Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Proverbial Wisdom
distributed 10/26/01, 5/25/07 & 8/31/12 - ©2001, 2007, 2012

Proverbs are the original "sound bite." In one, vivid sentence, an important idea is communicated.

Ben Franklin is said to have been a master of the art ("a penny saved is a penny earned," "a stitch in time saves nine," and many others). A large part of the biblical book of Proverbs is packed with 2-line gems of popular wisdom. Some are profoundly ethical ("Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord,/ and false scales are not good") and some seem less philosophically elevated ("It is better to live in a corner of the housetop/ than in a house shared with a contentious wife").

However deep or shallow the wisdom, an often-repeated proverb tries to be taken as common knowledge and practical truth. By being short, blunt, and avoiding subtlety, proverbs displace competing ideas and seem self-evident.

A good proverb has power. A proverb that is in common usage goes beyond a snappy sound bite by spreading the power of creative language among a multitude of speakers.

A well-known proverb gains the status of truth. We've heard it so often, and it seems so evident, that it must be right. But for a phrase to be repeated so frequently, there must be a reason. There probably was some sort of philosophical conflict that led to the coining of the phrase.

We don't hear proverbs like, "Let go of a dish in the air, and it will drop to the ground" or "Even in the fall, the sun always rises in the east." There is no reason to claim those ideas as true, because no one would suggest anything else.

Proverbs help us to pick between competing ideas and behaviors. The remind us to save instead of waste, and to demand honest weights and measures in the marketplace, because we cannot expect those to happen automatically. The sayings were first voiced to assert ideas that need to be reinforced in the face of attractive alternatives.

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There is a proverbial saying that has been widely used in business settings, and which I have encountered a couple of times recently in churches. It is repeated to affirm what many see as an essential truth, but this one is a dangerous lie.

"If you're not growing, you're dying."

How many times have you heard that line? It is a six-word summary of the modern ideology that is at the heart of our environmental crisis. It is uttered frequently to support the notion that growth -- and especially economic growth -- is essential.

The proverb presents growth as the only real option. Grow or die. The intention of the saying, apparently, is to deny that any rational person could chose a path other than constant, aggressive, growth and expansion.

The other options to growth are not named in the proverb, but those options clearly exist.

Sustainability is the preeminent alternative. Rather than growing, sustainability looks for a long-term commitment to staying within reasonable limits. Sustainability is not (as the proverb would suggest) a path to death. It has been the natural world's way of maintaining life through billions of years. When it comes to the fate of the earth, sustainability, not growth, is the only real option for life.

On a more local or personal scale, going smaller can be a good path to life. "Doing more with less" and voluntary simplicity look to reduction instead of growth, and discover abundant living in liberation from more and more stuff.

Despite the saying's claims to self-evident truth, growth is not the only option. And in many cases, it is not even a viable option.

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Proverbs gain their power when they are not questioned. The New England work ethic ("Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today") is undermined by a recitation of the more serene New Mexican saying of "Mañana" ("tomorrow").

It is important to challenge false proverbs whenever and wherever we encounter them. One style of response is a simple statement like "Hogwash!" A more focused counter-statement to the "grow or die" theme is used by a friend as a signature line on many of his e-mailed letters: "Unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

If we are going to have success in challenging the ideology of growth, we need to work harder at building our own sound bites for sustainability and simplicity. We need short, clear "bumper sticker" statements that challenge growth and affirm the alternatives. We need to repeat them often enough that they become proverbial and self-evident.

Proverbs can be powerful tools, for good or ill. We will do well to refute false proverbs, and to make creative use of this strategy that is as old as the Bible and as contemporary as tomorrow's press conferences.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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