Gnomic insights: Big thoughts in little packages

Gnomic insights: Big thoughts in little packages

An attempt to distill essential environmental teachings into proverbial wisdom

Statue of a Garden Gnome reading book, white background, green grass

© Mac99/iStock

© Mac99/iStock


I like gnomes. Not the legendary, subterranean dwarfs, although the planet could use someone to guard underground treasures from our geological pillaging. Rather, I mean the less used meaning of “gnome”—a pithy statement of general truth (gnō-, being the root of knowledge and cognition). The more common terms for such writings include aphorisms, maxims, and apothegms, with all of their subtle and imprecise distinctions.

Religions have long distilled essential teachings into proverbial wisdom. In the Gospel of Matthew (26:52), Jesus admonished: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” From Buddhism we learn that, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.”

Unitarian Universalism draws its aphorisms from the likes of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Such gnomic expressions make us chuckle, wince—and think. We see ourselves as both absurd and earnest; the saying is not so much provocative as evocative. We are not drawn into defensiveness but lured into contemplation.

And so, with the unjustified boldness of a UU ecologist who fancies himself a philosopher-writer, I offer the following aphorisms. Please feel free to borrow, adapt, and share any of these that touch your heart, engage your mind, or stir your soul (with luck one of these could someday become an adage—an aphorism that has gained credit through long use):

In the long haul, setting most things on fire—coal, oil, methane, forests, heretics, witches, jellied gasoline, books, crosses, and what have you—is a bad idea. Draft cards and bras might have been exceptions.

“Everything is connected to everything else” is true enough as an ecological principle. But clipping your toenails will affect your vision far less than cutting your optic nerve.

We imagine that someday we’ll terraform Mars. How about if we just try to keep from Martianizing Earth?

The greatest challenge of climate change is not how to technologically mitigate the incredible damage but how to justly distribute the inevitable suffering.

The mantra of human societies throughout history and across the world: we didn’t see that coming!

Maybe humility is a kind of human humus, being what’s left after our technology decays.

Finally, with all due respect to Matthew 26:52, I can’t resist offering a gnome from an imaginary subterranean dwarf named Matt who adapted the ancient wisdom of a radical teacher to the contemporary reality of climate change. Keep again thy carbon into its place: for all they that burn the coal shall perish from its heat.

If you've enjoyed these gnomic aphorisms, take a look at a longer list and feel free to add your own!