Long Live Gaia

Gaia is dead. Long live Gaia!

The Gaia hypothesis is one of those bold proposals that has captured the imagination of the general public. It has been embraced and celebrated well beyond the domain of conventional science. Gaia has been held to have deep spiritual ramifications.

Hope for the planet

Such matters are beyond the scope of Toby Tyrrell’s recent book, On Gaia (review) which offers a devastating critique of the Gaia hypothesis. Yet for those who have taken the Gaia hypothesis to heart, who have found it a source of inspiration and wonder, it’s important to discern what exactly Tyrrell has discounted and what he has not.

As Tyrrell points out, Gaia is “not a well-defined concept.” He cites the work of James Kirchner, who identified no less than five variations on the hypothesis, ranging from weak to strong.

(1) influential Gaia, which asserts only that biology affects the physical and chemical environment to some degree; (2) coevolutionary Gaia, which limits itself to stating that the biota and environment are somehow coupled; (3) homeostatic Gaia, which emphasizes the stabilizing effect of the biota; (4) teleological Gaia, which implies that the biosphere is a contrivance specifically arranged for the benefit of the biota; and (5) optimizing Gaia, which suggests that the biosphere is optimized in favor of the biota.

As one might imagine, the stronger versions of Gaia are more controversial. The two strongest forms have been abandoned even by James Lovelock, the originator of the hypothesis, while the two weakest forms are deemed largely uncontroversial. Therefore it’s the middle version, the question of homeostatic Gaia, which constitutes the prime interest of Tyrrell’s work.

Far from debunking all five versions of the Gaia hypothesis, Tyrrell to the contrary finds in favor of a coevolutionary hypothesis, the notion that life and the environment are “somehow coupled.” This hypothesis is equivalent to what Kirchner labels coevolutionary Gaia.

Thus, while the idea of a strong, self-regulating Gaia may be in question, the concept of an evolutionary coupling between living creatures and the environment is not.

Religious Implications

One of the most comprehensive and thoughtful treatments of Gaia’s implications for religion and spirituality may be found the work of Anne Primavesi. Her book Sacred Gaia, published in 2000, is a radical reappraisal of Christian theology in light of Earth system science.

As such, it is instructive to inquire as to which model of Gaia informs Primavesi’s writing. What vision drives her work along? Does she place importance on the purported homeostasic and regulatory effects of Gaia? Does she portray Gaia as an optimizing force that keeps the Earth “comfy” for us?

Indeed not. Primavesi writes almost exclusively about a coevolutionary Gaia (to use Kirchner’s term). She describes Gaia as “the planet-sized system where the living and non-living components interact as two tightly coupled forces, each one shaping the other through systemic feedback loops.” Amongst the significant implications of this fact, she finds that “a Gaian perspective… does not support a view of ourselves in radical discontinuity with other species. On the contrary, our common origins with other multicellular organisms bind us ineluctably to past and present communities of life forms on earth.” Coevolutionary coupling means that we are situated in a web of interdependent relations, and this realization has profound moral consequences.

The awakening to such dependence is disorienting to a species which has believed and preached that God has given it dominion over all living creatures. Or, in a secular version, that our brains/technology/higher consciousness have given us the ability to dominate every other life form and the right to exercise that dominion.

This is a radical revisioning of Western thought. However, it does not call upon the more radical formulations of the Gaia hypothesis for support.

To state the matter bluntly, Tyrrell’s debunking of homeostatic Gaia does no damage to Primavesi’s thesis.

This is but one example. The effects of Tyrrell’s critique will vary according to one’s thealogy. If one is seeking scientific support for the comforting metaphor of an all-powerful Earth Mother who protects herself from the vagaries of the cosmos (and the depredations of humanity) then Tyrrell brings bad tidings indeed. On the other hand, a metaphor of Gaia in process, striving with us and through us to make a better world, remains as a source of both inspiration and spiritual sustenance.

It should also be noted that, despite Tyrrell’s critique of Gaia, the Earth remains a coherent whole, a complex of interconnected systems. This may be the substantial and lasting scientific contribution of Lovelock and his collaborators. The holistic view is now taken as a given, as the bedrock foundation for Earth system science.

Next week: Is a coevolutionary Gaia worthy of the name Gaia at all?


The Gaia Hypothesis: Can It Be Tested? by James W. Kirchner

Sacred Gaia : holistic theology and earth system science by Anne Primavesi

On Gaia : a critical investigation of the relationship between life and earth by Toby Tyrrell

Photo: Hope for the planet / CC BY 2.0


Gaia Is Dead

Gaia is dead, and Toby Tyrrell has killed her.

Book Cover

This is a brief review of On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell.

It’s a devastating book. Devastating, that is, to the Gaia hypothesis. It’s also quite fascinating. This is recommended reading for anyone who lives on Earth and has a brain.

The author aims to investigate the hypothesis, formulated by James Lovelock in the 1970s, “that life has played a critical role in shaping the planetary environment and climate over ~3 bil­lion years, in order to keep it habitable or even optimal for life down through the geological ages.” (From Q&A with Toby Tyrrell)

Tyrrell offers evidence and argument in roughly equal measure. The empirical evidence is drawn from a diverse array of sources, most notably evolutionary biology and Earth system science. The philosophical arguments include an extended meditation on the anthropic principle and its implications.

For non-scientists, at least, it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss the empirical data. The critical reader, if not familiar with the current research literature, can’t help but wonder if the author is selectively presenting only evidence that supports his agenda. The philosophical arguments can be understood by anyone, regardless of specialization, and are much harder to discount.

On both fronts, in chapter after chapter, Tyrrell finds the case for Gaia doesn’t hold up. He gives credit to Lovelock for major insights that have proven correct, and for generally provoking scientists and the general public to think about life on Earth in a new way. But at the end of the book, Gaia has been thoroughly dismantled.

So where does that leave us? Tyrrell winds up with an excellent discussion on just why all this stuff matters. He points out that any notion of Gaia as a self-sustaining, self-regulating system may lead to complacency. We may be tempted to believe that environmental problems will tend to correct themselves. In other words, Gaia may lead us to “undue optimism.” It’s important for humanity to realize that we cannot rely on built-in safeguards to save our proverbial bacon. The global ecosystems which sustain us are more precarious than a strong Gaian view might lead us to believe. If we are to protect our home from the effects of our own depredations, we must dispense with the erroneous notion of a self-healing Earth.

In other words, in order to save Gaia, it is necessary to destroy her.

Next week: Spiritual and religious implications of Tyrrell’s critique.

Be Aware of Lead

Lead-Based Paint

To all parents everywhere, but in urban areas and old cities especially: Be aware of lead. It’s everywhere. It’s in the paint on older houses. It’s in the soil, from old paint and auto exhaust. It might be ground as fine as dust, but it’s still a heavy metal. Still toxic. It gets into our bodies. It circulates in our blood, gets stored in our bones, affects our brains. It is especially deleterious to the development of young children. There is no level of exposure that’s been determined to be safe.

Don’t think that the signs of lead poisoning are obvious. They are not. At least, not at the levels most parents are likely to encounter. If a child shows actual symptoms of lead poisoning, his or her life may be in danger. Immediate medical attention is a must. But for most children, lead poisoning is more subtle and insidious. Parents will not notice any symptoms. The only way to detect this is through screening via blood sample. Your pediatrician should conduct a test around the time of your child’s first birthday, and probably testing should continue annually, until at least age six.

You can get little swab test-kits to use around your home. If you discover lead, don’t panic. Sometimes well-intentioned remediation makes things worse. Stirring up lead dust is generally not a good idea. Unfortunately, professional remediation for private residences is essentially unavailable in many areas. (Pros are focused on commercial/industrial customers, who are the only ones who can afford their services.) Take the threat seriously, and take action, but don’t go off half-cocked. Get educated and take the appropriate steps.

If you see people dry-sanding an old house in your neighborhood without appropriate safeguards, approach the workers and demand that they stop immediately. Inform them that what they are doing is against the law. Tell them that you are concerned about the safety of your children. Give them the impression that you’re just crazy enough to do something rash. By all means, report the misdeed. But do not fall prey to the fantasy that government authorities will actually protect your community in anything approaching a timely fashion.

Despite your best efforts, your child may still get poisoned. Obviously, you cannot police every atom. Do not panic. That will not help anything. Depending on the severity, you may wish to get some cilantro-chlorella extract. The combo is important: One plant gets the lead moving, the other gets it out of the body. It’s hard to find, but look around online and you may be able to find a non-alcoholic tincture that combines the two. It tastes pretty good and your child should take it readily.

Good luck. Our children face many hazards in this world. As parents, we simply do the best we can. The trick is to worry just the right amount, enough to stay vigilant, but not so much that you lose your sense of joy.

Flowers to Flame

for Glenys


American Midsummer

We all notice seasonal variation, yet most of us can’t account for it. It is perhaps the most common scientific misconception. Contrary to popular belief, we do not experience summer because the Earth gets closer to the sun. It’s because the Earth is tilted on its axis. When our hemisphere tilts toward the sun, we get more light and things warm up and we call that summer. Our planet does not actually rock back and forth on its axis; it only seems that way, maintaining the same tilt as it revolves around the sun. That point of maximum tilt toward the sun occurs in late June for the northern hemisphere. It’s the summer solstice, also known as Midsummer.

Sadly, most Americans are ignorant of this seasonal moment. We seem marginally more familiar with the winter solstice, probably because of the vast commercial pressures that have accreted around that time in late December. Even so, most of us remain unaware that the winter solstice, our time of maximum tilt away from the sun, is the inverse, the opposite, the antithesis of the summer solstice. Six months removed from one another, we might regard these two celestial events as antipodes, points on opposite sides of a circle representing the cycle of the seasons.

The poetics of the winter solstice are perhaps slightly better understood in our popular culture: the birth of light in the depths of darkness. What, then, are the poetics of the summer solstice? If it is truly the inverse of the winter solstice, then it stands to reason that it must be the birth of dark at the peak of lightness, or the dying of the light at its very summit.

Perhaps this is why Americans have forgotten the summer solstice and the Midsummer holiday. We love summer, with its connotations of fun in the sun and trips to the beach. You’d think we’d be interested in celebrating this moment when the sun is at its zenith. But at this moment of the sun’s greatest power, it begins to decline, to wane, to die. There’s something subversive about recognizing this, something almost offensive to our national character. Our nation is caught up in a fantasy of endless growth and constant improvement. Acknowledging limits established by nature goes against our grain. Quite frankly it gives us the willies.

Elsewhere things are different. Midsummer is still the second biggest holiday of the year in the Nordic countries, especially Sweden and Finland, and also in Estonia and Latvia. (Yule may be bigger, but the Midsummer celebrations are more distinctive.) In Britain a certain bard wrote a rather famous play set on Midsummer Night. Also famous is the monument known as Stonehenge, which marks several astronomical events but seems to be primarily oriented to the summer solstice. It is one of many monuments around the world which honor the day. If ancient people shared our qualms, it did not stop them from observing the solstice. And there are indications that this is slowly changing in America now, as with every year various communities and municipalities are rediscovering the holiday and celebrating it in diverse fashions.

Hot Summer Sun

The Day of Days

And how can we characterize the day itself? To us on the surface of the planet, it seems that the sun is rising ever higher in the sky, and on this day it reaches its highest point, seeming to stand still in its march across the sky. (The word solstice derives from Latin for sun standing.) The days have been getting longer, but this is the longest day of the year. If you like natural light, rejoice. This day has more of it than any other — provided the weather cooperates, of course. In New Orleans and similar latitudes, it’s over 14 hours from sunrise to sunset. Anchorage clocks in at 19 hours and 21 minutes. At the arctic circle, the sun stays up all day.

It is not difficult to make an association between summer and sunlight and life. We know that virtually all life forms on our planet are dependent upon energy received from the sun, either directly or indirectly. The summer season in general and the longest day in particular might be be said to represent or embody life in all its fullness. Indeed, our word day derives from the Old English dæg which also meant “lifetime.” It’s related to the Lithuanian dagas, meaning “hot season,” and the Old Prussian dagis, meaning “summer.” Today we recognize at least two distinct meanings for the word “day.” It refers to the 24-hour period, of course, but that’s a relatively recent definition. The older meaning, still with us, is “the daylight hours,” the opposite of night. These associations suggest that Midsummer might well be regarded as the ultimate day of the summer season, the day of life, the day of days.

Sometimes we might complain about all this energy the sun sends our way, especially if we get sunburnt or overheated. But the truth is we capture only a tiny fraction of the sun’s awe-inspiring energy. Only about one-billionth of the sun’s energy enters earth’s atmosphere. Even so, this tiny fraction of solar energy is so vast that just one year’s worth is equivalent to all our planet’s non-renewable resources: all the coal, all the oil, all the natural gas, all the uranium. Combined. We seem bent on consuming these resources as quickly as possible; when they’re gone, the sun will still be shining. Midsummer is the propitious time to recognize and celebrate this superabundance of energy, to consider what it means for for us and how we might respond.

Yet it would be facile and simplistic to imagine that Midsummer is all about sunshine. Precisely at this supreme moment, at the very pinnacle of light and power, the decline begins. As Glenys Livingstone writes, “the seed of darkness is born.” How could it be otherwise? All extremes contain within them their opposites, necessarily, else they would not be extremes. This idea is enshrined in the sacred symbol of the Yin-Yang. In Chinese traditional medicine, Yin is held to begin with the summer solstice, when Yang is at its peak. In the light we find the darkness, in the masculine we find the feminine, in the heavens we find the Earth, in the fullness we find the void. Midsummer is also a time to reflect on this mystery.


Flower Power

Flowers are a fine symbol of summer. The sunflower especially comes to mind, with its solar petals and seeds of darkness. Calendula, verbena, elder flowers, St. John’s Wort and many others have been associated with the day. The rose in particular has been imbued with deep mystical significance. Perhaps it’s the combination of beauty, perfume, and sharp thorns. English folklore holds that a rose picked at Midsummer will stay fresh ’til Yuletide, at which point it may be used to magically divine a young woman’s future husband.

As the romantic floral connotations suggest, Midsummer has long been a day for love and lovers. According to some statistics, July and sometimes August have surpassed June for weddings in the United States, but this is a very recent phenomenon, dating since 2006, and may be more of an anomaly than a long-term trend. For centuries, June has been far and away the most popular month for weddings. The very name of the month derives from the Roman goddess Juno, queen of the gods but also goddess of marriage. This is the time to celebrate union, and not just the young, passionate, lusty desires of May, but also the more mature, stable, lasting commitment, the intimate, deep commingling of self and other.

There are few events more happy than a wedding, and no season so conducive to happiness as summer. Midsummer is a time to contemplate all the good things that make us happy. John Crowley writes in his sprawling novel Little, Big, “The things that make us happy make us wise.” (The book contains a fantastic Midsummer wedding scene.) Go out into wild nature if you can. Glory in the beauty of Gaia untamed, in the thriving vitality of life. Gather some wildflowers, inhale their fragrance, make a garland, dance, drink honey mead, take a nap. Let yourself dissolve in the warm bliss of the longest day.

Starhawk calls the it “the Give-Away time of the Sun.” The superabundance of solar energy that makes possible our ecosystem, the radiant light that sustains Gaia, the very web of life of which we take part: This is a gift. We enjoy all this richness freely, nor are we merely recipients of this beneficence. We also participate in it. Like the flowers, we can flourish, creating something new and beautiful. The Give-Away is not just to us, but of us.

Still Life with Fruit and Flowers; van Brussel (1787)


The artist Annabelle Solomon has created a series of quilts based on the cycle of seasons. As part of this work she has mapped the creative process onto the seasonal cycle. According to her scheme, Midsummer corresponds to the time of “fruiting” or “coming into full form.” (Livingstone casts this as “realized creativity.”) This is when “light reaches the fullness of expression in the accompanying abundance” of life on Earth. She recognizes the solstice as a time to pause, reflect, and celebrate: “At this halfway point in the cycle, there is the momentary pause to admire the teeming fullness of life.”

Fruits become sweeter and softer and better for us to eat through the process of ripening. Enzymes within the plant called pectinases break down cell walls in the fruit, making it softer. Enzymes called amylases change the carbohydrates in the fruit into simple sugars, making it sweeter. Enzymes called hydrolases reduce the chlorophyll levels in the fruit, changing the color. We can tell a fruit is ripe by sight, touch, smell and taste. Who doesn’t love a ripe strawberry or juicy peach? We enjoy ripe fruit because the plant developed it for us, so that we animals would disperse their seeds.

All of these changes in the ripening process are triggered by ethylene gas. This is why placing certain fruits in a paper bag causes them to ripen more quickly. The fruit produces ethylene gas; the bag concentrates it. The fruit in the bag will ripen even more quickly if warmed by the sun. There’s a poetry here, perhaps, for the sun is also the source of the energy that grew the plant that bore the fruit. But then, the sun is the source for all our energy, including the energy it took to pick the fruit and put it in the bag, to say nothing of the manufacture of the bag itself. All creativity can be traced back to the sun, from the ripened fruit, to the work of the artist who paints the fruit — or eats it.

There’s a creative power at work in the plant’s transformation of solar energy into delicious fruit. Humans also have this power. We partake in a similar process. We don’t have to be professional artists to realize and celebrate our creativity. The key question for us is how we’re going to use it. We know what we’ve received. We can feel the diverse processes of nature flowing through our lives. But the outcome of our efforts is far less predetermined than the fruit of the plant. We might produce almost anything. What shall we do? What shall we make? What shall we give back? What shall we become? At the end of our lives, we become food for other life, if our bodies are allowed to decompose and return to the ecosystem. Should we not aim to contribute something at least that substantial before our inevitable demise?

And when the work is realized, ripened and consumed, we enjoy a momentary respite, a blissful relief from the churning cycle, a sweet release. Only by letting go do we discover the true purpose of our efforts. We only think we know what we’re doing as we plan and plot and scheme. Only in the living act, the undoubted deed, do we learn the truth.

Flame and Flower

Into the Flame

Bonfires are an age-old tradition for the summer solstice. Throwing flowers into those fires is also a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The symbolism of such ancient rituals is multifaceted. Perhaps the act represents a way of offering the beauty of the Earth back to itself. Perhaps it represents the impending diminishment of the sun’s power. Perhaps the scent of burning petals is intoxicating. Try it yourself and see.

Flowers given over to flame. A day given over to love and dreams. A season given over to life and light. And what about us? We can be given over as well. We can give ourselves over. But to what? To what powers will we devote ourselves? What processes will we further?

Creation is not finished. The world was not wound up like clockwork by some divine watchmaker and left to ticktock forward on its own. Creation is ongoing, continuing to unfold and develop right now. And we are a part of it.

Consider our ancestors. If you’ve dabbled in genealogy, you may have traced your family tree back for several generations. If we were able to continue that process, going further back in time before the advent of written records, some ten thousand or so generations ago we would find our matrilineal common ancestor, the Lucky Mother from whom all living humans are descended. Yet further back in time — 600,000 years, a million years, 2.5 million years ago — we find ancestors who were not fully human but who were very close, represented by such skeletal remains as Boxgrove Man, Turkana Boy and Twiggy. 15 million years ago we find our ancestors in the great apes. About 60 million years ago we find Purgatorius, a little tree-dwelling mammal, the probable ancestor of all primates. Before that we have the first mammals coming from the cynodonts, who in turn came from the earliest mammal-like reptiles, the synapsids, some 250-odd million years ago. And we can continue back 390 million years ago to the appearance of four-limbed vertebrates, the tetrapods, the earliest of which were probably aquatic. 530 million years ago we find Pikaia gracilens, a leaf-shaped creature swimming in the waters of the Precambrian period, which may well have been the ancestor of all modern vertebrates. Further still: acorn worms, flatworms, sponges, back to one single-celled organism that lived 3.5 billion years ago — a single simple cell from which all we are all descended.

When we were children, the world and humanity may have seemed like permanent fixtures. Once we gain an understanding of history, we learn just how much things have changed. What does all this past portend? It would be the height of foolishness to suppose that it’s all ground to a halt in our modern moment. Indeed not. We humans can no more stop the continual flux than we can stop the solar furnace. Yet we’re not mere jetsam buffeted by the stream. We have a unique ability to shape our own future. This is the ultimate question for our species. Whither humanity?

The challenges before us seem immense, but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. Instead, let us emulate the natural processes of the Earth. Start small. Plant seeds. Plant deeply, wisely, and well. Nurture the new growth that emerges.

Start with the self. As within, so without. Our own self-realization will not transform the world, nor need we achieve some imagined inner perfection before we can take action. But it’s a good place to begin. As Gandhi said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” Let the transforming fire flower in our hearts, and spread.

The gate to summer

The Ω Gate

Here, in the hills of ages
I met thee face to face;
O mother Earth, O lover Earth,
Look down on me with grace.
Give me thy passion burning,
And thy strong patience, turning
All wrath to power, all yearning
To truth, thy dwelling-place.

— Julian Grenfell

Modern humans have achieved a remarkable independence from some natural cycles. We may experience this as liberating or crippling or both. Yet however alienated we may be from the natural rhythms and cycles of the Earth and our biology, however artificial our lived environment of climate-controlled cityscapes may seem, we remain inextricably and undeniably a part of the web of life here on our planet. It’s a plain, simple, profound fact, a truism so basic that we may easily forget it in the hustle and grind of our daily lives. Yet on occasion this reality is made manifest, the evidence becomes evident, the truth we’ve always known becomes clear, and we meet the Mother “face to face.” Such meetings may be terrifying or empowering or both.

Midsummer is a time to celebrate such encounters, to commune with nature, to enter into communion, to celebrate our mutual participation through an act of sharing, an intimate fellowship, a closer rapport. You may wish to share your feast with family, friends, strangers and the Earth, as we mark our revolution around the sun.

It’s the nature of cycles that they have no beginning or end. They simply loop back on themselves again and again. A helix is more accurate than a loop, for each iteration of the turning is different than the one before or after. As humans we find ourselves compelled to mark the turning in some way, to say here, now, again. Here we are now again. All holidays serve this purpose, and thus any one is a candidate for marking the new year. Our calendar marks the turning of the year shortly after the winter solstice, at the end of December. Yet a case could be made for the summer solstice as the best time to mark the new year. The ancient Egyptian new year began around this time. In the modern West, the academic year gives form to a good portion of our lives, beginning in the fall and ending in the spring. The summer forms a natural break, a time for vacation and recreation. To vacate and recreate: to leave the old behind and make a new self.

Glenys Livingstone observes that a fitting symbol for this day is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, the omega, which resonates on many levels. The letter Ω is shaped like a gateway, and Midsummer is the passage from one year to the next. Its yonic shape is also suggestive of the Great Mother. Its finality suggests the “birth of the dark” which happens at this time. It is the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

We celebrated the lively quickening of desire on May Day. We will celebrate dissolution and harvest at Lammastide. For now we may celebrate the fullness of being at Midsummer.

summer greetings



  1. Manhattanhenge / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  2. Hot Summer Sun / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  3. sunflowers / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  4. Still Life with Fruit and Flowers; van Brussel (1787) / CC BY-NC 2.0
  5. Flame and Flower / CC BY-SA 2.0
  6. The gate to summer / CC BY-SA 2.0
  7. summer greetings / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New Orleans, 2013

Note: This essay is a chapter in my book, Spinning in Place.

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.