Q From Dave McCombs: I have wondered about the term ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, a term much used here in New Zealand, especially by politicians or critics of politicians. Who started it, and when?
A The phrase suggests that some problem is being looked at backwards, through trying to treat its consequences rather than its cause. In essence it’s a restatement of the proverb, “prevention is better than cure”. Here’s a recent example:
The Government ... is doing very little in investing in the causes of domestic and family violence. Protection orders are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures. We will always be chasing our tail if we don’t put money at the front end and stop violence happening in the first place.
The Herald on Sunday (Auckland), 11 Mar. 2012.
The evidence shows that it’s also used to some extent in North America and the UK, though I’ve no memory of having ever encountered it myself. It can be traced back about a century in the archives — this is the earliest example I’ve found anywhere:
The politician is like the person who would build an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, instead of constructing a good fence at the top.
Maoriland Worker, 25 February 1920.
The original from which all other references follow would seem to be a poem with the title A Fence or an Ambulance, which appears online under various authors’ names (or none) and in a number of versions, but is now perhaps best known in the one that John Denver recited at some of his concerts. The poem is by the English temperance activist Joseph Malins and dates from 1895. It's recorded in his biography of 1932 but the first appearance I’ve found is over his name in a US newspaper of December 1901. The poem was reproduced widely in the following years.
It is cast as an allegory. A community debates whether to build a fence at the top of a cliff to prevent people falling or to provide an ambulance at the bottom to treat the injuries resulting from falls. This is the last verse in its 1901 appearance:
Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling:
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best
To prevent other people from falling.”
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence round the top of the cliff.
Than an ambulance down in the valley!