Our Nature: The Earth as Home

Climate change debates: a new way of looking at the issue

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Eons of past time and ceaseless change, embedded in earth’s geology and in the evolutionary biology of species, are the twin factors which provide the best guide to the major risks facing humanity in the present day. The current state of the planetary surface on which we all reside, as well as the many steps in the emergence of homo sapiensfrom its ancestral origins in the hominin tribe, are the results of specific stages during prior times and of new developments.  The history of our planet is a 4.5–billion–year record of violent upheaval, driven by forces deep below its surface, such as volcanic eruptions and marked most dramatically by the push and pull of gigantic continental masses against each other. Its atmosphere too, as well as climatic conditions, have likewise been repeatedly altered, a function of the interaction between the earth’s crust and external factors such as solar radiation, strikes of massive asteroids, the planet’s orbit, the tilt of its axis, and others. Geologists have named the stages in this record: The current one is known as the Quaternary, which has featured the growth and decay of continental ice sheets in 100,000-year cycles. The most recent episode, beginning roughly about 12,000 years ago, is called the Holocene.

            The human counterpart to the first phase of the Quaternary, known as the Pleistocene, was the migration of our hominin ancestors (such as homo erectus) out of their African homeland, which is thought to have begun as much as 1.8 million years ago. We ourselves have been baptized with the term “anatomically modern humans”; we originated in Africa between 300,000 and 250,000 years ago and began to disperse about 70,000 years ago. Because these later treks occurred in the most recent cold glacial cycle, climatic conditions were not conducive to rapid human population growth – until the arrival of the Holocene, the warm interglacial, when temperatures were about 6°C (11°F) warmer than they had been just 7,000 years earlier. And then, in the geologically-brief period of less than 10,000 years, the population of modern humans literally exploded, by which time wandering hunter–gatherers had become settled farmers and herders, and the first civilizations had been born.

            The recent evolutionary success of homo sapiens, therefore, resulted wholly from the fortuitous confluence between the modern geological history of the planet’s land surface, on the one hand, and the formation of a relatively new hominin species, equipped with a large brain and upright gait, prepared to exploit its new environmental opportunities, on the other.

            And exploit them we did: Around 3000 BCE there were an estimated 45 million of us worldwide, and the number reached 1 billion for the first time around 1800 CE. But at that point most people were still living on primitive agricultural holdings, beset by backbreaking manual labor, impoverishment, and the endemic threat of famine and infectious disease.  Then the Industrial Revolution marked another decisive turn, at least as dramatic as the one from hunter–gatherers to farmer–herders more than ten millennia earlier. Arguably, humans were thereby propelled into a new epoch, called the Anthropocene, where we have become so dominant on the planet that we are now influencing the future stages of global climate. And if this is the case, we humans collectively have become responsibile, for the first time in the evolution of our species, for the next stages in our climate history. 

            The scientific argument that human-caused factors are forcing the global climate along a new pathway – one that could bring great harms to human settlements around the turn of the next century – is contested by some who attack the theory and the evidence marshalled in order to support it. But that argument is also resisted by many others who point to the lack of full certainty in the scientists’ predictions, or who refuse to accept the idea that humans could exert much influence on the climate, or who profess to believe that climate scientists are perpetrating a hoax on the public, or who aver that God will decide the outcome. Since 100% certainty is impossible to achieve in predictions of this kind, we are left with a throw of the dice: Does one accept the contentions of climate scientists or not? If it is expected to be costly to say yes, as it probably will be, then why not just wait and see what happens?

            In the pages that follow I have tried to frame the debate over the credibility of climate science in a new way, by putting the issue in the double-perspective of the earth’s geological history and the evolution of species, culminating in the fortunate nexus of the Holocene and modern humanity. 

Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth and the Role of William Nierenberg and Other Science Advisors: Why didn’t we act on climate change in the 1980s?

Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth and the Role of William Nierenberg and Other Science Advisors: Why didn’t we act on climate change in the 1980s?

Rich’s Losing Earth 2018-10-22 EL Final + Bio(6) [PDF]

Ed Levy

The entire New York Times Magazine of August 5, 2018 was devoted to an important article by Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade we almost stopped climate Change. In Rich’s account from 1979 to 1989 the United States came close to “breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels.”1 Rich shows that at the beginning of that decade a broad international consensus had developed favoring action in the form of a global treaty to curb emissions and that U.S. leadership was required and possibly forthcoming. Yet at the end of the decade it was clear that these efforts had failed. Rich sets as his primary task answering the question, “Why didn’t we act?” He does not provide a satisfactory answer.

However, Rich’s informative and nuanced accounts convey well the shifting positions about climate change in the US during the decade. At the beginning it was difficult to get widespread attention, later it looked as though linking global warming to other issues such as ozone depletion and CFCs could result in action.

These accounts are based on a large number of interviews and extensive research, but the story is told primarily through the eyes of two significant players, Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen, “a hyperkinetic lobbyist and a guileless atmospheric physicist who, at great personal cost, tried to warn humanity of what was coming.”

Still, Rich barely addresses the central question explicitly and does not come close to providing a convincing answer. I don’t have a definitive answer either, but in this piece I will argue that key U.S. science advisors should at least be part of the answer, especially when conjoined with candidate answers Rich rejects. I will show that the role of highly influential advisors would have been more apparent if Rich had more accurately characterized their roles and the views they advocated.

Rejected answers

1 Rich, Nathaniel, “Losing Earth: The Decade we almost stopped climate Change, New York Times Magazine, August 5, 2018. (All quotations not attributed otherwise are from Rich’s article.)



In the Prologue Rich quickly dismisses conventional explanations that the failure to act was due to the fossil-fuel industry and/or to the Republican Party. He supports the latter contention mainly by citing a number of Republicans, even prominent ones such as George H.W. Bush during his initial campaign for President, who expressed concern about climate change. I have doubts that this positive evidence in itself is sufficient to absolve the Republican establishment.

As for the fossil-fuel industry, Rich points out that there is substantial literature documenting the operations of the industry’s lobbyists and

… the corruption of scientists and the propaganda campaigns that even now continue to debase the political debate, long after the largest oil-and-gas companies have abandoned the dumb show of denialism.

However, in his view these machinations did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989. Instead, during the preceding decade “some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.” In the main body of the article he supports these claims by pointing out numerous instances in which representatives of the fossil-fuel industry voiced concern about climate change, participated in conferences on the subject, and even initiated research and policy considerations about it.

One can grant that all of that is accurately reported and yet still have reservations about the conclusion that the fossil-fuel industry did not contribute significantly to the position of take-no-action-now between 1979 and 1989. For me those reservations stem from Rich’s somewhat misleading accounts about one of the major reports of the decade, the 500-page Changing Climate (“CC” hereafter) and the role that its lead author, William A. Nierenberg, subsequently played.2,3


3 The most thorough accounts of Nierenberg’s role in CC can be found in the works of Naomi Oreskes and colleagues.


National Research Council, and Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee. Changing climate:


Report of the carbon dioxide assessment committee. National Academies, 1983.

Oreskes, Naomi, Erik M. Conway, and Matthew Shindell, “From Chicken

Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, global warming, and the social deconstruction of

scientific knowledge,” Hist Stud Nat Sci 38.1 (2008): 109-152.


Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M.

Conway. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from

tobacco smoke to global warming. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.


Changing Climate

In 1980 Congress mandated the National Academy of Sciences to produce a major scientific assessment of climate science. The person chosen to Chair the committee that produced CC was William Nierenberg, a physicist, presidential advisor, director of the Scripps Institute, and chair of JASON – the latter was formed in 1960 and consisted of a self-selected group of eminent scientists, mainly physicists who either were participants in the Manhattan Project or their students.4 When Rich discusses CC in the main body of the paper he says that it “argued that action had to be taken immediately, before all the details could be known with certainty, or else it would be too late.” He also says that CC “urged an accelerated transition to renewable fuels.” Rich points out, however, that in press interviews following the publication of CC in 1983 Nierenberg said “the opposite.” And in the conclusion of the article Rich underscores his claim that “Everybody knew” that significant policy adjustments need to be made to deal with climate change, by saying that Ronald Reagan knew because he “had Changing Climate.”

I think the thrust of these comments misses the mark: CC did not urge immediate, significant action on climate change except in the area of scientific research funding. As Spencer Weart remarks in his respected history of the science of global warming, the science in CC did not differ markedly from other prior and contemporary reports such as two issued in 1979, Gordon Macdonald’s JASON assessment, and the Charney report, but CC’s tone was quite different.5,6 And even more importantly, unlike almost all other assessments produced by scientists before CC, CC made specific recommendations not to take action until more research was done. These recommendations were based

4 Rich compares JASON to “teams of superheroes with complementary powers that join forces in times of galactic crisis.” JASON was created because the founders thought the government should get independent advice. Much of JASON’s work was contracted by government military and defense agencies and was classified. See Finkbeiner, Ann. The Jasons: The secret history of science’s postwar elite. Penguin, 2006.


5 Weart, Spencer R. The discovery of global warming. Harvard University Press, 2008 and the


hypertext of that book at





MacDonald, Gordon. The long term impact of atmospheric carbon dioxide on climate. Vol. 136.


No. 2. SRI International, 1979.


Charney, Jule G., et al. Carbon dioxide and climate: a


scientific assessment. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 1979.


primarily on the claims that currently we did not know enough to make changes and that we had time for science to reduce uncertainties.7

That CC made policy recommendations at all was a departure. Here for example is what Gordon Macdonald, a scientist Rich mentions several times, says in an earlier report explaining that a scientific assessment was not the place to endorse policies: “We have a massive report on acid rain, that says all sorts of things are happening, but it doesn’t say, ‘You’d better cut back on sulfur emission’.”8 In contrast CC says that alternative energy options might be needed sometimes in the future but for now should only be the subject of research: “We do not believe … that the evidence at hand about CO2-induced

climate change would support steps to change current fuel-use patterns away from fossil fuels.”9 In other words unlike almost all previous assessments of global climate by scientists, CC advocated a policy and that was one of inaction.

I said that CC differed from almost all other assessments by scientists. A notable exception was advice in the form of a letter report requested by Philip Handler, the President of the National Academy of Sciences. This was produced in 1980 by a committee that included Nierenberg and that was chaired by Thomas Schelling, a distinguished economist and future Nobel Laureate.10 The report, which was not widely circulated, highlighted the uncertainties of climate science and urged that the emphasis be placed on reducing uncertainties over the next decade rather than on measures designed to address climate change. And notably the Schelling committee acknowledged that they were making both technical and political judgments and that not all members of the committee embraced the argument for inaction:

Most of what we report must therefore be recognized as a collective judgment rather than as a scientific finding …

7 Rich also reports that in press interviews Nierenberg said that it is “Better to bet on American ingenuity to save the day.” More broadly, I believe that faith in science and technology to solve any problem underlay the views of many arguing to postpone action.

8 Interview of Gordon MacDonald by Finn Aaserud on April 16, 1986, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, USA.http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/4754.html

9 Nierenberg op. cit., p. 4.
10 Schelling, Thomas, et al. to Philip Handler, Ad hoc Study Panel on Economic and Social Aspects of Carbon Dioxide Increase, 18 Apr 1980.



In view of the uncertainties, controversies, and complex linkages surrounding the carbon dioxide issue, and the possibility that some of the greatest uncertainties will be reduced within the decade, it seems to most of us that the near-term emphasis should be on research, with as low political profile as possible. We should emphasize that this is both a technical and a political judgment. Another point of view represented on the panel is that further research will not fundamentally change our perception of the issue; in this view, the need for preventive measures is already apparent and urgent.11 [Emphasis in the original.]

At about the time the Schelling letter was issued, Nierenberg was tapped to lead the development of CC and Schelling was invited to become a contributor. Schelling’s chapter in CC is essentially an expanded version of his letter report and is the main source of policy recommendations.12 Those recommendations were repeated in the overview section of CC called “Synthesis”.13 It was as though the inclusion of social scientists in what had previously been assessments by physical scientists constituted a license to move into the realm of policy.14

CC, Nirenberg and Contrarianism

As Rich indicates, in Nierenberg’s press interviews following the publication of CC he took a more aggressive stance in favor of take-no-action-now. That’s as far as Rich goes with respect to Nierenberg, but that was hardly the end of the matter. In 1984 Nierenberg joined two distinguished colleagues who also served as senior scientific advisors to government, Frederick Seitz and Robert Jastrow, in founding the George

11 Schelling, op. cit.

12 It is one of the few chapters in CC that has a single author and the only one without references.

13 One other chapter of CC was written by economists, including, William D. Nordhaus, who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize. His chapter in CC is focused on models for quantifying uncertainties and effects of adopting particular policies rather than recommending policies.

14 I do not believe that in general there is a hard and fast distinction between the realms of science and policy. Almost always scientific accounts employed in policy relevant science are shot through with policy assumptions. However, there are instances such as the one under discussion where statements about what should-be-done can be distinguished from best estimates about what is or will be the case.



Marshall Institute (GMI), a think-tank that later became one of the mainstays of the contrarian movement.

It was not until 1989 that GMI issued its first report on climate change. Accounts inScience of that report sparked a heated exchange including letters from the GMI authors. In his letter Nierenberg characterizes CC as “… the most complete [report] that has been published and is still being widely referenced.”15 In fact he links CC and the GMI Report by pointing out that CC “… was put forward during the discussions at the same White House meeting where the [1989] Marshall Institute report was summarized.”

So it is clear that far from providing a foundation for those urging immediate action on global warming, CC was used by very senior science advisors to counsel inaction. And in doing so, those advisors were not bending the message of CC. However, there were differences between CC and the use made of it by GMI and others. Unlike in CC, the contrarians’ defense of their take-no-action-now policy was to mount ferocious attacks on the substance of climate science. Added to the views that we didn’t know enough and that we had time to respond later was the claim that we didn’t even know as much as we thought we did.

So why did the U.S. take no action between 1979 and 1989 and then become even less inclined to take action thereafter?

As I said above, I do not have a definitive answer to that question. In Rich’s article he focuses on the profound influence that John H. Sununu had as George H. W. Bush’s first Chief of Staff beginning in 1989. And in so doing Rich seems to imply that Sununu’s policy position was part of the answer to the question. I have no grounds for disputing that in November of that year Sununu played a crucial role in preventing the U.S. from signing a major international treaty aimed at freezing carbon dioxide emissions. The same for other actions and positions Rich attributes to Sununu. But the question remains: Why no action from 1979 to 1989?

It seems to me that the answer has to include the influence of the Changing Climatebeginning in 1983, and the positions subsequently taken by Nierenberg, by some other

15 L. Roberts, “Global Warming: Blaming the Sun A Report that Essentially Wishes Away Greenhouse Warming is Said to be having a Major Influence on White House Policy,” Science246, no. 4933 (1989): 992-993.



JASONS, and then by The George Marshall Institute and other think-tanks partially underwritten by the fossil-fuels industry.16 It is of course true that GMI did not issue its first position paper on climate change until 1989, but there is no reason to believe that Nierenberg and colleagues kept their own counsel from 1983 to 1989. And it is important to take account of the prestige and power of Nierenberg and his associates.

These were not occasional or incidental governmental advisors; they were among the most highly respected spokespeople for the scientific establishment. As noted in Rich’s text Nierenberg was a member of Ronald Reagan’s transition team in 1980 and he was a JASON. Combine that with the fact that the George Marshall Institute was one of the key groups of scientists in the 1980s that strongly supported Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). Given Nierenberg’s role in CC and his public statements upon its publication, the position publicly taken by GMI in 1989, and the fact that Nierenberg had access to the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, it is clear that science advisors at the very highest governmental level helped to forestall action on climate change.

In saying all of this I certainly agree with Rich that the U.S. government underwent a sea change in its public position on climate change beginning in 1989. That shift to militant contrarianism happened for a number of reasons including the fact that the international community created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1989. It became obvious that the international scientific community, and possibly governments, were going to urge action. Nevertheless, the ground for the commitment to no action in the U.S. had been prepared since the issuance of CC in 1983. Although scientists are certainly entitled to advocate for particular policies, it is another matter for a major scientific assessment to slide into the realm of policy without even acknowledging that it is not simply a matter of science whether or not more science is needed on which to build policy. There were no doubt other factors promoting inaction in the decade 1979-1989, but a complete answer will certainly include the mutually supportive influences of some senior scientific advisors and elements of the fossil-fuels industry and of influential leaders of the Republican Party.


16 Not all Jasons shared Nierenberg’s view about climate change. For example Gordon J. F. Macdonald, who is cited in Rich’s article, did not and neither did Henry W. Kendall, who founded the Union of Concerned Scientists after resigning from Jason.



Ed Levy

Ed Levy obtained a BS in Physics from the University of North Carolina and a PHD in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. He became a member of the Philosophy Department at the University of British Columbia in 1967. In 1988 he joined the biotech company QLT Inc., a company that developed the first worldwide medical treatment for age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among the elderly. His position at QLT enabled him to work actively in one of his prior main areas of research interest, namely in the intersection of science and policy issues.

Ed’s interests in the interactions among science and policy institutions in the fields of law, ethics, economics, and government were honed on multi-disciplinary research projects including one studying the Green Revolution in Asia and another investigatingMandated Science, which involves situations such as standard setting and health regulations where scientists have a mandate to make policy recommendations in contested fields.

Upon retiring from QLT in 2002 Ed became an adjunct professor at UBC’s W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics and worked on several projects funded by Genome Canada.

He has served on a number of not-for-profit and other boards including Tides Canada, B.C. Civil Liberties Association, WelTel, Oncolytics Biotech, BIOTECanada, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, and PIVOT Foundation.

I welcome feedback from readers: elevy@telus.net


Who Speaks for the People of Ontario?

Who Speaks for the People of Ontario?

Who Speaks for the People of Ontario 2

William Leiss

Published in part in The Hamilton Spectator, 13 September 2018

Recently, speaking of the judicial ruling that found his government’s actions in reducing the size of Toronto’s city council to be unconstitutional, Premier Ford said: “I believe the judge’s decision is deeply concerning and the result is unacceptable to the people of Ontario.” He went on to point out that he was elected while the judge was appointed.

Let us leave aside, for the time being, the premier’s questioning of the authority wielded by a Superior Court justice in interpreting the Charter of Rights in the Constitution of Canada. Instead, let us focus on the matter of who speaks for the people of Ontario. At least one commentator on yesterday’s events suggested that, in making the claim that it is he who does, Premier Ford was acting according to a “populist” political stance. “Populism” is often said to refer to those who believe they represent so-called “ordinary people” as opposed to the members of “elite” groups, whoever they may be.

So let us ask: Who are these ordinary people? On whose behalf does the current premier of Ontario have a legitimate right to speak? 

First, as an elected politician, he has an undoubted right to speak on behalf of the constituents in his riding who voted for him. Second, as premier of a government holding a majority of seats in the provincial legislature, he has a right to speak on behalf of that government as a whole. By extension, he may speak on behalf of all the voters in Ontario who elected all of the MPPs in that government party.

But those electors make up, in point of fact, a rather small proportion of all of “the people of Ontario.” How small? The calculation runs as follows. First, exclude all those who cannot vote, by reason of age, lack of Canadian citizenship, illness, or anything else. The voting age population in Canada is about 79% of the total population. Then, exclude from the 79% all those eligible to vote who did not do so in the last Ontario election, that is, 42%, leaving us with 58% of 79%, or 46%. Then exclude all those who did not vote for the Conservative Party in that same election, that is, 59.4%, which yields the final figure of 19%. To sum up, the Premier and his party actually have a legitimate right to claim to represent, and thus to speak on behalf of, 19% of the people of Ontario. I invite others to check these calculations and to improve them.

With respect to any specific question of law or policy, such as the law reducing the size of Toronto’s city council, it is reasonable to suppose that at least some of the electors who voted for the Conservative Party in the 2018 election might not support that particular law, making it likely that, on this issue, Premier Ford is entitled to speak on behalf of something less than 19% of the people of Ontario.

This strikes me as being a very peculiar form of “populism,” if that is indeed what it is, in today’s Ontario. Nevertheless, it has become common to refer to an entire group of current political leaders around the world, particularly certain of those in the United States and Europe, as being “populists.” It is time for us to have a wider debate in Canada about how well the term populism describes the reality of political formations, and how the term might relate to other characterizations, especially demagoguery. 

For example, those who used the term populism approvingly often claim that it reflects the alleged distinction between “ordinary people” as opposed to “élites.” The most charitable comment one can make on this word usage is that it is woefully imprecise. The word élite, its proper spelling indicating its French origins, means a part of a larger group that is superior to the rest; the word ordinary, from the Latin and French, and meaning “orderly,” carries the following connotations or synonyms: unremarkable, unexceptional, undistinguished, nondescript, colorless, commonplace, humdrum, mundane, and unmemorable. One wonders why the ideological champions of populism would think that this way of characterizing the great majority of people in any society would be regarded as being flattering? How does denigrating the many admirable qualities of people qualify as an indicator of one’s support for their alleged political interests? And what is supposed to be derisory about being above-average in terms of quite specific categories such as talent or abilities? It seems that occasional recourse to a dictionary might have been helpful here.

Challenges in managing the risks of chronic wasting disease

William Leiss*, Margit Westphal, Michael G. Tyshenko and Maxine C. Croteau

McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment, University of Ottawa,
600 Peter Morand, Ottawa, ON, K1G 3Z7, Canada

Tamer Oraby

Department of Mathematics, University of Texas – Pan American, 1201 W University Dr.,
Edinburg, TX 78539, USA

Wiktor Adamowicz and Ellen Goddard

Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, University of Alberta,
Email: ellen.goddard@ualberta.ca

Neil R. Cashman

Department of Neurology, Faculty of Medicine, Vancouver Coastal Health, University of British Columbia, Canada

Abstract: This article summarises efforts at disease surveillance and risk management of chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is a fatal neurodegenerative disease of cervids and is considered to be one of the most contagious of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Evidence has demonstrated a strong species barrier to CWD for both human and farm animals other than cervids. CWD is now endemic in many US states and two Canadian provinces. Past management strategies of selective culling, herd reduction, and hunter surveillance have shown limited effectiveness. The initial strategy of disease eradication has been abandoned in favour of disease control. CWD continues to spread geographically in North American and risk management is complicated by the presence of the disease in both wild (free-ranging) and captive (farmed) cervid populations. The article concludes that further evaluation by risk managers is required for optimal, cost-effective strategies for aggressive disease control.

A Modest Proposal on Immigration and Denaturalization

A Modest Proposal on

Immigration and Denaturalization


William Leiss

30 July 2018

It is perhaps understandable that many citizens have become very concerned with the continued arrival of new immigrants to the United States. There is, they fear, a real chance that in their midst there may lurk murderers, rapists, and drug dealers, among other criminals. More broadly, however, they are uneasy about the prospect that millions of people who may be, as they report, simply fleeing poverty, gang war, everyday violence, and injustice will become an intolerable burden on established citizens who are already hard-pressed to provide for their families.

In this regard it was inevitable, surely, that the debate about dealing with new immigrants would shift to the process of denaturalization of recent immigrants. There are some 20 million naturalized citizens now residing in the United States. A number of federal government agencies, we are told, are charged with ferreting out cases of fraud among those arrivals who have already been granted full citizenship. Cases of fraud involves concealing, on the application for citizenship, everything from war crimes and terrorism to minor criminal offences, phony marriages and false identities. When fraud of this type is proved, citizenship is revoked and the offender is deported.

However, it is easy to imagine that this case-by-case, retrospective review of suspected fraud must represent an administrative nightmare. Each charge must be proved before a judge, and this involves digging up obscure paperwork in foreign countries that itself may be of dubious providence. Yet the suspicions remain: How many naturalized citizens in the recent past might have lied or dissembled in a desperate attempt to stay permanently in this country? But perhaps our fears about being overwhelmed by dangerous elements among the prospective new immigrants have made us blind to a greater threat: What if we are already surrounded by such elements, in vast numbers of those now permanently resident here? What if it is already too late to protect ourselves against this danger?

There is a simple solution available to address these fears. It is based on the recognition that the case-by-case, elaborate administrative review of suspected fraud among the newest naturalized citizens will never be adequate to the task. The solution to this dilemma is both straightforward and elegant: Since all citizens of this country are descendants of people who were once naturalized citizens, then all must be subjected to the process of being examined for denaturalization and deportation to country of origin.

For who among us can prove, to the satisfaction of a judge, that the statements made by our ancestors, upon landing at Plymouth Rock or Ellis Island, were “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? What crimes great and small, false identities, and phony marriages did they fail to mention? What enormous pile of immigration fraud lies forever concealed among the desperate tales of the “wretched refuse” that has been cast upon these shores since time immemorial? Those facing denaturalization proceedings today must say to the rest: “You were, every one, all immigrants at one time or another. All of you should be sent back to your ultimate country of origin, until all of the paperwork can be sorted out.”

The logic and reasonableness of this position undoubtedly will appear to many to be inescapable. There will surely arise a swelling tide of citizens who will choose to self-deport themselves back to their ancestors’ countries of origin. Only the present descendants of aboriginal peoples will be exempt. But wait! They too were immigrants, starting about 14,000 years ago. Given the age of the universe, what difference does a few thousand years make? They too must choose to go. And every one of the self-deportees will have to take with them their household pets and farm animals, most of which are non-native species. 

On a personal note, all four of my grandparents emigrated from Germany to New York, through the port of Hamburg, around the end of the nineteenth century. We should, by all rights, return to the Fatherland until all this is sorted out. There will be a few awkward cases among the tens of millions of returnees. The grandfather of the current president of the United States sought to do the right and proper thing, by returning to his country of origin after making a small fortune in some interesting enterprises in the Pacific Northwest; however, German officials refused to allow him to take up his German citizenship again. This was obviously a simple bureaucratic error that could be rectified with a bit of good will on all sides, and indeed it was.

Once the United States is emptied out, for which the resident wildlife will be grateful, Canada and the whole of Central and South America must follow suit. But when Europe is filled to bursting with these inhabitants of temporary detention centers, will not those detainees cry out: “What right do the rest of you have to your comfortable squatting on occupied land? Whence came the Angles and the Saxons, whence the Goths and Visigoths, the Vandals and the Huns? Not to mention the Han Chinese.” 

Out of Africa, and back again.

William Leiss was born in Long Island, New York; he is professor emeritus, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, and a Fellow and Past-President of The Royal Society of Canada: Go to www.leiss.ca.

“Ten Rules of Good Risk Communication”

Ten Rules

  1. Do not use invidious comparisons between your views and anyone else’s.
  2. Avoid either explicit or implicit ‘fights’ with those holding opposing views.
  3. Maintain a tone of sweet reasonableness throughout any document.
  4. Admit that there is some risk (where scientifically appropriate).
  5. Use some technical terminology to make your explanations understandable, but always give brief explanations in nontechnical language (exposure, dose, likelihood, etc.).
  6. Be bold in asserting that the only reasonable basis for understanding risks is the accumulated weight of scientific evidence, not single published studies, older studies that have been superseded by newer ones, or outlier studies. Say something like: “We strongly recommend that people do not rely on the other types of studies mentioned” [i.e., single published studies, etc.]
  7. Be bold in recommending to the public that they exercise caution when making up their minds as to what to believe about any risk, including asking themselves what is the source of any piece of information which they have read or heard about from a friend, and whether that source is likely to have the expertise needed to make a reliable judgment on the risk in question.
  8. Don’t hesitate to advise your audience that, if it is possible for them to do so, it is fine to seek to minimize personal risks (usually by limiting exposure) when it is relatively easy to do so and does not otherwise inadvertently create or increase another risk.
  9. It is perfectly acceptable to advise people who are preoccupied with certain risks that alternatives they might choose almost always carry their own risks, sometimes higher ones.
  10. Brevity is the soul of communicative effectiveness when it comes to key messages.

The Need for Utopia−And What Utopia Needs

The Need for Utopia [PDF]

(First Draft December 2017)

A Contribution to the Future of Critical Theory

Dedicated to Herbert Marcuse

William Leiss
©William Leiss 2017. All Rights Reserved. (wleiss@uottawa.ca / www.leiss.ca )


INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………. 1 THEUTOPIANVISIONINTHEMODERNWEST……………. 3 SOCIALISM, ANARCHISM, COMMUNISM……………………. 7 THE END OF UTOPIA?………………………………………… 10 TRANSITION……………………………………………………… 12 EMPOWERMENTOFWOMEN………………………………… 18



TWO SCENARIOS………………………………………………….. 29 ROUTES…………………………………………………………… 32 CONCLUSIONS……………………………………………………. 33

Herasage Book 3 – Chapter 6 (free online version)

I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 6.

“Superintelligence” refers to the idea that an advanced form of machine (computer-based) intelligence, programmed using Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques, will in the future greatly exceed the intellectual capacities of human beings. According to some experts, this gives rise to the threat that such a machine would seek to dominate or displace humans. This threat has given rise to a great deal of academic and industry interest in the area now known as “AI safety.”

Herasaga 3 Chapter 6

Herasage Book 3 – Chapter 4 (free online version)

I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 4.

In a truly remarkable historical development, seven men and women, all born in small Jewish communities in a narrow band of territory running through Western and Central Europe in the nineteenth century, made extraordinary contributions to the “Second Enlightenment” in the modern West. They were Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Gustav Mahler, Albert Einstein, Emmy Noether, and Franz Kafka. But a mere fifty years after the youngest among them was born (Kafka, in 1883), all of the communities from which they came, and so many other similar ones, were wiped out entirely in Nazi Germany’s Holocaust.

Herasaga 3 Chapter 4

Herasage Book 3 – Chapter 3 (free online version)

I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 3.

A key feature of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment was its war against religion, which it called “superstition,” and its advocacy of the “new science” – that is, experimental science, as defined first by Francis Bacon and Galileo in the preceding century and practiced by the first modern chemists. But in his great book on “the progress of the human mind,” Condorcet added an important corollary: that the evidence-based method of science should also spread throughout social practices, leading to a more humane society. But contemporary science can no longer fulfill this role, since its concepts and methods stray far from the common-sense understanding of the world.

Herasaga 3 Chapter 3

Herasaga Book 3 – Chapter 2 (free online version)

I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 2.

The introduction of large-scale machinery into factories in the nineteenth-century, and (with railroads) into the public sphere, was a great shock to the artistic imagination. In such imaginative works as the short stories by Herman Melville, “The Bell-Tower” (1855), and E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909), this development was portrayed as presenting deep challenges to humanity’s sense of self, leading to the possibility that humankind could wind up as the passive and uncomprehending victims of the triumph of the machine.

Herasaga 3 Chapter 2

Herasaga Book 3 – Chapter 1 (free online version)

I am posting selections from Book 3 of the Herasaga, along with a short introduction for each chapter. I will post one each week for the next month or so. Here is the intro to Chapter 1.

What is “modernity”? In what essential, unique way does modern Western civilization differ from all of its predecessors, stretching back to the ancient Greeks, and all other major world civilizations (Chinese, Islamic, Japanese, Russian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and African Kingdoms)? I argue that the unique element is both modern science itself and its historical characteristics – its close bond with technology, and its influence on the social sphere. To be sure, this results in a highly problematic situation, since this science confers great operational power on humans, and thus it demands that this power be used prudently, a demand that has not yet been met.

Herasaga 3 Chapter 1

Book Two of the Herasaga available online

Product Description


The Priesthood of Science, Second Edition (2017)

(Book Two of The Herasaga)

Pages xxxii, 350

Pictures and Illustrations

Publisher: Magnus & Associates Ltd.

The second edition features a new concluding chapter, entitled “Such Clever Microbes!” which deals with the implications of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique.

The work originally published in 2008 had two components that were central to its purpose as a work belonging to a specific genre, namely, science-based utopian fiction: First, a collection of essays, grounded in scientific literature, on the history of science, social impacts of science and technology, and mammalian reproductive biology. Second, a series of dialogues, involving different combinations of characters, that are philosophical in nature, largely concerned with exploring the social and ethical implications of the technologies associated with modern science. Works of utopian fiction in modern times have always been “novels of ideas,” and the present work seeks to remain faithful to that tradition. This edition has had minor changes to the text throughout, as well as the addition of an entirely new chapter on genome editing at the end, Chapter 17: “Such Clever Microbes!” focusing on the CRISPR-Cas9 technique.

I read in the paper recently that you are supposed to have said: “If I were to be born a second time, I would become not a physicist, but an artisan.” These words were a great comfort to me, for similar thoughts are going through my mind as well, in view of the evil which our once so beautiful science has brought upon the world.

Max Born, Letter to Albert Einstein (1954)


Hera and her sisters are now sealed off from the rest of the world in their private enclave at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. She is still tormented by the decision of her parents, two neuroscientists, to make genetic modifications in the brains of their twelve daughters—and by her own agreement to allow a similar procedure to be used later on a much larger group of human embryos.

Her doubts now spill over into a series of debates with a molecular biologist, Abdullah al-Dini, about whether scientists have the right to hand over the vast new powers they have discovered to a world still riddled with religious fanaticism, ethnic hatred, and a longing to see the prophecy of the “end of days” be fulfilled.  These debates refer back to what happened during the Second World War, when physicists were unveiling the secrets of nuclear power, and the possibility of the atom bomb, just as the time when Nazi Germany and its allies were launching their terrifying bid for world domination.

Meanwhile, that group of engineered embryos has become one thousand young people, just turning eighteen, and the gender politics among them is threatening to bring down in ruins her own little experiment in redesigning human society.

The first (2008) edition is available from the University of Ottawa Press in three formats:

  • Paperback (a beautiful book!)
  • ePub & ePDF


New 2017 edition of Hera, or Empathy (Book One of The Herasaga) available now

Hera, or Empathy (Book One of The Herasaga):

Now Available in a Revised Edition 2017 as an Ebook at:


Pages xv, 550

This work, originally published in 2006, had two components that were central to its purpose as a book belonging to a specific genre, namely, science-based utopian fiction: First, a collection of essays, grounded in scientific literature, on neuroscience, genetics, and reproductive biology. Second, a series of dialogues, involving different combinations of characters, that are philosophical in nature, largely concerned with exploring the social and ethical implications of the technologies used to create a tribe of genetically-modified individuals. Works of utopian fiction in modern times have always been “novels of ideas,” and the present work seeks to remain faithful to that tradition. The revisions undertaken for this edition were the elimination of two later chapters and some other material, beginning in Chapter 15, but none of the material related to the two key components has been deleted. Finally, this new edition contains pictures and illustrations not found in the original 2006 book, as well as an updated timeline for the events (advanced by a decade from the original timeline).

Hera the Buddha (Book 3 of The Herasaga) now available!


Full PDF now available:

Hera the Buddha (Book 3 of The Herasaga)


Product Details:

Author: William Leiss (www.leiss.ca)
Length: Pages Xix, 195
Publisher: Magnus & Associates Ltd.
Language: English
ISBN 978-0-9738283-2-0

Table of Contents

Prologue and Retrospective
Part One: The Mind Unhinged: Modernity and its Discontents
Chapter 1: The Rupture in Historical Time in the Modern West
Chapter 2: Sublime Machine
Chapter 3: Modern Science and its Spacetime
Chapter 4: Seven Figures and the Agony of Modernity
Part Two: Pathways to Utopia
Chapter 5: A Utopia for our Times
Chapter 6: The Threat of Superintelligence
Chapter 7: Good Robot
Chapter 8: Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief Life-Systems:
Introduction: Silicon and Carbon
The First Dialogue: The Guardians
The Second Dialogue: At Home in the Universe
The Third Dialogue: What is Time?
The Fourth Dialogue: Two Forms of Intelligence
The Fifth Dialogue: On Superintelligence and the Ethical Will
The Sixth Dialogue: What is Life?
The Seventh Dialogue: Interdependence between Humanity and Machine Intelligence
Conclusion: Mastery over the Mastery of Nature
Chapter 9: Utopia in Practice, with A Discourse on Voluntary Ignorance
Chapter 10: A Moral Machine: Rebooting Hal
Appendix: “Hal” (Outline for a Screenplay)
Sources and References / Acknowledgements / About The Herasaga

Prologue and retrospective:
A summary of the main themes in the first two volumes of The Herasaga: Hera, or Empathy (2006) and The Priesthood of Science (2008).

Chapter 1:
Recounts the radical rupture in modern history caused by the emergence of the new natural sciences. Argues that the new science is an unambiguous good for humanity, but that its close connection with technology and industry is highly problematic, leading to out-of-control advances which, in the era of nuclear weapons, lead to the threat – still around us today – of the utter destruction of the entirety of civilization.

Chapter 2:
Tells the story of the nineteenth-century reaction to the coming of industrial technology, called the “Age of Machinery,” regarded as greatly problematic by many important writers, notably Herman Melville, and leading to a powerful countervailing current in the early twentieth century, in E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops,” and in the first dystopian novel, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924).

Chapter 3:
The French Enlightenment in the eighteenth century saw the new science as spreading rationalism against superstition and religion through all of society – but it underestimated badly the strength of traditional institutions which opposed this. Then, in the twentieth century, the new subatomic physics revealed the underlying natural world to be a scene of incomprehensibly weird forces, and modern science lost its ability to shape thinking in the social world.

Chapter 4:
The second phase of Enlightenment is known as “modernity.” Across virtually all aspects of high culture during the twentieth century, modernity posed a radical challenge to traditional ways of thought and behavior. But it evoked an equally radical and violent reaction, represented best in Nazi ideology, which had a shockingly destructive outcome. At the core of this contest were the European Jewish communities, which suffered its horrendous consequences.

Chapter 5:
The wreckage left by the violent contest over modernity prompts us to take another look at the tradition of utopian thought, with its vision of a better model for human society. Four different “platforms” are described and contrasted, with a special focus on their approach to the challenge implicit in the impact of steady technological advance on social life.

Chapter 6:
The most recent challenge of technological advance is the idea of “superintelligence,” which imagines a future in which computer capabilities far exceed those of humans, in terms of thinking and decision-making. Scenarios have described the possibility that such a machine might turn out to be opposed to human interests and might have the capacity to deceive its human masters about what its own goals are. This has raised the prospect of a strongly-bifurcated future state for humanity: on the one hand, an end to all of the old problems of poverty and inequality; on the other hand, the possibility of the destruction of the planet and the human race itself.

Chapter 7:
A whimsical short story, set sometime in the future, about robots and humans.

Chapter 8:
The longest chapter in the book, an imaginary scene set 50 years in the future, this is a series of dialogues between a fictional human character and a superintelligent computer which calls itself “Hal.” The most intense discussion involves the difference between biological and machine forms of intelligence, and the dialogue revisits the potential threat of superintelligence covered in Chapter 6. After many pages of back-and-forth conversations about complex ideas, as well as some friendly banter, there is a surprise ending.

Chapter 9:
This chapter returns to the utopian themes in Chapter 5 in the light of the subsequent issues raised in Chapters 6 and 8, and, in this context, reviews once again the difficult problems raised by the challenge that relentless technological advance poses for human society.

Chapter 10:
Hal is rebooted in a scenario in which “his” human programmers are resolved to try to turn him into a “moral machine.”

This is an outline for a movie screenplay about a superintelligent computer which is not at all malevolent but which simply wishes to control its own existence.


Three Courses by Herbert Marcuse from the 1960s ©William Leiss 2017, All Rights Reserved

William Leiss took these notes in handwritten form in courses offered by Herbert Marcuse, in 1960-61 and 1963 at Brandeis University, and in 1966-67 at the University of California, San Diego.

Marcuse Hegel Seminar 1966 Final Marcuse Marxism 1963 Course Final Marcuse Political Theory 1960 Course Final [PDF]

Marcuse Marxism 1963 Course Final [PDF]

Marcuse Hegel Seminar 1966 Final [PDF]


President Trump’s First Hundred Days: An American Political Fantasy

President Trump’s First Hundred Days:
An American Political Fantasy (V4: New Material at End)

© William Leiss 2016

Shortly after New Year’s Day, anticipating the Inauguration Ceremony later that month, some hundreds of local armed groups started to ready themselves for the tasks ahead. They assumed a variety of names, such as “2nd Amendment Militia,” “Protection Posse,” and “Red State Raiders.” Almost immediately after January 20th, the roundups of suspected illegal immigrants began. With an estimated eleven million undocumented aliens to choose from, there was much to be done.

In shop basements, empty warehouses, abandoned factories, and derelict houses across the towns and cities of many states, including those which had voted marginally “blue” during the November election, tens of thousands of individuals and families were gathered and kept under guard. Spokespersons for these operations displayed copious quantities of illegal drugs which, they maintained, had been seized from the detainees, although it at least one instance it was revealed that the drugs had been borrowed from a police evidence locker.

It was not long before the public outcry elsewhere forced state governors to plead with the new President for federal funds to assist them in managing this dangerously unstable situation. The President agreed that those who had been rounded up needed the protection of legal processes while they were in temporary custody. The requested funds were quickly pledged, and state officials started assisting the transfer of the captives to public facilities such as empty barracks at former military bases; where no such facilities were available, tent cities were erected and encircled with razor-wire fences.

The President joked that the camp conditions were not going to resemble those in his signature hotels, but he insisted that all detainees were being treated very humanely. However, he added, measures would soon be under way to transport the first wave of them from the camps to the Mexican border for deportation.

Quickly Mexican officials countered that its border would be sealed to prevent the entry of any persons held in U. S. custody who did not possess proper identity documents, including proof of Mexican citizenship. (A senior Mexican official commented, “A wall along the border works both ways.”) Since the overwhelming majority of those from the camps had no identity documents at all, it was impossible to predict how long this stalemate might persist.

Meanwhile, during this same period of run-up to the Inauguration and the weeks following, large contingents marched in cities under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. Blacks had voted for the defeated presidential candidate in overwhelming numbers, and many of them thought they knew what was coming. Increasingly the local armed militias called upon their members to line the parade routes, and the warning was understood. When individual blacks began to be shot in areas adjacent to the main events, protest organizers called upon their own supporters, which included many whites, to form armed contingents to protect the marchers. The calls for restraint from police forces were ignored. Thus Month One came to a close.

No sooner were the first camps up and running than drones appeared overhead, which turned out to be operated by opponents who were posting videos on the Internet, including some showing appalling sanitary conditions as well as inadequate food and medical care. When attempts were made to shoot them down, massed sorties of dozens of drones were launched to overwhelm the shooters.

Then at a large camp located near a state border, a heavily-armed contingent calling themselves “Blue State Raiders” launched their first operation, cutting the fences and freeing hundreds of captives, escorting them along back roads and forest tracks, previously scouted by drone reconnaissance, and across the state line. The escapees were housed in dozens of prepared sanctuaries, mostly in church basements. Many others were inspired by this initial success to plan and carry out similar ventures as increasing numbers of tickets for the new Underground Railroad were printed.

Soon mass arrests at the larger and larger “Black Lives Matter” marches overwhelmed local prison facilities. State officials reasoned that they had no choice but to arrange to open a second set of temporary camps, a move which was justified on the grounds that the arrestees needed protection while awaiting trial.

The back-and-forth strategies around both sets of camps escalated. Razor-wire enclosures were electrified as a further safety measure, the President explained, to prevent those in custody from being terrorized and kidnapped by the Blue State Raiders. But this and other measures failed to stop the numerous successful attacks, and the numbers of those escorted into the sanctuary states rose dramatically, even as the camp system itself was continuously refilled with newer detainees. Attempts by Red State Raiders to carry out missions against some sanctuary sites, in order to return former captives to the camps, were thwarted by quick police action. Thereafter some state governors called out their National Guard troops to protect the sanctuary sites. Thus ended Month Two.

As the nation reached the end of Month Three and the First Hundred Days, the Republican elected officials who controlled both the Senate and the House were happily proceeding with their own agendas, filling dozens of federal judicial appointments denied to the former president with suitable candidates; slashing tax rates for the rich and entitlement programs for the rest; repealing Obamacare, while promising to replace it with something better in the future; refusing to act on the President’s campaign pledge for a national child care program; and planning constitutional amendments to outlaw permanently same-sex marriage and abortion and to entrench control over voter eligibility firmly in the hands of state governments.

But even as the President watched with pleasure the opposing national party contort itself into an ineffective frenzy following his election, troubles were beginning to appear on the horizon. He knew full well that the illegal immigrant issue would not be enough to distract his supporters forever. The red state denizens who had packed his election rallies were already demanding that the new President fulfill his pledge to bring millions of well-paying jobs back from abroad by tearing up the international trade agreements which stood in the way. The projected federal budget deficit was soaring, and for this and obvious other reasons creditor nations were finally starting to doubt their longstanding faith in the safe haven represented by the U. S. dollar.

His party in Congress had made it clear that they were not prepared to deal with such minor issues. The President knew he could not avoid now turning to the task of bringing his own party into line. He was sure he could do this in short order, and if it turned out that he needed some help in the matter, he was quite certain that his good friend in Russia’s Presidential Palace would oblige.

A Special Note for Canadians:

Anyone in Canada who remembers the period 1965 – 1970 will also recall the long-running influx of Americans opposed to the Vietnam War: first, the draft resisters, numbering some 30,000, followed by the U.S. Army deserters, a much smaller number but counting individuals who took much greater personal risks to seek sanctuary here. The first group posed little problem for the Canadian government, since the resisters were not actively pursued by U. S. authorities, and most of them had financial support from their families. The second group, however, presented a unique situation: To the best of my knowledge, no NATO member country had ever before received a large contingent of military deserters from another NATO power and declined to repatriate them.

But the government of Pierre Eliot Trudeau did just that. They were allowed to stay and apply for permanent residence, and five years later they could qualify for citizenship here. Some returned after President Carter’s 1977 amnesty, but many did not. Canada as a country benefited from these two waves of grateful and productive new citizens.

It is eerily appropriate that we now have another Trudeau as Prime Minister, because, fellow Canadians, he and we should be getting ready for the next set of asylum-seekers at our southern border. Should the scenario sketched above come to pass, there may very well be a flood of “illegal” immigrants from South America, now living in the U. S., who will be fleeing deportation. There may also be a fair number of Afro-American citizens who fear harsh crackdowns on black protests against police and perhaps private violence. And there may even be numbers of white U. S. citizens who do not face persecution but who do not wish to live in the kind of country that Trump’s supporters intend to create.

We would be wise to consider these possibilities in advance and not just wait to see what might happen.

See also:

September 30, 2016
To be continued. Comments and Suggestions welcome.


PDF Version: President Trump’s First Hundred Days V4