Additional scholarship by Brent Ranalli

For Thoreau-related publications, click here.

Other writings, presented on this page, are organized into three general categories:

  • Science studies (the historical roots and social/ethical underpinning of the authority and credibility of scientific communities; the culture wars over climate science)
  • Environmental studies / big history (our civilizational crisis in historical and anthropological perspective)
  • Blue-sky policy proposals (common wealth dividends, a Congressional secret ballot, a youth service program in agricultural labor, and more)

Visit for additional writings on current (and ancient) affairs.

Science studies

Unity of Brethren Tradition and Comenius’s Pansophy

Journal of Moravian History, vol. 20, no. 1 (spring 2020), pp. 1-29

John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) offered a “pansophic” program of intellectual reform at the time of the scientific revolution. Whereas René Descartes’s idea of reforming intellectual life was to set knowledge on new and firmer a priori foundations, and Francis Bacon’s was to establish more reliable methods of discovering empirical truths, Comenius’s conception of intellectual reform was first and foremost an interpersonal one: the goal was to resolve disputes and establish consensus, to forge harmony and unity out of the present “chaos of opinions.” This article enumerates some of the debts the pansophic program owes to the Unity of Brethren, Comenius’s own Hussite religious tradition. First, we examine several ways in which Comenius’s intellectual-reform goals and methods echo the search for unity and harmony that was characteristic of the Brethren (internally, in the group’s decision-making techniques, and externally, in its irenic efforts). Second, we see how the virtues Comenius prescribes for philosophers in his pansophic writings parallel the virtues considered necessary for religious irenics.

Keywords: Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), Unity of Brethren (Jednota bratrská, Unitas Fratrum), pansophy, irenics, virtue ethics, scientific revolution

Scientific Ethos in Crisis: Lessons from the Seventeenth Century

Normative aspects of science communication: Proceedings of the 2014 Iowa State University Symposium on Science Communication, ed. J. Goodwin, M.F. Dahlstrom, & S. Priest

Climate scientists today face hostile public challenges to their epistemic authority and integrity. Historian Spencer Weart calls the situation “unprecedented.” This talk explores a precedent of sorts: the general intellectual crisis of the seventeenth century, out of which modern scientific institutions and norms emerged. How was the intellectual atmosphere at the time similar (and different)? What factors allowed a civil, productive, authoritative scientific discourse to emerge, and can we draw any heuristic lessons that are applicable today?

Keywords: Climate science culture wars, general crisis of the seventeenth century, John Amos Comenius, Royal Society of London, scientific revolution

Science Communication as Communication about Persons

Ethical issues in science communication: A theory-based approach: Proceedings of the 2013 Iowa State University Symposium on Science Communication, ed. J. Goodwin, M.F. Dahlstrom, & S. Priest

All science communication, even the most formal research paper, is ultimately communication about persons (at the very least, the projected persona of the writer). This paper draws insights from philosophy, sociology, and literary studies to explore what is at stake in communication about persons in science, and to articulate some general ethical principles. A slightly shorter version of this essay appears in Ethics and Practice in Science Communication (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Keywords: science communication, ethics, virtue ethics, character, biography, climate science, Erving Goffman, Robert K. Merton, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Henry David Thoreau

The Climategate Affair

Prepublication draft of entry in Climate Change: An Encyclopedia of Science and History, ed. Brian C. Black et al. (ABC-CLIO, 2013)

An authoritative account of the Climategate affair and its aftermath.

Keywords: Climategate, climate science culture wars, scientific norms

Climate Science, Character, and the "Hard-Won" Consensus

Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 22/2 (2012)

What makes a consensus among scientists credible and convincing? This paper introduces the notion of a “hard-won” consensus and uses examples from recent debates over climate change science to show that this heuristic standard for evaluating the quality of a consensus is widely shared. The extent to which a consensus is “hard won” can be understood to depend on the personal qualities of the participating experts; the article demonstrates the continuing utility of the norms of modern science introduced by Robert K. Merton by showing that individuals on both sides of the climate science debate rely intuitively on Mertonian ideas—interpreted in terms of character—to frame their arguments.

Keywords: climate science culture wars, Robert K. Merton, scientific norms, character, hard-won consensus

The Conservative Case for a Proactive Climate Policy, August 28, 2012

Those concerned about government overreach and erosion of political and economic freedoms should be leading the charge for climate mitigation, not impeding it. (Bill McKibben quoted this article in a public debate.)

Keywords: Climate policy, climate science culture wars

Can International Regimes Be Effective Means to Restrain Carbon Emissions?

Controversies in Globalization, 2nd edition, Ed. J.A. Hird and P.M. Haas (CQ Press, 2012)

A comprehensive overview of prospects for international climate diplomacy (as of 2012, but in many respects still valid.)

Keywords: climate policy, international diplomacy, China

A Prehistory of Peer Review: Religious Blueprints from the Hartlib Circle

Spontaneous Generations 5/1 (2011)

The conventional history of modern scientific peer review begins with the censorship practices of the Royal Society of London in the 1660s. This article traces one strand of the “prehistory” of peer review in the writings of John Amos Comenius and other members of the Hartlib circle, a precursor group to the Royal Society of London. These reformers appear to have first envisioned peer review as a technique for theologians, only later proposing to apply it to philosophy. The importance of peer review was as a technique that would permit a community of theologians or philosophers to resolve disputes internally rather than publicly, since public disputation would (they believed) sow doubt, error, and confusion, and disrupt the social order.

Keywords: peer review, religion and science, Royal Society of London, Hartlib Circle, Samuel Hartlib, John Amos Comenius, Gabriel Plattes

Environmental studies / big history

A New Model of Human Cultural History Centered on ‘Modes of Relating’

Social Evolution & History 17/2 (September 2018)

This paper synthesizes two models of human cultural evolution, Marxian materialism and environmental idealism, into a single, more powerful model. At the center of the new model is a constraint: It is argued that any given human society tends to be dominated at by a single ‘mode of relating’. That is, human societies tend to relate to the spiritual world and the natural world in a way that follows the pattern set in the human social world by the mode of economic organization. The focus on ‘modes of relating’ mirrors recent advances in the anthropological study of animism as humans’ original mode of relating to the natural and spiritual worlds. A hypothesis is offered to explain the animist ‘mode of relating’ as rooted in ancestral humans’ hyper-sociality.

Keywords: big history, human-environment relations, indigenous epistemology

Fueling Value Change. A review of Ian Morris's Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve

Great Transition Initiative (February 2016)

... Although Morris downplays it, there can be little doubt that values play an active role in history. The dynamism of Athens in relation to neighboring Greek city-states can be attributed at least in part to its relative egalitarianism. The egalitarian spirit of the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment not only prefigured the values that would be “fit” in the modern industrial world, but also actively hastened the development of those material conditions. Twenty-first-century projections must recognize this dynamic relationship and avoid falling back on a simple base-superstructure model, in which values “emerge” from material conditions and contribute nothing. ...

Keywords: big history, energy regimes, societal values

Review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Basic Income News, April 13, 2015

Most histories of money are histories of coins, tokens. But coins come and go with empires. Money has much deeper roots in the forms of obligation that bind together even the simplest societies. It takes an anthropologist to write a truly universal economic history, and that is what David Graeber has accomplished with Debt: The First 5,000 Years. With its wide scope, Debt offers valuable perspective on contemporary issues. The problem of economic insecurity that makes Basic Income so urgent today is not a unique feature of modernity or capitalism (though modern technological advances make possible for the first time a universal Basic Income as a solution), but has been with us since the development of money per se—that is, financial credit, or debt—at the dawn of civilization.

Keywords: big history, money, debt, slavery, Basic Income

Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, ed. Glenn Adelson, James Engell, Brent Ranalli, and K. P. Van Anglen (Yale University Press, 2008)

This major anthology is the first to apply a fully interdisciplinary approach to environmental studies. A comprehensive guide to environmental literacy, the book demonstrates how the sciences, social sciences, and humanities all contribute to understanding our interrelationships with the natural world. Though not specialized, Environment is a book that even specialists can learn from. Ten innovative case studies--climate shock, species endangerment, nuclear power, biotechnology, sustainable development, deforestation, environmental security, globalization, wilderness, and the urban environment--are followed by readings from specific disciplines.

Blue-sky policy proposals

Environmental Justice and Carbon Pricing, by Brent Ranalli

Feasta blog, Feb 2021

The objections raised to carbon pricing by Environmental Justice advocates should be taken serious—and they can be addressed. Carbon pricing can be fair and effective.

Environmental Justice and Carbon Pricing: Can They Be Reconciled?, by James K. Boyce, Michael Ash, and Brent Ranalli

Global Challenges28 February 2023, 

Carbon pricing has been criticized by environmental justice advocates on the grounds that it fails to reduce emissions significantly, fails to reduce the disproportionate impacts of hazardous co-pollutants on people of color and low-income communities, hits low-income households harder than wealthier households, and commodifies nature. Designing carbon pricing policy to address these concerns can yield outcomes that are both more effective and more equitable.

Common Wealth Dividends: History and Theory, by Brent Ranalli (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). View sample chapter.

Common wealth dividends are universal cash payments funded by fees on the private use of common resources like land, minerals, and the atmosphere as a carbon sink. Thomas Paine’s 1797 pamphlet Agrarian Justice and Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend are staples in the literature on Basic Income, but there is much more to common wealth dividends beyond these highlights, and common wealth dividends have a distinctive ethical justification and distinctive policy implications that merit discussion. This monograph, the most comprehensive study of common wealth dividends to date, will be of interest to students, teachers, and advocates of Basic Income and those in the field of environmental studies, including sustainable development, natural resource management, and climate policy.

Common Wealth Dividends won an honorable mention from the Rutgers Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing.

Available on YouTube: Brent delivered a "lightening talk" on the topic of the book for the Ronin Institute and a longer talk and Q&A for Common Wealth Canada.

Keywords: basic income, Thomas Paine, Henry George, land reform, natural resources, Alaska Permanent Fund, resource curse, ecosystem services, Peter Barnes, carbon dividend, sustainable natural resource management, public trust doctrine, labor theory of property, economic rent, broadcast spectrum, money creation

A Primer on Carbon Pricing for the U.S.A., by Brent Ranalli

Feasta blog, Feb 2021

Taking action on climate change will mean passing legislation to put a price on carbon. Here’s a primer on how that can be done right—based on what we have learned since the flawed cap-and-trade proposal Congress contemplated in 2009.

Keywords: Climate, carbon pricing, dividends

Auctioning Carbon Permits—a Primer for the U.S.A., by Brent Ranalli

Feasta blog, Mar 2021

There are a lot of ways to conduct an auction, but one stands out as ideal for allocating carbon permits. To my surprise, I have found no concise explanation on the Internet of how this type of auction can be applied to carbon permits. That’s what this post is for.

Keywords: Climate, carbon pricing, permit auction

Best Practices for Carbon Pricing and Dividends, by Brent Ranalli

BIG Conference, June 25, 2022

Paper presented in a panel discussion with Mike Sandler, hosted by Michael Howard. To view the panel discussion recording, you may need to provide a name and email address to Crowdcast.

Keywords: Climate, carbon pricing, carbon dividends, permit auction

The Dark Side of Sunlight: How Transparency Helps Lobbyists and Hurts the Public, by James D'Angelo and Brent Ranalli

Foreign Affairs, April 2019

Many explanations have been offered [for Congressional dysfunction], from the rise of partisan media to the growth of gerrymandering to the explosion of corporate money. But one of the most important causes is usually overlooked: transparency. Something usually seen as an antidote to corruption and bad government, it turns out, is leading to both.

Keywords: Congress, transparency, lobbying, partisanship, secret ballot

The 1970s Sunshine Reforms and the Transformation of Congressional Lobbying, by Brent Ranalli, James D'Angelo, and David King

Congressional Research Institute, December 2018

Congressional lobbying dramatically intensified in the 1970s. Why? Explanations on offer include a business backlash against intrusive consumer and environmental legislation, proliferation of PACs, and the weakening of political parties. Another factor that is rarely discussed is the increase in Congressional transparency in the 1970s, which gave pressure groups enhanced access to and leverage over the minutiae of Congressional decision-making. This paper tells the intertwined story of the “sunshine” reforms of the 1970s and the transformation of the lobbying industry.

Keywords: Congress, transparency, lobbying, secret ballot

Dividends for Development: A Role for Common Wealth Dividends (CWD) in the International Aid Agenda

U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network Discussion Paper no. 273 (August 2016).

This paper examines the possibility of establishing institutions to share more equitably the wealth that accrues from common resources (“the commons”). It describes precedents from the developed and developing world, and shows how a program of common wealth dividends (CWD) can help achieve the goals of the international aid and development community.

Keywords: Common Wealth Dividends, Thomas Paine, Alaska Permanent Fund, international development, international aid

See the USBIG discussion paper series for additional contributions.

Thomas Paine’s Dividend: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Six-part feature at, July 2-7, 2015

Thomas Paine started from the basic insight that land and natural resources—what today we call the “commons”—were created by no one. And so, properly, they belong to everyone, despite the fact that we often we find them in private hands. What economic justice therefore requires, Paine concluded, is the redistribution of certain kinds of wealth – those deriving from the commons – on an equitable basis, via a trust fund. ... In this six-part essay, we trace the perennial reappearance of Paine’s idea of economic justice, and then look closely at one contemporary application where it could touch millions of lives.

Keywords: Thomas Paine, common wealth dividends, Henry George, Alaska Permanent Fund, carbon dividends

Thomas Paine’s "Neglected" Pamphlet: Agrarian Justice

Journal for the Study of Radicalism 14/1 (Spring 2020), 167-90

Thomas Paine championed the idea of a natural-resource-based Basic Income in Agrarian Justice (1797). This article investigates the publication and early reception of the pamphlet. We find that it reached a much wider audience than previously known: published in at least ten cities and three languages on two continents. But the public response was nevertheless muted. We explore some of the reasons why--including several factors that stymie Basic Income advocacy even today.

Keywords: Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, basic income, Henry George, universal dividends, Thomas Spence, agrarian law, Alaska Permanent Fund

Local Currencies: A Potential Solution for Liquidity Problems in Refugee Camp Economies

Journal of Refugee Studies 27/3 (2013)

Refugee camps typically suffer from inadequate means of exchange: hard currency is scarce and quickly finds its way out of the community. In such situations, local demand that could be met with local resources goes unmet. This article evaluates local currencies (also known as community or complementary currencies) as a policy instrument available to address this problem. A local currency fosters economic activity and generates employment by ensuring that a baseline of local demand is met by local supply. A local currency also fosters local pride and has the potential to strengthen ties between a refugee camp and the surrounding host community. The article distinguishes two broad categories of local currency that may have applicability in refugee camps, and presents relevant case studies (examples of local currencies implemented at a Dutch resettlement camp and in the slums of Mombasa, together with a discussion of the increasingly popular use of fresh food vouchers at refugee camps). A full-fledged local currency project of the kind described here has not yet been attempted at a refugee camp in the developing world. The article closes with a list of questions and considerations for practitioners who may wish to undertake the experiment.

The article was reviewed on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees's blog. ("Ranalli’s idea is precisely the type of innovation project that UNHCR and this blog have championed and his proposal is both thoughtful and novel.") Two groups have contacted me about interest in setting up the kind of currency proposed in the paper, one in the West Bank and the other in Uganda. I connected them with experts in the field.

Keywords: refugee camp economics, entrepreneurship, means of exchange,
local currency, complementary currency, developing world, Eco-Pesa, Bangla-Pesa

FarmCorps: A National Service Program in Agricultural Labor for Youth?

Journal of Sustainability Education, May 2013.

The United States agriculture sector faces a looming labor shortfall. Who will bring in the harvest? In this essay, Brent Ranalli argues for the creation of a voluntary national service program to engage youth in seasonal agricultural work. Such a program would bridge the labor gap with a segment of the workforce that is fit for the task. It would also provide educational opportunities and a stepping stone to careers in farming and allied fields, and restore dignity to an indispensable form of labor.

In part inspired by this paper, the Southwest Conservation Corps has recently initiated a Farm Corps program in Colorado.

Keywords: agriculture; experiential education; migrants workers; national service; Peak Oil; seasonal farm labor; United States; Wendell Berry; youth