The Cult of Gaia in 2064

Planet EarthCurrently, in 2014, Gaia is not a major focus of religious thought and activity. The Gaia hypothesis or theory has been advanced by James Lovelock and others, not without controversy. This scientific conception of Gaia has fired the public imagination, leading some to criticize the idea as essentially religious or spiritual. Tellingly, most media references to a religion of Gaia come from conservative sources and are critical or satirical. More broadly, nature religions do exist but they are obscure, diffuse, esoteric, marginalized and all but invisible to mainstream cultures. This will change in the decades ahead.

Fifty years from now, the cult of Gaia will have grown substantially. In part this will be because the vicissitudes of climate change will have driven home the message that humans must live more lightly on the Earth.

As a religious movement, the cult of Gaia will manifest in many forms. The dominant established religions of the world will begin to connect to the idea and image of Gaia. In its most dilute form, this will simply be a message of environmental responsibility and stewardship. In some communities and traditions there will be a more substantial recognition of Gaia as a coherent whole, as an entity, as a sacred context, and this will be syncretized with existing theologies and beliefs. There will also be a proliferation of newer groups explicitly dedicated to celebrating Gaia. These will provide the most dramatic and interesting forms of religious expression.

These new groups dedicated to the celebration of Gaia will represent a confluence of contemporary Pagans (especially Naturalistic and Eco-Pagans), New Age practitioners, Goddess worshipers, Deep Ecologists, radical environmentalists, indigenous cultures, pantheists, religious naturalists, atheists, Buddhists and many others.

They will not always use the name Gaia. Some will refer to the Great Mother, or Mother Nature, or Mother Earth, or simply the Earth, or some other name. Some will envision an anthropomorphized goddess, while others will seek to embrace the Earth just as she is, in leaf and rock and wave, without such imagery. Yet these groups will share a common understanding and a common experience of the Earth as a sacred system in which humans participate. (Ideas about the exact role of humans in this system will differ considerably.) The centrality of this concept in beliefs and practices will be the uniting factor that defines the cult of Gaia as a recognizable cultural phenomenon.

The cult of Gaia will further be characterized by a radical feminist, anti-authoritarian sociopolitical stance; a critical perspective on global capitalism; and an emphasis on direct action for political and social change. Yet the orientation of these groups will not be exclusively external by any means. Above all they will be marked by a holistic view and what might be called an ecocentric consciousness. As people cannot awaken to Gaia without development of such consciousness, the cult will support the interior growth of celebrants in an integral fashion. The cult will meld politics and spirituality and reunify science with religion, blending secular modernity with Pagan revival.

As sea levels rise, as extreme weather events become commonplace, as various forms of ecological crisis become more severe, as the age of cheap petroleum draws to a close, there will be much fear, confusion and upheaval. People will seek new answers to the oldest questions of humanity, new expressions of ancient experiences. Insofar as it provides a relevant response to these developments, the cult of Gaia will swell accordingly and play a central role in shaping humanity’s future.

In response to a prompt from Christine Kraemer and Rhyd Wildermuth

Photo credit: Planet Earth / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Secure Our Social Safety Net with a Universal Basic Income

photo of safety net
Photo credit: safety net by Rob Gunby / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Prompt: How would you design our social safety net, starting from scratch?

All things are interconnected, including us. Individuals don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a part of a social and biological ecology. From this truth derives the ethic of reciprocity which may be found in virtually every wisdom tradition of the world. Taking care of one another is a moral imperative. The so-called “social safety net” is a metaphor for how a society takes care of its members who might otherwise come to harm.

The key element of our social safety net should be the universal basic income.

There should be no means test to qualify. The income should be paid to every individual, regardless of any other income they may derive from any other source. Further, there should be no work requirement. The income should be paid whether the individual is employed full-time or part-time or completely unemployed. The income should be paid on a monthly basis to all legal permanent residents.

The amount of the income should be just enough to meet the basic necessities of life.

The chief virtue of this measure would be the direct abolition of poverty. It would also simplify our social welfare system considerably. Many programs could be eliminated and replaced by the universal basic income. We would no longer need an unemployment benefit or social security. It would also foster creativity, innovation and meaningful productivity, because people would have the freedom to pursue truly worthwhile activity.

A certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. On this basis we may build further. — Bertrand Russell

Over the course of American history, various versions of this scheme have been suggested again and again, by great thinkers from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr. Even Richard Nixon championed a variation of the idea. We even have a limited example in the Alaska Permanent Fund, which issues a check each year to all Alaska residents as a share of state revenue. Oregon is considering a similar measure. There are other examples and pilot programs around the world, with Brazil at the forefront.

Nevertheless the basic income remains unfamiliar and exotic to most Americans today, and if the subject is brought up in casual conversation, it’s likely to be greeted with raised eyebrows and quickly dismissed as a flight of utopian fancy. The two most common objections to the policy are the question of funding and the question of work ethic. We can’t afford it, and people would stop working. But these are in fact the flimsiest of criticisms, easily addressed.

How would we pay for it? The most obvious way to fund a basic income would be through taxation. A modest program could likely be established now through existing taxes, with no increased tax burden for anyone. A much more intriguing approach would be to simply print more money. It may sound absurd, but some economists argue that a basic income could be generated in such a manner with few inflationary effects.

Why would people work? This objection rests on the idea that the only motivation to work is to earn a dollar and avoid starvation. It’s a rather brutal vision but it’s widely held. This view of work illustrates our profound alienation from our labor. It is in fact one of the problems that the basic income would help solve. The motivation to earn more dollars would still be there, with an improved standard of living as the reward. But the fact is that many people engage in work for other reasons. Some important work is inherently valuable and meaningful in its own right. There are few schoolteachers, for example, who are motivated by primarily by money. The basic income would simply give workers a bit of a cushion and a bit more leverage in negotiating the terms of their employment. But for the skeptics who fear people would leave the workforce in droves, there is a simple answer. The precise size of the basic income would be adjusted through our democratic process. If people aren’t working enough, lower the basic income. If the safety net isn’t providing the security we desire, raise the basic income.

Of course, the basic income would not solve all problems. People would still suffer from mental and physiological illnesses, for example. We would still need single-payer health care. But the basic income would be one important part of a better and more robust social safety net.

Resources and Selected Articles

The Purpose of Public Education

New Classroom

Prompt: What is the purpose of public education?

No one is born with the knowledge or wisdom needed for full participation in life on earth. Education is a process by which humans acquire learning and develop as individuals as well as members of a community.

William Butler Yeats said that education is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The pail symbolizes a pervasive view of education, which Yeats challenged, the notion that learners are empty vessels to be filled up with content matter. Fire symbolizes a transformative process whereby the learner is inspired to understand why learning is important, motivated and empowered to become a self-directed learner.

Yeats was mostly right, though perhaps he overstated his case. Education can legitimately claim both symbols. We still need the pail; there is a time for learning content, even for rote memorization. But the fire is clearly superior. Once the fire is ignited, the learner may well be able to fill her own pail.

Yeats also puts us on notice: The purpose of education is contested. The purpose described above is the proper, highest and best purpose. In actual practice, education may function toward another end, as a method of social control, reproducing the structures of domination which characterize our civilization. The tension between proper purpose and actual function is profound. (Note that the former may not be compelled, but the latter can.)

The benefits of education are assured for the rich and powerful. Various communities within society, such as religious groups, may if sufficiently organized provide education to their members. Of course, not everyone is rich or powerful or a member of a well-organized community. Yet if segments of the population lack educational opportunity, society as a whole suffers.

Public education aims to provide such opportunity to all members of society, regardless of their status, or lack of status, in any community.

Currently public education is viewed as the province of the State and thus public schools are organs of the government. However, there is no reason why the State should be the sole provider of public education. In theory, community-based organizations with sufficient resources should be able to provide public education as well. In practice, the financial of resources available to the State through taxation provide an overwhelming advantage.

The problem with this situation is that an educational system run by the State will inevitably function to service the interests of the State above all. Individuals within the system may act with the highest ideals; individual schools may even establish temporary autonomous zones within the larger system; but all such effort runs counter to the overall tendency of the system.

What is lacking in American public discourse today is a robust notion of the common good as separate and distinct from the State. Only by recovering such a notion may we embody the true purpose of public education.

The Purpose & Definition of Marriage

Prompt: What do you believe should be the purpose of marriage in our society today?

Life can be tough, you may have noticed. We humans have a tendency to stick together, to help each other, to support each other in small groups. This is generally regarded as a good thing. No one exists alone; we exist in relation to others.

Some relations are defined by blood, such as the parent-child relationship. As a general rule, we can’t choose our blood relations, though adoption provides a valuable means of replicating this relationship in the absence of actual blood.

Others relations are defined by choice. Sometimes the choice is ours: We “hang out” with friends. Sometimes the choice is made by others: We “do time” with fellow inmates. Our lives become bound up and intermingled with the lives of others. When this social union is sufficiently intimate and sufficiently formalized, it may be called a marriage. Some marriages are like friendships, based on mutual affinity. Some marriages are like prisons, forced on the spouses against their will.

The intimacy implicit in the notion of marriage can take many forms, such as spiritual unity or romantic entanglement or sexual relations or domestic cohabitation. However, no single one of these is essential. A marriage does not depend upon sexual relations, for example. People may be married without having sex, and people may have sexual relations without considering themselves married. People may be married without living together. And so on.

What is essential in marriage is a sense of separate lives intimately bound up or intermingled with one another. This is not an unqualified good, but in the best cases it can be very good indeed.

Such a union is often celebrated and made public via a wedding ritual. The ritual may include vows to one another, such as vows to be loyal, supportive, steadfast, and so forth. (An alternative to the wedding ritual is handfasting. In a handfasting ceremony, the celebrants may take vows that are limited in time, perhaps to a period of a year and one day. After that period they may decide to dissolve the union or make it into a full marriage. There are many other approaches to handfasting; this example illustrates one possibility.) Such rituals provide a valuable means of making intentions concrete and inviting others to support the marriage.

Marriage is not necessary for everyone, but many people find the mutual support of marriage helps them to thrive. This, indeed, is the best purpose of the institution: to help individuals flourish through mutual aid and support on the most intimate level.

Some deem the institution of marriage to strengthen society as a whole. On this basis, it may be argued that society has a legitimate role in recognizing and sanctioning marriage. But the question of legality and the role of the State significantly complicate matters.

A thought experiment may muddy the waters instructively. Consider this simple question: Were Romeo and Juliet married? Search your memory. Some people will say yes, some no, depending on their recollection.

Memory can deceive us, so let’s consult the text of Shakespeare’s play. Act II ends as Friar Laurence leads the ill-fated couple offstage:

Come, come with me, and we will make short work;
For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till holy church incorporate two in one.

It is not shown but it is strongly implied that the Friar performs a wedding ritual offstage. Does this information change your answer? Were they married? On the basis of this textual evidence, most people will say yes: They were married.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to the law of the time, this marriage may not have been entirely legal. Given Juliet’s youth, parental consent was required. Further, a marriage had to be announced three times in church prior to the wedding ceremony. Neither condition was fulfilled, because the wedding ritual was done in secret.

Now let’s get experimental. Just to make it interesting, let’s imagine that their wedding was clearly and unquestionably illegal according to both Church and State. Friar Laurence was a rogue priest, acting outside his authority, perhaps an imposter, and he will be punished.

Does this change your answer? Were they married? Legally, they were not. But many people will assert that they were indeed married in spite of the law. This suggests that marriage has some other meaning besides a legalistic construct, that we can make some other sense of marriage, some deeper and truer sense.

Continuing the experiment, consider the case of Mildred and Richard Loving. They were married in 1958 in Washington D.C. But they lived in Virginia, where their marriage was illegal because they were of different racial backgrounds. They were arrested and essentially run out of the state Virginia. They took their case to the Supreme Court, which found in their favor in 1967, overturning miscegenation laws across the United States.

Clearly, the Lovings were married in June of 1958. When they moved to Washington D.C. in early 1959, they were clearly still married. But what about the six-month period in between, when they were living in the state of Virginia, where their marriage was illegal? Were they married then? Did they become unmarried during this time? If so, then how did they become married again when they moved to D.C.? They must have remained married even, though their marriage was not recognized by the State of Virginia. There must be a sense in which marriage can exist without sanction from the State, a deeper and truer sense of marriage.

This exercise should make it evident that neither Church nor State can be said to have ultimate authority over this most intimate of human institutions. The final arbiter of human relationships should be individuals and the community, not the State. A purely legalistic approach is not sufficient for defining marriage.

Now, by way of contrast, imagine two people who live together, love each other, and raise a family together. Call them Brad and Angelina. Let us suppose, for the purposes of the experiment, that they resemble a married couple in every significant aspect of their lives, but one: They have never been legally married. Let us further stipulate that they do not live in a jurisdiction which recognizes common-law marriage, and they do not consider themselves to be married.

Are they married? Most people would answer no. Yet, if we knew them and interacted with them, we might be forgiven for forgetting this fact from time to time. The only sense in which they are not married is the legalistic sense, which as shown above is insufficient for a complete and satisfactory definition of marriage. In the deeper and truer sense of marriage, they surely qualify.

In Western society in the early 21st century, marriage is generally regarded as being limited to the smallest group possible, that is, a group of two people. The respective sex of these two people is currently a matter of some anxiety in certain quarters. But there’s no reason why the number of people involved or the sex of those people should factor into the definition of marriage, in the deeper and truer sense. Any group of consenting adults can form a marriage.

The question of legal recognition remains. Currently in the United States a battle rages over this question. It is not the first such battle (see Loving v. Virginia) and it will probably not be the last. It is crucially important to recognize that all consenting adults have the right to marriage. But as the battle rages, we must never lose sight of the fact that the truer and deeper definition of marriage is not codified in the rules and regulations of the State. The truer and deeper definition lives in our hearts and minds.

Pride

Prompt: What is pride and what is its ethical value?

Pride is a double-edged sword. It can be both a virtue and a vice.

Pride is a sense of one’s own worth, of self-worth. Without pride, we may lack self-respect and self-love. If we lack pride, or if we have too much pride, or if we have the wrong sort of pride, we may also lack the ability to respect and love others.

Pride can derive from internal and external sources.

You might feel pride for things you’ve done, things you yourself have accomplished, especially if they were difficult. Pride derived from such internal sources might be called intrinsic pride.

People also feel pride for being part of a group, for things they possess, things they’ve inherited, things utterly beyond their control such as their race, ethnicity, nationality, even their hometown or their favorite sports team. Pride derived from such external sources might be called external pride.

Take a moment now. Recall some time when you felt especially proud. What was the source of that pride? How much did it have to do with you, personally? How much did it have to do with your place in the universe? How much work? How much luck?

The distinction between internal and external is not so sharp as it might first appear. We accomplish nothing in a vacuum. We exist in a web of interdependence. Even our most private, most personal accomplishments may be attributed in part to external factors. Yet at the same time, even the factors furthest outside our control impinge upon our identities.

It may be more helpful to think of a continuum from internal to external, from deep inside your self to the outer reaches of the cosmos. The source of any pride you feel can be located somewhere along this continuum. Meditating on this continuum may be beneficial.

Personal pride may become more problematic as a function of how extrinsic it is. Pride based on external factors can fuel nationalistic and fascistic arrogance and can be used to justify domination of other people.

Pride based on membership in an oppressed or marginalized group may be empowering, but pride based on membership in a privileged group can be pernicious. This is exacerbated because of the fact that people are often ignorant of their own privilege. It’s invisible to them.

For example, a man might take pride in earning the highest wage in his family or being the most successful person from his neighborhood. But his pride would be somewhat misplaced if he did not recognize the various privileges which allowed him to attain this status. His parents may have paid for his education. His wife may not earn as much because females are paid less for the same work. He may have benefited from his race or social standing or any of a number of other factors. Recognizing privilege does not erase pride, but it may tend to diminish it somewhat, to throw it into a healthier perspective.

Extrinsic pride is often based in identification with a group. That group may be quite small or quite large. It is possible to feel pride in being part of the human race, or in being part of the web of all life. This is a rare but sublime experience, to be cherished, nurtured and cultivated whenever possible.

The other critical factor with pride is quantity. When we feel proud we feel exulted, and this pleasure can deceive us. Too much pride can make us forget our humanity and our imperfections. We may try to live beyond our means, to reach beyond our grasp, with negative consequences. Pride may blind us to our faults and limitations, so that we fail to apologize when we should, and fail to correct our mistakes. Ancient wisdom warns of this, in such myths as the Tower of Babel or the Flight of Icarus. A modern tale of tragic pride comes to us in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Whoever indulges excessive pride courts destruction.

Parents

Prompt: What do we owe our parents?

We owe our parents everything. Without them, we would not exist. We wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be anywhere.

And yet, at the same time, we owe our parents nothing. We didn’t ask to be born, to be brought into this world. We didn’t ask to exist.

If we love our lives, if we affirm the joy of existence, we can express our gratitude and thank our parents. If on the other hand we hate our lives, if we wish we didn’t exist, we can blame our parents.

Most of us will probably experience both of these extremes at some point in our lives. Most of the time, we will probably be somewhere in between. The trick of an excellent life is to bend our thoughts and actions ever toward the joyful affirmation.

Try writing a letter to your parents, thanking them for everything they’ve ever done or been for you. This exercise can have enormous benefits, not just for your parents but for yourself.

Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that while parents can be heroic, some are monsters. If your parents are truly monstrous, you will surely have some special challenges. Ultimately, you may be able to affirm the joy of existence in spite of your parents. You may never be inspired to thank them, but if you can, it will be a triumph. As long as we resent someone, they hold our spirit captive.

Shaming & Shunning

Prompt: How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

(Note that we are not considering the moral education of children or the role of the state here.)

As a rule, we should not punish others for moral failures. We should not take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers. Rather, we should act as moral counselors. We should work with others to improve their behavior.

Yet it is something of a fantasy to pretend that we never punish others for perceived wrongdoing. In fact, we punish others all the time. If you’ve ever cursed a reckless motorist, you’ve engaged in shaming. It may not have been efficacious, but this is a time-honored form of punishment.

If someone does something wrong, you may shame them for it. This can be done privately, such as with a lover, a spouse, a relative or a close friend. It can be done publicly if the person is not so close to you. Shaming can be gentle, loving and playful; it can be subtle and understated; or it can be harsh.

In the case of the most egregious moral failings, you may shun the person. Refuse to have anything more to do with them. This may be particularly difficult if the person is intimately related. This should be considered only as a last result, when repeated shaming has not worked.

It’s tempting to assert that shaming and shunning aim solely to change behavior. In reality, they may not be effective in changing behavior, yet they may serve another purpose: namely, establishing and reinforcing social norms. When we publicly shame someone for a moral failing, we are also communicating to others that such behavior is wrong.

As with any attempt at social control, shaming and shunning can of course be used to enforce an oppressive moral code. For example, a professor at West Virginia University was publicly humiliated at a football game when a student mocked his sexual orientation. The student apparently subscribed to a moral code that classifies homosexuality as sinful, and he took it upon himself to act as the enforcer of that code. Such a moral code is, in fact, immoral. Shaming and shunning must not be used to dominate or bully others into submission.

Furthermore, a person should not be shamed for who and what they are. For example, do not shame someone for having different abilities or a different appearance. Do not shame someone for being poor or lacking education. Shaming should be a response only to choices the individual has made.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating that this brief article is not about corporate or state-sanctioned punishment. That’s another topic for another day, perhaps.

Sex Education

Prompt: What would you tell teenagers about sex?

You should know all the basic facts of life, including facts about sex. You should understand the basic biological mechanics of reproduction, of course. It’s crucial to understand how babies are made, and why we derive pleasure from sex.

But that’s not all.

Much trickier are the emotional and cultural complexities. Love and sex are inextricably entangled for us. It’s confusing even for mature adults. It can be downright harrowing for the young.

So take your time. Know yourself. Be sure of yourself. Have sex when you’re ready, and not a moment before. There’s no rush. You’ll be no less a man or woman for having waited. If and when the time comes, be sure of your partner. There should be mutual trust and respect between partners.

Our culture often transmits contradictory messages. In America, the dominant culture purveys a mix of puritanism and individualism. One preaches a message of abstinence while the other says, “anything goes.” Neither of these is particularly helpful. Furthermore, as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee notes: “Our collective culture celebrates its story of endless desires. It feeds us with its images that, though they can never nourish us, work like a drug for our minds and bodies, even as they exploit us and the earth.” Sexual imagery is a staple in these stories we tell ourselves, which power the culture forward. All of which is to say: Be wary of the dominant culture. Be wary of received wisdom. Learn to think for yourself.

This advice is easy to give, but it may be hard to follow for the young and impulsive. As Brendan Myers writes, “Perhaps the reason for all the taboos and moral warnings about sex is because in sexuality we discover so much about who and what we really are.” For many people, then, sex is part of the process of self-discovery, and as such there will make mistakes and experience pain.

So try to minimize suffering. Try to understand the consequences of your actions. Don’t get pregnant by accident, and don’t catch a disease. Girls, be empowered to assert control over your bodies. Boys, know that compulsion is wrong. Try not to sweat the other taboos. There is no shame in sex when it is a joyful celebration between willing partners.

Above all, be open and honest, especially with your parents. This may not be easy, but make the effort. Hopefully they can be open and honest with you as well.

Death Ritual

Prompt: If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?

Let the body of the deceased be placed in the earth in its natural state, to return to the earth. Through the process of decay, the body will have new life in other organisms.

Let a flame be kindled. Take a pinch of earth from the burial site and scatter it to the wind. If there are tears, let them mingle with the earth.

Let a song or a chant go up. Choose a favorite of the deceased or anything the group deems appropriate. A good example is the Fates Chant by Alan D. Stillman, based on the poem “Twist Ye, Twine Ye!” by Sir Walter Scott.

Let the living share stories to remember the deceased.