) massive environmenmental pollution does not have a negative effect on our quality of life or b) that "conservatism" means that you don't have to give a crap about one person's actions affects others."

Who said that? Some kinds of pollution are a problem and others are not. The mental disorder lies in becoming so disconnected to reality that it causes a misallocation of resources. My daughter's high school chemistry teacher told his class that acid rain was a big problem. She asked him for reference and he essentially had none. We gave him a copy of the government report. BTW the very liberal NPR put a blackout on the report. I know someone who called them and asked why they won't cover the story. They gave some lame excuse like, "we just choose not to cover that." But you better believe that if the report said acid rain was a massive problem, it would have been a big story. That's the way the environmental fear industry works.
5.1.2007 4:42pm
Spartacus (www):
It seems clear to me: we do inherit the earth from our ancestors; and we do not borry it from, but bequeath it to, our children. This perhaps boring, literal statement can cut out the drap from Burkes' (or whoever's) metaphor, yet still remind us that we do have a duty to bequeath something worthwhile to our children. N. Morgan sounds like the childless one. And as a father of two, I will say that I think K. Gibran was right.

And what is it about either the somewhat sappy vresion of the quote I paraphrased (other than the context), or the Gibran one, that evokes liberalism? As pointed out, they are essentially conservative quotes--they're not about global warming, they're really about preseving a world with values that make it worth living in.

And anyone who thinks children do not have their own thought, can't remember being one, and if they have any of their own, aren't listening very hard.

--from a paleo-libertarian conservative who drives a VW bug
5.1.2007 5:02pm
80s Child (mail):
Hey Zarkov, what "big government report" are you talking about? The EPA has several "big government reports" that say the exact opposite.

Here's a quote from the EPA's 2004 acid rain progress report: "Since the start of the Acid Rain Program in 1995, the lower SO2 and NOx emission levels from the power sector have contributed to significant air quality and environmental and human health improvements."

And doesn't calling your political opponents mentally ill make you look like a crank at the dinner table?
5.1.2007 5:20pm
r78:

BTW the very liberal NPR put a blackout on the report

Are they the ones with the black helicopters, too?
5.1.2007 5:20pm
lighten up (mail):
Spartacus, lighten up (and run a spell check).
"[P]reserving a world with values that make it worth living in" ... how about the values of honesty and truthfulness, i.e. not scaring people with demagoguery and fear-mongering.
And of course we all know that children have their own thoughts. The point where Gibran is mistaken is assuming that we shouldn't help our children learn what is true. If we have the attitude of "just let our children teach themselves" (which is definitely a liberal pespective in my experience), often the children end up believing foolish and naive things. Often they have to raise themselves, and aren't very successful at it because their parents never taught them what they needed to know.
5.1.2007 5:22pm
lighten up (mail):
Oops: "perspective." (What goes around comes around.)
5.1.2007 5:24pm
Falafalafocus (mail):
If there is one thing that I have learned at the Volokh Conspracy, it is that the truth does not matter when it gets in the way of the message. See, e.g., the comments on this issue. Was the phrase coined by an ancient Native American who prophetically warned of environmental degradation? Or was the phrase instead coined by an environmental activist who then wanted to make it unimpeachable by sticking it in the mouth of said Native American? It does not matter. The truth never does, it seems.

By all means, however, please continue explaining to me how the message is too important to ignore. And while you are at it, please tell me who I speak to about where pick up the accrued interest that I have earned from my ancestors regarding this delicious transaction.
5.1.2007 6:40pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Hey Zarkov, what "big government report" are you talking about? The EPA has several "big government reports" that say the exact opposite."

The report was published circa 1994 and covered acid rain with respect to lakes, forests, vegetation and buildings, not human health. It was the final report of a half billion-dollar study covering about 5 years. I think the EPA put it out, but I'm not sure. While there was some evidence of damage to buildings the damage for forests and vegetation was minimal. Acid rain was a non-problem for lakes. This report debunked the then prevalent notion that forests were dying from acid rain, and the high acid levels in north eastern lakes was natural. The 2005 report refers to a program that started in 1995 after that research study. The point being that the scare stories from in environmentalists in the 1970s and 1980s about acid rain were false.

"And doesn't calling your political opponents mentally ill make you look like a crank at the dinner table?"

Lighten up.
5.1.2007 7:25pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"BTW the very liberal NPR put a blackout on the report


Are they the ones with the black helicopters, too?"


They don't have high enough IQs to learn how to fly a helicopter of any color.
5.1.2007 7:32pm
80s Child (mail):
The report was published circa 1994 and covered acid rain with respect to lakes, forests, vegetation and buildings, not human health.

Okay. So some study you can't name says the exact opposite of what the EPA said in 2004 (not 2005, please learn to read):

"In 1990, Congress established the Acid Rain Program under the Clean Air Act. The principal goal of the program is to achieve reductions of 10 million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and 2 million tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), the primary components of acid rain. These pollutants, in their various forms, lead to the acidification of lakes and streams rendering some of them incapable of supporting aquatic life. In addition, they impair visibility in our national parks, create respiratory and other health problems in people, weaken forests, and degrade monuments and buildings."

Obviously the EPA knew differently circa 2004 than this "big government report" from "circa 1994." What do you have to say about the above, Zarkov? It directly disproves your assertions.

It was the final report of a half billion-dollar study covering about 5 years. I think the EPA put it out, but I'm not sure.

You THINK they put it out? Who did? You're not sure. How convenient!

The 2005 report refers to a program that started in 1995 after that research study.

Yes, after this nebulous research study you can't seem to name. Why did you cite it as fact?

Lighten up.

Huh, someone who claims his opponents are mentally ill while quoting studies he cannot seem to name tells others to "lighten up."
5.1.2007 9:15pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Obviously the EPA knew differently circa 2004 than this "big government report" from "circa 1994." What do you have to say about the above, Zarkov? It directly disproves your assertions."

No it doesn't. Read it carefully. It says, "These pollutants, in their various forms, lead to the acidification of lakes and streams rendering some of them incapable of supporting aquatic life." It does not say that has actually occurred in significant amounts. It's a generic statement about what could happen from those classes of I'm sorry I can't remember the sponsoring agency from more than 14 years ago. If you can find something that proves significant damage to northeastern lakes, forests and buildings occurred from acid rain, I'll change my mind.
5.1.2007 10:31pm
Milhouse (www):
Actually, it's the exact opposite of Burke's attitude. He wrote: "Men have no right to put the well-being of the present generation wholly out of the question. Perhaps the only moral trust with any certainty in our hands is the care of our own time."
5.2.2007 4:20pm