Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson, is a densely researched book, however, at times the background information feels more like peripheral information than informed understanding of the subject matter: an analysis of catastrophes and their consequences. Ultimately his positivity suggests we will survive, somehow.
The context of “doom” – The Politics of Catastrophe – in the title is a relative one about the pandemic, which comes in late in the book. The pandemic is covered more as a contemporary journalistic account that has not yet ended – so more of a diary than analysis.
He does to try to be more contemporary with quotes from the likes of Monty Python, and Liu Cixin which has inspired me to read the Three Body Problem. He is more insightful with his application of theories such as how network transmission has changed over time, from the bubonic plague, through the Spanish flu, to today’s COVID-19. For instance, how cholera travelled from the Ganges around the world via transport through the British East India Company.
Ferguson seeks to weave together natural events like plagues. Quarantine with plagues is are nothing new as history shows – it is how they are used that matters. He adds another theory- the cassandra effect – and how epidemiologists tend to worst case scenarios,because the costs of overestimating are much less devastating than those of underestimating.
There is no questioning the research behind it which at times is more encyclopaedic than entirely necessary. The analysis is wide ranging including volcanoes and man made disasters such as Chernobyl. The detail can feel a little list driven.
It’s a hard task to collate it into something insightful and Ferguson comes up with “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.
Where do we go from here?
It takes until towards the end of the book that we reach COVID-19 and Ferguson speculates the longer term possible outcome. Forecasting is a dangerous thing and Ferguson is no more gifted than the next academic.
Could it see off failing administrations (who to blame – the leader or the system?) – I can see this happening if governments are shown to have mismanaged the impact of the pandemic. The UK administration has been held up as an example of having emergency planning that were incompetent in operation. Ferguson is right to point out how administrations have become more bloated yet also more inefficient.
As for “propagating ‘woke’ ideologies”, and the demise of tech giants this is more tenuous as countries such as USA and UK are still grappling with economic blight. As the saying goes disease makes you stronger, and Niall Ferguson takes an overly optimistic view that the best bits will survive – I speculate the tech giants are also reshaping to survive (like a virus).
On more speculative ground Niall Ferguson contemplates the growing cold war with China (where it is speculated the pandemic began), the misuse of artificial intelligence, and worsening climate change. However, even he himself knows it is too early to speculate on the longer term impact of the pandemic. But Niall Ferguson’s optimism about our ability to survive pandemics is summed up with how life has “changed but on the whole remarkably, reassuringly boringly the same.”
Although wide-ranging and overly encyclopedic it is thought-provoking and insightful. Whilst this is no academic proposal for a model to manage catastrophes there is much to learn from history, although these are scattered across the book. Ferguson ends by wondering if the West has no choice but to enter into a cold war with a belligerent China – is this the next chapter of “doom”?