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Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson review

Niall Ferguson
London will be “cheaper, grungier and younger” in future, with fewer billionaires and more crime, while our social lives will be like sex after Aids.

These are just some of the predictions towards the end of Niall Ferguson’s stimulating new book, as he speculates on the long term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, as part of his wide-ranging analysis of the history of catastrophes and their consequences.

He thinks Covid should also sound the death knell for failing bureaucracies, universities “propagating ‘woke’ ideologies”, and tech giants responsible for “famines of truth and plagues of the mind”.

He anticipates change in “childish” media organisations that he believes have wrongly sought to portray the extensive deaths and illnesses from the virus as “all the fault of a few wicked presidents and prime ministers”, instead of from systemic failures.

All this, he argues, might make us stronger by killing off degenerative parts of society, although such optimism together with his overarching conclusion – that life tends to go on “changed but on the whole remarkably, reassuringly boringly the same” after any disaster – is tempered by his assessment of the catastrophes that might hit us next.

These include war with China, genetic engineering that goes wrong, cyber conflict, severe climate change, or even artificial intelligence that turns against humans.

Ferguson concedes, however, that much is uncertain, even when it comes to the long term consequences of the pandemic, and in fact it’s his historical analysis of how disasters occur, rather than his crystal ball gazing, that’s the most interesting part of his book.

He roves from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 to the Black Death of the 14thcentury, through to the two world wars, and on to the sinking of the Titanic, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle a decade before that, to draw out common themes.

One is that human behaviour in the face of danger can be critical in determining the impact of disasters, even natural ones. How many people might be living near an earthquake or how willing they are to alter habits their habits are examples.

That means that network transmission, for instance of plague through trade routes in the past or Covid 19 via travel today, can be as important as the actual virulence of any disease in determining how many it kills, and it’s a mistake to rely on scientific solutions alone.

Advances in transport such as the development of steamships and rail networks spread disease through empires, for example, with Ferguson describing the export of cholera from the Ganges to the rest of the world as “one of the unintended crimes of the British East India Company”.

He points out that the dangers posed by social networks were recognised even in medieval times with the imposition of quarantines and lockdowns: infectious people were forced to stay in their own homes or kept isolated elsewhere.

But there many new insights here, notably that for all the criticisms levelled at Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and others, it’s facile to blame the person at the top for all that goes wrong when usually the real culprit in a catastrophe is a system failure.

He contends that there were plenty of plans for coping with a pandemic in the US when Covid hit, but the failures of government bureaucracies including state administrations have been as responsible for the high death toll as the errors of the former president.

He supports this by asserting that it was only the lower potency of swine flu that allowed Barack Obama to escape a calamity when his administration was unable to stop the disease infecting many millions in the US in 2009 and nothing do with any superior competence in the White House.

Instead, governance in general, Ferguson argues, has got worse, even as state bureaucracies have become bigger with potentially greater capacity to do things. It’s no coincidence that small states such as Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand have done best in the battle against Covid.

Another reality is that disasters are frequently caused by failures in the middle ranks or by “latent” causes such as reduced resources or staffing or organisational or technical changes that create vulnerabilities that eventually go wrong.

Much of Ferguson’s story is told with zest, with extracts from Monty Python, Daniel Defoe and the poetry of John Donne deployed in the course of his arguments, although at other times his text is challenging: “the world we have built has, over time, become an increasingly complex system prone to all kinds of stochastic behaviour, nonlinear relationships and ‘fat-tailed’ distributions”.

Later he writes that “the precise mathematical distinction between power laws and Poisson distributions need not detain us here”.  Some readers will think thank goodness for that.

I also wonder why a book published here by a British historian is presented in Americanese, even if Ferguson does now live in the US. Allen Lane would have done well to have produced an edition properly tailored to a domestic audience.

Its range seems strange at times too, with an analysis of US policy towards China, which Ferguson believes was broadly successful under Trump, at odds with earlier discussions of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

It eventually makes sense when the author concludes that the outcome of “Cold War II” could be military conflict and another catastrophe to fit with his overall theme.

No matter. Each chapter of this thought-provoking book is worth reading for the ideas, perceptiveness and well-told stories of landmark events. The subject might not seem immediately appealing in such bleak times, but readers will find much to relish nonetheless.

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