Selected Quotations of Gilbert F. White
On Fundamental Values . . .
"We can be confident that action which is in accord with a few basic beliefs cannot be wrong and can at least testify to the values we will need to cultivate. These are the beliefs that the human race is a family that has inherited a place on the earth in common, that its members have an obligation to work toward sharing it so that none is deprived of the elementary needs for life, and that all have a responsibility to leave it undegraded for those who follow."
1986 (1975). "Stewardship of the Earth." Pages 403-404 in Geography, Resources, and Environment. Volume 1. Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"In the middle of this [working with refugees in France during World War II] it is refreshing to look occasionally to the basic ideas behind the work, and I have been tremendously encouraged and stimulated to find those ideas keenly appreciated both by the refugees and by the officials involved. . . . I believe it is fair to say that the firm Quaker insistence upon the sanctity of the individual and upon friendly treatment regardless of race or creed, has done more than anything else to keep alive a desire to act humanely."
1942. From a letter to the Philadelphia AFSC Office. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee Archives, Foreign Service, Relief and Refugees.
"I have received word from the AFSC that it believes I could be of real help to them in connection with its European relief program. . . . Inasmuch as I still feel deeply opposed to the war effort [World War II], this would seem to afford a chance to help in the kind of constructive effort which I think will aid in bringing about a lasting peace; to give more concrete expression to a position which so far has been largely passive; and to do so under somewhat difficult circumstances."
1942. Letter to Harlan Barrows. GFW Archives, Box 3 1A 40. Alexandria, Virginia: Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"I believe that each of us finds greatest use and greatest satisfaction in a life which respects and kindles the spark of the divine that is found in the conscience of every other member of the human brotherhood, and which nourishes the harmonious growth of individual men and women. To set the welfare of any national or racial group ahead of the development of individuals, or to coerce individual expression of thought and worship is to unloose a destructive erosion of human values to gain the temporary prosperity of a state. While watching the German occupation of France I became convinced that man can no more conquer or preserve a civilization by war than he can conquer nature solely by engineering force. I found that an occupying army or a concentration camp can repress men's basic beliefs but cannot change them. The good life, like the balance of all the complex elements of a river valley, is founded upon friendly adjustment. It changes slowly but it leads always toward a more fruitful development of individual men in service of each other. It embraces confidence in fellowship, tolerance in outlook, humility in service, and a constant search for the truth. To seek it in our own lives means imperfection and disappointment, but never defeat. It means, I believe, putting ourselves in harmony with the divine order of love, with the great stream of forces that slowly are shaping, in spite of man's ignorance and selfishness, an enrichment of the human spirit."
1951. From an interview with Edward R. Murrow on the radio program, "This, I Believe."
"We must learn something that no nation or group of nations yet has mastered: the art of helping others to improve their lot even as differences between them grow. In a world increasingly organized on principles of individual and national equality, this will be a staggering test of sensitive understanding, cooperation, and communication."
1964. "Vietnam: The Fourth Course," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 20(10).
"The gap between the rich and poor is growing among and within most nations. The political and social effects of unequal location of energy and other mineral resources are acute. Population numbers continue to climb. The global environment shows signs of widespread deterioration. Both natural and social environments are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic disturbances. . . . There may, however, be a cheering challenge in the possibility that out of its struggle with these realities the human race may move a bit nearer to behaving as if it were indeed one family."
"Both group effort and individual testimony flow from conviction as to the role of people on earth. In stewardship of the common heritage, a few simple beliefs recur: that all are indeed members of the same human family, that all share in responsibility for the others, that each is capable of responding directly to divine guidance. To seek to translate these into practical action with regard to soil or petroleum or the fish of the sea is not necessarily to do what is directly effective in changing society; it is to testify to a way that is harmonious with one's fellows and with a healthy earth."
"Individual consumption is the point of departure for most choices which people can make about their role in stewardship of the earth. While no one individual will alone affect the course of community decision about the environment or materials, it is clear that the aggregate of individuals can be profoundly influential."
1986 (1975). "Stewardship of the Earth." Pages 393-404 in Geography, Resources, and Environment. Volume 1. Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
On Humankind, Water, and Environmental Management . . .
"The essential point, I believe, is that people around the world in the 1990s are perceiving the earth as more than a globe to be surveyed, or developed for the public good in the short term, or to be protected from threats to its well-being, both human and natural. . . . The roots are in a growing solemn sense of the individual as part of one human family for whom earth is its one spiritual home."
1993. "Perceptions of the Earth." Address delivered upon receiving the Thirtieth Cosmos Club Award. Washington, DC: Cosmos Club.
"The best cure for a threatening water shortage is not necessarily more water; savings in water use, or transfer of water use to less-consumptive, higher-yield applications, or discovery of new techniques of water management may offer better solutions."
1968. With the National Research Council Committee on Water. Water and Choice in the Colorado Basin: An Example of Alternatives in Water Management. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.
"Probably the main issue that is blurred by these [Apollo missions to the moon] is whether or not the human race, whatever the nature of the moon, can maintain the earth as a habitable place."
"Getting its priorities right is a difficult and never ending task for any society. A society at war is bound to have things backwards because destructive force always is the enemy of the good and reasonable."
"The issue of world environment has a special kind of urgency. . . . The issue is one of rich peoples and poor peoples, of the growing gap between the two, and of the rich fouling their own nests."
1986 (1969). "Commencement Address, Earlham College, January 20, 1969." Page 289 in Geography, Resources, and Environment. Volume 1. Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"Every intervention of man in the environment around him incurs some risk as to both favorable and unfavorable consequences. Every intervention is taken in the face of partial ignorance as to what its effects will be and involves uncertainty as to the ultimate outcome."
1986 (1970). "The Meaning of the Environmental Crisis." Paper presented at the University of California, Los Angeles, December 7, 1970. Pages 278-289 in Geography, Resources, and Environment. Volume 1. Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"One effect of benefit-cost analysis is to give any respectable engineer or economist a means for justifying almost any kind of project the national government wants to justify. . . . Exclusive reliance on benefit-cost analysis has been one of the greatest threats to wise decisions in water development."
1986 (1971). "Unpublished paper, Columbia University, March 21, 1971." Pages 263-264 in Geography, Resources, and Environment. Volume 1. Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"Man has many transactions with nature at various times. Among them, the need to obtain water is universal, and most people have some choice over source and volume used. A study of this rudimentary decision therefore should not only help predict people's reactions to attempts at improving their water supply but also throw some light on the essential character of human choice."
1972. With David J. Bradley and Anne U. White. Drawers of Water: Domestic Water Use in East Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"It is becoming painfully apparent that an underlying reason for environmental degradation in many areas is to be found in instability of the social system. Without measures to reduce the growing reliance on violence and the sharp fluctuations in economic markets in many countries, the best-intentioned efforts to translate knowledge into action in environmental management are fruitless."
1986 (1982). "Unpublished paper, V General Assembly SCOPE, Ottawa, Canada, April 16, 1982." Page 404 in Geography, Resources, and Environment. Volume 1. Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"The good news about fresh water is that, even after accounting for the larger volume of water that is unavailable to people from the hydrologic cycle, there is enough on a global scale to support current and anticipated populations on a sustainable basis . . . Three essential goals are dependable and safe supplies for people, protection and management of the environmental systems through which water moves, and efficient water use. Meeting these goals will require that fresh water not continue to be treated as a free good or as the principal means for disposing of human and industrial wastes."
1984. The Global Possible: Resources, Development, and the New Century. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute
"It would be rash to conclude that, on balance, the environment of the globe as a whole is either deteriorating or improving, or that the survival of the societies we know depends upon filling a simple set of prescriptions. It is all too complex and dynamic, whether it involves managing greenhouse gases or Nile snails…The future condition of the globe's interlocking natural and social systems depends more on human behavior than on the further investigation of natural processes, however desirable that may be."
1991. "Greenhouse Gases, Nile Snails, and Human Choice." In Perspectives on Behavioral Science: The Colorado Lectures. Richard Jessor, editor. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press
On Floodplain Management . . .
"It has become common in scientific as well as popular literature to consider floods as great natural adversaries which man seeks persistently to overpower. . . . This simple and prevailing view neglects in large measure the possible feasibility of other forms of adjustment."
"Floods are 'acts of God,' but flood losses are largely acts of man."
"Dealing with floods in all their capricious and violent aspects is a problem in part of adjusting human occupance to the floodplain environment so as to utilize most effectively the natural resources of the plain, and, at the same time, of applying feasible and practicable measures for minimizing the detrimental impacts of floods."
1945. Human Adjustment to Floods. University of Chicago Department of Geography Research Paper No. 29. Chicago: University of Chicago Department of Geography.
"There is a sobering finality in the construction of a river basin development; and it behooves us to be sure we are right before we go ahead."
1950. With the Committee. A Water Policy for the American People. Report of the President's Water Policy Commission. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
"The broad problem of flood-loss reduction is that the rate at which flood losses are being eliminated by construction of engineering or land-treatment works is of about the same magnitude as the rate at which new property is being subjected to damage."
"The construction of new flood-protection works frequently has been the signal for accelerated movement into the floodplain."
1960. "Strategic Aspects of Urban Flood Plain Occupance." Journal of the Hydraulics Division, Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers 86 (HY2):89-102.
"A flood insurance program is a tool that should be used expertly or not at all. Correctly applied, it could promote wise use of flood plains. Incorrectly applied, it could exacerbate the whole problem of flood losses. For the Federal Government to subsidize low premium disaster insurance or provide insurance in which premiums are not proportionate to risk would be to invite economic waste of great magnitude."
1966. With the Task Force. A Unified National Program for Managing Flood Losses. House Document 465. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
"The present status of floodplain management does not encourage complacency ... On balance, progress has been far short of what is desirable or possible, or what was envisaged at times when the current policies and activities were initiated."
1992. "Retrospect and Prospect." In Floodplain Management in the United States: An Assessment Report. Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force. Washington, DC: FEMA.
"While considerable progress has been made over the past two decades, the Unified National Program [for floodplain management] is neither unified nor national."
1992. With ten others. Action Agenda for Managing the Nation's Floodplains: An Assessment Report. Special Publication #25. Boulder, Colorado: Natural Hazards Research and Applications Center.
"There is now a widely-held recognition among diverse sectors of the nation that a lasting economical, and sustainable solution to the flood problem preventing future catastrophes of the magnitude of 1993 can and must be achieved through integrated action. Experience has shown that it is not sufficient to depend upon engineering works alone, or flood proofing of structures, or improved warnings, or emergency disaster assistance, or indemnification through an insurance system, or changes in land use, or restoration of once-low-lying wetlands. There are now enough places around the country to demonstrate that different combinations of those types of measures may be right for one landscape or community but not others."
"It is easy to give lip service to working out community problems. It is more difficult to do so in practice. . . . What seems needed is resolve, a sense of constructive direction, and flexibility in tackling in a unified fashion the complex of government procedures required for effective floodplain management."
1994. "Testimony and Prepared Statement." Midwest Floods of 1993: Flood Control and Floodplain Policy and Proposals: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, October 27, 1993. 103d Congress, 1st Session, House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
"The basic lesson, I believe, is that with plain Congressional directive, strong Presidential blessing, and widespread, local and state support, a far-seeing policy in this complex field [floodplain management] is not likely to be translated into positive action unless the Executive and Legislative branches are assiduous in seeing to it that there is serious oversight and post-audit following adoption of a general policy."
1994. Personal correspondence with Gerald Galloway, Chair, Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee.
"A full range of floodplain management tools should be used to address flooding problems, and assessing the effectiveness of these tools should be done on individual buildings and reaches for floods of up to 500-year frequency."
2001. From an independent review panel report on Boulder flood issues.
On the Geographer, Education, and Public Service . . .
"At base the relation between student and teacher at the college level is an act of faith in the capacity of man to think for himself and to recognize the truth for himself. Without this it is a mere training process in which someone is trained to do what someone else has done before him. It serves its purpose only when teacher and student alike believe in the ability of the other as children of God to sense something of the divine purpose of the universe."
From a convocation address delivered as President of Haverford College.
"The good teacher gives this service by example and precept. We may be warranted in operating a college for a student for four years if only once there comes to him clearly the illumination of viewing his own powers in relation to a divine purpose, if only once he feels that warming fellowship of the seekers of truth that cuts across the lonely barriers of complexity and purposelessness that seem to surround each one of us. The whole history of great teaching is rich with men who helped their fellows reach across these barriers for inspiration and comradeship."
From remarks delivered to a faculty meeting at Haverford College.
"The contributions which geographic thought can make to the advancement of society are relatively few, simple, and powerful. They are so few and simple that a significant proportion of them can be taught to high school and beginning undergraduate students. They are so powerful that failure to recognize them jeopardizes the ability of citizens to deal intelligently with a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world."
1962. "Critical Issues Concerning Geography in the Public Service-Introduction." Annals, Association of American Geographers 52 (3):279-280.
"To attempt to shape uniform world images among all men would be absurd. To look to cultivating universal appreciation of similarities of these images among the human family and of the reasons for their chief variations would seem profoundly important. I can think of no higher goal for all of us who study the earth as occupied by man and who seek to help ourselves and our fellows to perceive it more accurately."
1967. Remarks to the National Council for Geographic Education entitled, "Images of the World."
"What is important is where we stand in relation to the tasks of society . . . What shall it profit [the profession of geography] if it fabricates a nifty discipline about the world while that world and the human spirit are degraded?"
"It is no longer academic or fanciful to pose again and again the question of whether the world society, in which the people of the United States currently are the most powerful and richest segment, can survive."
"I feel strongly that I should not go into research unless it promises results that would advance the aims of the people affected and unless I am prepared to take all practicable steps to help translate the results into action."
"Each academic faces in his institution the issue of how to reconcile our jealous protection of freedom of inquiry in research and teaching with our conviction that education should be an instrument of social change toward peace and justice."
"Let it not be said that geographers have become so habituated to talking about the world that they are reluctant to make themselves a vital instrument for changing the world."
"Each of us should ask what in his teaching and research is helping our fellow men strengthen their capacity to survive in a peaceful world."
1972. "Geography and Public Policy." The Professional Geographer 24 (2):101-104.
"Hazard always arises from the interplay of social and biological and physical systems; disasters are generated as much or more by human actions as by physical events; the present forms of government intervention in both traditional and industrial societies often exacerbate the social disruptions from extreme events; if we go on with the present public policy emphasis in many regions upon technical and narrow adjustments, society will become still less resilient and still more susceptible to catastrophes like the Sahelian drought."
"To assist in both diagnosis and prescription of constructive remedies [to disaster] the social scientist needs to do more than bemoan the spread of short-sighted development measures or attempts at cross-cultural comparisons. There is urgent need to help in the design of alternative policies which will be sensitive to indigenous values, perceptions and creativity, and will stimulate rather than constrain local initiative."
1978. "Natural Hazards and the Third World-A Reply." Human Ecology 6 (2):229-231.
On Graduate Education . . .
"The best dissertation is a done dissertation."
On Himself . . .
"My contribution [to resources conservation and development] cannot be that of one deep in administration of resources activities or one who delves into the political mysteries; it is, rather, that of a person who is trying to see and understand the impression of human organization upon the American landscape of rock, soil, water, vegetation, and people."
1958. "Broader Bases for Choice: The Next Key Move." In Perspective on Conservation. Henry Jarrett, editor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
"There have been very few careful appraisals of results of public resource-management programs, but without such postaudits it is difficult to design sound new measures for desirable change in either planning or practice."
"Looking back over six decades of activity in the geographic field, I find . . . I made some contributions to structures of thought in a few fields [and] several efforts to alter relevant public policy. I undertook all of this activity in a spirit of trying to be helpful to needy fellow humans by cooperative, nonviolent methods."
"An observer should be able to judge people's values in terms of how they act rather than in terms of what they say. In that spirit, a basic judgment of geography is what it contributes cooperatively in fashioning a sustainable earth."
2002. "Autobiographical Essay." Pages 341-364 in Geographical Voices: Fourteen Autobiographical Essays. Peter Gould and Forrest R. Pitts, editors. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.
"I was helping weed a vegetable garden with my Uncle Gilbert. We had been talking about my recent activities at school - sports teams, friends, and so on. Suddenly he asked me a question that surprised me: 'Do you think you will ever amount to anything?'"
"Looking back at these and other efforts to live my Quaker faith in what I did in my work, I am painfully aware that it didn't always 'amount to anything.' It might have been easier to judge if I had just concentrated on helping needy people directly. It is more difficult to judge how well I expressed my beliefs and values by applying science to international problems. Perhaps I lacked vision or skill, but I realize that I am the one who finally must use my own standard to judge how much people and their environments have benefited from what I did."
2004. As quoted in Lives That Speak: Stories of Twentieth-Century Quakers. Religious Education Committee of Friends General Conference, Marnie Clark, editor. Philadelphia: Quaker Press.