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

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


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

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