The Politics of Catastrophe
By Niall Ferguson
Writing about the past, like every human endeavor, has a history, with its own traditions, fads and shifts in scope and method. It was once common for historians to think big, scanning the decades, centuries and even millenniums for grand patterns and enduring lessons amid the rise and fall of states, empires, economic structures, intellectual systems and world religions.
Today such sweeping ambition is out of fashion among academic historians. Instead of attempting to make sense of the big picture by examining the elite layer of societies over long stretches of time, most of our professional historians tend to focus more narrowly and then dive deep, studying a cross-section of a society from top to bottom and advancing broader claims from what they unearth in the excavation.
Niall Ferguson is, in many ways, a historian of the old school. He was trained in the history of business and finance, but over the past two decades his interests have broadened. In a long list of books written mostly for popular audiences, he has tackled (among other topics) the mistaken decisions that led to World War I, the rise and fall of global empires (he regrets their passing), the distinctive advantages of Western civilization and the life of Henry Kissinger. (The admiring first part of a projected two-volume biography appeared in 2015.) Along the way, Ferguson has also produced numerous historical documentaries and written for Bloomberg and other publications. (I edited his columns and features for Newsweek during 2011 and 2012.)
Ferguson’s latest book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe,” aims to place the continuing Covid-19 pandemic in the broadest possible context in order to gain a “proper perspective” on it. That context includes the history of pandemics, but also many other types of disaster, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, famines, wars and numerous catastrophic accidents. The result is a book that hopscotches breezily across continents and centuries while also displaying an impressive command of the latest research in a large number of specialized fields, among them medical history, epidemiology, probability theory, cliodynamics and network theory.
If the book’s vast temporal scope leads it to resemble histories written in earlier times, its drive to pronounce on events in cultures spanning the globe and its heavy reliance on cutting-edge theories makes “Doom” very much a product of our moment. It belongs on the shelf next to recent ambitious and eclectic books by authors like Jared Diamond, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Steven Pinker. What unites these writers is their disregard for traditional disciplinary boundaries and a determination to reach for synoptic knowledge of stupefyingly complex subjects.
The result, in Ferguson’s case, is a book containing some genuine wisdom, but also some perplexing lacunae. One of its concluding lessons for the current pandemic, for example, is that lockdowns, which do great economic damage, should be avoided in favor of more precisely targeted measures, among them the quarantining of superspreaders — people who interact with far more people than most and therefore play an outsize role in spreading disease.
That sounds reasonable. Yet 300 or so pages earlier, in a section of the book’s introduction titled “Confessions of a Superspreader,” Ferguson tells us he “first spoke and wrote publicly about the rising probability of a global pandemic” long before most Western journalists, in late January 2020, while he was in the midst of a round of travel that took him from the United States to Asia, Europe and then back to North America. His travels continued over the following weeks, despite his awareness of the risk and the fact that he was “ill for most of February, with a painful cough I could not shake off.” The globe-trotting finally came to an end on March 15, when Ferguson flew with his wife and two youngest children to Montana, where they would ride out the pandemic in rural isolation.
Since one of the central purposes of the book is to show his readers that “all disasters are at some level man-made,” one might have expected Ferguson to reflect, beyond a cleverly self-deprecating section title, on his own possible role in spreading Covid around the world. This is a book, after all, containing a chapter titled “The Fractal Geometry of Disaster,” about how “nested within a massive event like the collapse of an empire are multiple smaller but similar disasters, each one, at each scale, a microcosm of the whole.” Yet Ferguson’s own arguably irresponsible actions do not inform his analysis in any notable way.
This is probably a function of Ferguson’s preference for highlighting systemic, as opposed to individual, failures. Eschewing great man theories of history, Ferguson treats political leaders as “hubs” within complex networks of information. When those hubs communicate efficiently with one another, the results are good. But when communication breaks down or information is less than accurate, a cascade of failures ensues that makes a disaster far worse. Superspreaders are hubs, too, within social networks, though in their case the more connections they have with others, the worse, since those connections spread disease far and wide. Hence, Ferguson says, the need to build an institutional infrastructure that can disrupt social networks in times of emergency to halt contagion.
Sensible advice. But what guarantees a well-placed information hub (like a government official in charge of public health) will take such advice and act on it? Reading “Doom,” it’s hard to escape the impression that responding intelligently to pandemics depends on people in high office being smart enough to listen to Niall Ferguson so they will do a better job of disrupting the behavior of people like Niall Ferguson.
In Ferguson’s view, our response to the pandemic shows that we’ve mostly fallen short of that exacting standard. The reasons are enumerated throughout the book. Human beings continually misjudge risk. They dismiss the cries of Cassandras warning of impending doom. They stumble in their attempts to organize intelligent responses under pressure. And they spread disinformation (as well as contagion) along social networks, making disasters far worse than they might otherwise be. These are worthwhile points that promise to make a contribution to improving our management of future disasters.
Unfortunately, Ferguson raises doubts about his own judgment by seeming to wave away concerns about climate change — the most widely understood and anticipated catastrophe looming on the horizon. To cite just a few of the disasters likely to spin off from this global calamity in the making: a proliferation of floods, fires, storms and famines; increased numbers of diseases and pandemics; and a sharp rise in temperatures rendering large parts of the globe uninhabitable, an eventuality that could prompt refugee flows on a scale without precedent in human history, destabilizing governments around the world.
Why would Ferguson, in a book primarily about the importance of properly assessing risk, play down these myriad dangers in favor of extended speculation about “Black Swan” and “Dragon King” events that defy efforts at prediction? His bewildering answer is that “we rarely get the disaster we expect, but some other threat most of us are currently ignoring.” That may be so, but prioritizing disasters we can’t anticipate over those we can, and that are in fact already unfolding, is nonetheless perverse. It’s the outlook of a man who prefers the thrill of contemplating catastrophe in the abstract, from stratospheric imaginative heights, to wrestling with the crushing uncertainties and terrible concrete trade-offs facing those serving in positions of public responsibility as we approach a planetary crisis.
It is this spirit of aloofness that gives “Doom” its boyish, winsome energy as it skips along from one historical episode and high-powered theory to the next. But it’s also the source of Ferguson’s unsuitably arch tone as he genially narrates the suffering and deaths of countless millions of souls down through the millenniums.
“Doom” is often insightful, productively provocative and downright brilliant. But it’s also a book very taken with its own polymathic virtuosity. That makes it an exemplary artifact of the culture in which it was written — very smart, but not quite as smart as it thinks it is.