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Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

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“All disasters are in some sense man-made. Why are we getting worse, not better, at handling catastrophes?” asks Niall Ferguson  author of ‘Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe’. 

You might not want to read about MORE disaster in the current climate, but this is a very interesting book at Ferguson makes clear early on, is not about pandemics but “a general history of catastrophe - of all kinds of disasters from the geological to the geopolitical, biological to the technological.”

Written before the vaccine became available in early September 2020, the author’s central point is “that all disasters are at some level man-made political disasters” and that disasters become epoch-making events “only if their economic, social and political ramifications amount to more than the excess mortality they cause.

Asking what disaster will come to us next, he looks to fictional distortion worlds, and reminds us that the four horsemen of the apocalypse (conquest, war, famine & death) “gallop out at seemingly random intervals to remind us that no amount of technological innovation can make mankind invulnerable.”

Penguin Random House
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As ever with Ferguson this is an erudite and learned book which links politics, history and socio-economic development in a very readable way.  Whilst long and time-consuming to read it is also thought-provoking in the very best ways.  Written during the Covid pandemic it is a timely reminder of our mortality and also realistic!
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An exploration of disasters, yes, but more importantly an exploration of just how and why our governments so often fail to protect us from them. Ferguson does a great job of examining more than why disasters happen as why we continue to refuse to believe they might happen to us.
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Niall Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, shows us through a tapestry of disasters just how entwined we are with our volatile environment, and serves us a biting and inconvenient thesis: that many disasters, even those dubbed “natural,” are to some extent the result of human error. “It is tempting but misleading,” Ferguson writes, “to divide disasters into natural and man-made … a natural disaster is a disaster in terms of human lives lost only to the extent of its direct or indirect impact on human settlements.” Disasters, in other words, are disasters not simply because they occur, but because of whom they affect, because they strike and destabilize systems.
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“We are all doomed.” That’s basically how Niall Ferguson starts the first chapter of his latest book to emphasise the inevitability of death. As suggested by the four horsemen of the Book of Revelation—Conquest, War, Famine, and the pale rider Death—, it looks highly unlikely that disasters could be predicted and much less avoided. According to Ferguson, in every disaster, there will always be a Cassandra figure who prophesied the upcoming catastrophe, much as the real Cassandra warned the people of Troy about the attack of the Greek warriors who were hiding in the Trojan Horse while they were celebrating their victory over the Greeks with feasting. However, her warnings were disregarded by her people. In 2015, Bill Gates took the role of Cassandra in telling us that we are not ready for the next epidemic after his lessons in handling the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In this sense, it is a kinda unique proposition that many of the Cassandra figures will be largely ignored due to the inability of the common people to comprehend the warnings prior to the disasters.

Much of this book draws heavily on the previous work of the author, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (2017) which highlights the importance of networks to understand historical events. And as in his previous book, I find that this latest book by Ferguson also lacks focus. It’s as though he wants to explain from A to Z about the history of catastrophes and the political events that accompanied them. His central idea is every disaster whether they are man-made (war and famine) or natural (earthquake, flood, volcano eruption, plague), is essentially at some level man-made political disasters (p. 381). There is a detailed explanation on why the United States as a country that used to be a leader in overcoming the 1957-1958 influenza pandemic from limiting the contagion into developing the vaccines, ended up with ineffective mitigation measures to COVID-19 pandemic. Much blame has been attributed to President Trump’s dismissive attitude, but there’s much more to discover through Ferguson’s analysis in this book.

According to Ferguson, it is important to understand the concept of networks to overcome the outbreak of COVID-19. His research has shown that in every epidemic case in the past, there is always the role of superspreaders—people who were not aware that they were infected by the virus and ended up infecting other people who are within their networks. In this sense, the superspreaders are within the highest degree of centrality in their networks, and it got much worse with the way our globalisation support the network further. It deconstructs the complexities of our networks and how fragile it is to take down a complex system by only taking small factors to disrupt it. It is interesting to see how his theory of network could be applied to analyse the shortcomings in COVID-19 mitigation strategies and why most developed countries turned out to mishandle the pandemic more than some of their developing counterparts.

Even so, much of the contents in this book remains speculation. For the analysis on COVID-19 pandemic parts, the literature that Ferguson used are derived heavily from news and the latest trends. It remains uncertain what the future of the post-COVID-19 pandemic looks like, even though some of the predictions that the author offers does ring true. It looks to me that this book is research that is hastily carried out to fit the momentum of the COVID-19 pandemic. It hardly offers something new in terms of mitigation strategies, besides the actuality of the case being discussed in it. If I were Ferguson, I would opt to wait at least a few more years before trying to put up a discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic to gain a better picture of what lays ahead. I am in the opinion that this is a working book, which might need further revision to meet the real conditions of what will really happen during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, otherwise, it will be dismissive of some important factual events.

And finally, as Ferguson has said at his conclusion, we might get some better understanding of what awaits us in the future by turning to the works of science fiction. In the words of Paul Samuelson, declines in US stock prices have correctly predicted nine of the last five American recessions, but science fiction has correctly predicted nine of the last five technological breakthroughs (p. 395). There is an element of freedom of expression in science fiction that it’s not constrained by traditional fictional boundaries. In 1981, Dean Koontz wrote in his novel The Eyes of Darkness with the setting of a world devastated by a man-made virus called Wuhan-400 since the virus was developed at RDNA labs outside the city of Wuhan (too much of coincidence with the city where COVID-19 was originated!). Albeit, the Wuhan-400 in Dean Koontz reality has a 100% fatality rate, which is different from COVID-19 which discriminately favours older people and spare the youngsters. Overall, I would recommend Ferguson’s latest book for his thorough references more than his analysis.
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Given China’s totalitarian government has a record for duplicity surrounding an epidemic (2002-03), some commentators were dubious of statements peddled by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials during the current pandemic. Niall Ferguson, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, was one who noted an inflammatory (re)tweet by the Deputy Director-General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department – alleging US military involvement in introducing COVID-19 (the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2) to Wuhan in October 2019 – was something more befitting the salacious tabloid ‘National Enquirer’ than a quality newspaper. 

The virality of disinformation is something Ferguson touches upon in his previous book, The Square and the Tower, wherein he discusses how integrated our planet is. The historian’s foray into the field of network science has instilled in him a novel way to think about contemporary problems, the most pressing of which he foresaw (warning readers of The Sunday Times on 26 January 2020 to ‘brace [themselves] for a coronavirus pandemic’): a contagion that would spread fast and far given the network structure of our interconnected world. A self-styled doom-monger with a decades-long itch to call a book ‘Doom’, it’s unsurprising that Ferguson’s 16th outing is called Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, especially since – through regular columns – he’s diarised his plague half year à la Samuel Pepys.

The seventeenth-century naval administrator had lived through the peak of the Great Plague (1665-66), a descendant of the Black Death (1348), the causative bacterium of which – Yersinia pestis – is said to have originated on the border area of China. The flea- and louse-transmitted disease spread through Eurasia courtesy of the Silk Road, whose routes and rivers became the plague’s deadly highways. Ever inclined to link the present with the past, Ferguson asserts ‘There was nothing surprising about its [COVID-19] location of origin. As we have seen, a significant number of history’s pandemics have originated in Asia, and especially in China.’ He is critical of China’s handling of the crisis, rightly so, yet it’d be erroneous to label him a Sinophobe: unlike xenophobes who look upon Chinese expats as “outsiders” presently across the globe, Ferguson takes aim at CCP insiders, lambasting apparatchiks for the delay in disclosing that there was human-to-human transmission. (Ferguson similarly excoriates the World Health Organisation Director-General, a China-endorsed sycophant, and overreach of Western governments.)

Ferguson’s television series, China: Triumph and Turmoil (2012), is a must-watch for non-Sinologists since it illuminates the leadership’s perennial fear of luan, or chaos, and the reason why – to maintain stability, the political mantra since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 – a social media blackout was initiated by officials in Wuhan prior to superiors in Beijing providing a preview of a digital dark age. The subtitle notwithstanding – ‘The Politics of Catastrophe’ – Ferguson only skims the surface of Chinese politics, noting a similarity between the misinformation propagated by the state-run media in the PRC with that of the USSR in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He does, though, dive deeper into the political reactions in the US. To say President Trump mishandled the response is incontrovertible, as Ferguson affirms, for his uncharacteristic use of meiosis undermined public health officials, inexcusably leading to the politicisation of what was hitherto apolitical: mask wearing. More controversial is Ferguson’s appraisal of the China travel ban (‘came too late and was too full of holes […] to be effective’) or that personnel at the federal (Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control) and state level (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo) were more responsible, the latter point undergirding his central premise and overriding message: that readers should concentrate less on the “Great Man” – “Big Beast” – school of history and more on the structures of power to precisely assess disasters and catastrophes.

The Challenger space shuttle is a case in point because it was mid-level NASA bureaucrats, desperate to avoid budget-endangering delays, who were the crucial variable in the 1986 disaster. It was they – not President Reagan (rumoured to have desired a launch before the State of the Union Address) or the head of NASA (who was unaware of erosion to the O-ring seal on solid rocket boosters) – who disregarded the recommendation of contractor Morton Thiokol not to launch when the temperature was as low as it was on 28 January. The failure of O-ring seals was well documented, having compromised earlier flights, a fact which leads New York Times columnist David E. Sanger to declare (in the recent Netflix series Challenger: The Final Flight) that the disaster wasn’t an accident but essentially a case of ‘manslaughter’. By applying Ferguson’s ‘Menagerie of Catastrophe’, as laid out in Chapter Three, the Challenger disaster could be classified as a ‘gray rhino’, meaning something ‘eminently predictable’, as opposed to a ‘black swan’ (‘hugely surprising’) or ‘dragon king’ (epoch-making). Ferguson doesn’t delve into a verdict here, nor does he when discussing Titanic (1912), Hindenburg (1937), the Tenerife runway crash (1977), Three Mile Island accident (1979) or Chernobyl (1986), but the catastrophe postmortems comprising Chapter Eight – while proffering little new insight – help uncover a common feature: cost. (He does categorise COVID-19 as a ‘gray rhino’ event, which, irrespective of leaders reacting as though it was a ‘black swan’, won’t metastasise into a ‘dragon king’.)

The only exception to the Great Man theory, what Ferguson coins ‘Tolstoy’s Napoleon fallacy’, would be the genocidal famines in Soviet Ukraine (1932-33) and China (1958-62), for they were manufactured by Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong respectively. The same charge cannot be levelled at Winston Churchill in regards the Bengal Famine (1942-43), Ferguson contends in Chapter Six, given the culpability of colonial administrators and Bengali politicians/speculators. Evidence to support this is weakly presented (though stronger by omitting explicit reference that Churchill’s scorched earth policy – enacted to halt the Japanese advance – contributed toward a man-made famine), yet the argument that ‘politics largely explains famines’ (given elected officials’ accountability for maintaining supply of affordable food) is not without merit, leading the author to pose a thought-provoking question: ‘If famines can be successfully avoided, or at least mitigated, when governments are more accountable, why is the same not true of earthquakes, floods, wildfires, or pandemics?’ The answers are far from clear, unlike Ferguson’s characteristic prose, and less discernible because of his uncharacteristic sacrificing of depth for breadth when escorting readers from the five forms of ‘political malpractice in the field of disaster preparedness’ via power-law distributions to the ‘false dichotomy’ between natural and man-made disasters. 

Ferguson has written about infectious diseases before, specifically in The Pity of War (albeit fleetingly when detailing the collapse of General Ludendorff’s army in 1918 and the potential role played by “Spanish” influenza), Empire (which contains a chapter headed ‘White Plague’: not simply a metaphor for the Britannic exodus to imperial outposts given ‘white men [carried] fatal germs’) and Civilization (where, in a chapter entitled ‘Medicine’, the ‘fourth killer application of Western civilization’ is laid out), so it’s unsurprising that Doom is preoccupied with the pandemic: explicitly in Chapters Nine and Ten, covering epidemiology and economics, correspondingly a history from infection to near injection and a cost-benefit analysis of lockdown(s), the latter of which is undoubtedly firmer ground for the financial historian, yet this reviewer is less doubtful of the necessity (and efficacy) of lockdowns (given the number of “Covidiots” flouting social-distancing measures); but also implicitly in Chapter One, where the lethality of pathogens are compared with organised violence across Millennia; Four, which illustrates that human susceptibility to zoonotic diseases lies in increased proximity to nature and mobility (captivating yet not copper-bottomed thesis); Five, wherein readers are transported from the “Columbian Exchange” to the Nazis’ use of ‘biological metaphors to characterise’ enemies; and Seven, which shines much-needed light on the “Asian” flu pandemic of 1957-58, the comparator which Ferguson employs to contextualise today’s pandemic. Readers of William H. McNeill and Jared Diamond will be versed in some of this history.

Despite the ample coverage afforded to COVID-19, Ferguson (unlike his near namesake Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London) is no epidemiologist; for an EPI 101, refer to Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (2020) by public health expert Nicholas A. Christakis. Similarly, notwithstanding a sketch of the Cassandra syndrome, Ferguson doesn’t seek to prophesise about events of profound consequence (merely reiterating the warning in The Great Degeneration that future pandemics will cause substantial excess mortality); for those interested in past and prospective prophets, consult Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes (2017), co-authored by Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy. Conversely, Ferguson’s general history of disaster reminds us that since we don’t ‘know which of all the possible future disasters will strike and when[, a]ll we can do is learn from history how to construct social and political structures that are at least resilient and at best antifragile’. Three of the most antifragile states – due to existential threats that each face, Ferguson posits – are Israel, Taiwan and South Korea, three countries who best met the threat posed by COVID-19.

Ferguson cannot be criticised for a lack of archival research since Doom was written in the confines of his rural retreat, to where he’s sought sanctuary since the outbreak, yet this fact won’t appease historians opposed to applied history. Many may be put off with his dismissal of the cyclical theory of history, though readers who purchase a copy will find that the logophile’s penchant for charts and graphs (16), analogies and cultural – especially literary – references render the c.400-page book (excluding fifty-seven-page bibliography) a page turner. Chapter Eleven feels rushed, with only material pertaining to the fall of ‘Chimerica’ (the economic symbiosis between China and America) and rise of ‘Cold War II’ (exacerbated by COVID-19) redeeming features in an otherwise seemingly superfluous overview of post-Cold War US foreign policy (which bypasses, conveniently, critics would suggest, his support for the Iraq War). An online spat with Daniel A. Bell, ultimately leading to a correction in The Sunday Times (concerning regular flights from Wuhan after 23 January), has saved the publisher a rewrite. Reference to the works of Andrew J. Tatem and Monica H. Green, on COVID-19 spread during travel and the origins of the Black Death respectively, as well as familiarisation with the forthcoming volume edited by Christos Lynteris, won’t depreciate the quality of a paperback requiring a preface chronicling the deadlier second and third waves and arms race – literally – for a vaccine.   

Doom prunes the rich garden of Ferguson’s work, almost to the bark of their branches, meaning particularly avid readers gain little new insight (with even his contingent philosophy of history, first enunciated in Virtual History, finding space), potentially disappointing those who salivate mentally at the release of a new title. Doom is predominantly a contemporary history of COVID-19, and thereby as current/live a book as The Ascent of Money was (which made economics intelligible to the innumerate during the global financial crisis of 2007-08), meaning it’ll remain fresh – assisted by a viewpoint on the rise and decline of China and America that’s far from stale – as we plough through China’s Year of the Ox into what will, hopefully, be a world free of the pandemic, not one where the disease becomes endemic. Each of Ferguson’s books act as an inoculation against the epidemic of historical ignorance (some more effective than others, like Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines, of which the corresponding texts are The House of Rothschild – his nonpareil history of the banking dynasty – and, alas, Doom), providing antibodies even to those who disagree with his contrarianism by compelling them to read around the subject: the un-cited Politics of Catastrophe: Genealogies of the Unknown (2011) being the principal study, in this instance, for it provides a panorama rather than mosaic of catastrophe which yields more clarity.

Directed at the lay reader as opposed to the practitioner, Doom is a laudable synthesis of secondary sources spanning multiple disciplines – public health, network science, cliodynamics – by arguably the most networked historian on the planet. Booksellers are advised not to understock.
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My thanks to the publisher for an advanced review copy of this book, which certainly covers a very broad canvas of disastrous events, natural, man made and both natural and man made over the millennia. My first reaction is to wonder, like Daniel Defoe, how ‘yet I alive’.

To be sure there are stories here to ponder and probably much of the narrative has truth in it somewhere or even it may be mostly right in some places. The Archbishop of Canterbury is rightly castigated for being amongst those who describe current events as ‘unprecedented’. He hasn’t had a good pandemic. 

It is reasonably obvious too that the mortality caused by a pandemic will reflect the social and political order it is attacking. I expect it is true that the biggest disasters in human history have been pandemics and wars and that Asia has suffered more disasters on a grander scale than anywhere else.

The trouble is that wherever an event is covered about which the reader has some knowledge, the book is not right. 

The Bangladesh famine of 1974, for example, was not ‘closely associated with dictatorship, civil war of state failure’. To be sure, less rice than usual was harvested in the years following the liberation war which Bengalis had fought to liberate themselves from Pakistan. But the proximate cause of famine was the reneging by the US on the treaty they had signed to provide wheat for import. This was a deliberate attempt by America to destabilise the government of Bangladesh’s first independent leader, Sheikh Mujib. Happily, Bangladesh survived this sabotage and celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

It is, in fact, on the topic of famines that the author gets into his stride on his barmy right wing fringe agenda. The Victorian liberal hand washing over the Irish potato famine is somehow not as reprehensible as Stalin’s treatment of the kulaks, who were, after all, certainly a counter revolutionary force. But then anything done by the Soviets or the the Chinese is by definition mendacious for this author, who equates socialism with fascism. He is known for being an apologist for empire, so it’s no surprise that Churchill can be excused for his wilful neglect of the 1943 Bengal famine because some local elites were corrupt. I don’t think so.

In terms of our current predicament, it just isn’t credible to hark back to some halcyon era of flu in 1957, where small but competent government and a great scientist save the day with a vaccine and managed herd immunity fortified by the  assistance of god fearing families of citizens. And in fact, events have proved the author wrong already. Successful vaccines against COVID 19 have been developed by the dedicated, single minded efforts of wonderful scientists, well able to work with both public and private enterprises. If the author is right in thinking rumours of America’s demise are exaggerated, it will be because of people like the Turkish immigrant couple who developed the Pfizer vaccine.

This is cod pop history at its worst, dressed up as intellectual enquiry by a fake polymath, who is apparently perpetually hobnobbing with big names across the world, who should have better things to do and probably have been doing them. Maybe this sort of fake history goes down well in America. It doesn’t with me.
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A bit macabre, a bit dismissive, Niall Ferguson's upcoming history of catastrophe alternates between fascinating and a little too disconnected from reality, where frontline workers have boots on the ground. Essentially, everything but the sections actually dealing with COVID are excellent, well-realized, and highly interesting accounts of different disasters, the context in which they became all too possible, and the series of actors that played important roles, big and small. Meanwhile, the COVID insights (outside the scientific) are already too outdated and, as a result, too callous to be taken as seriously as I suspect the author would wish. Oh well. The final chapters, focusing on China and the role sci-fi has in predicting future disasters, more than made up for the slouching middle.
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This book studies the role of complexity in human social and political affairs and argues that civilisations need to identify out the key threats and focus on responding to them flexibly and resiliently. He considers the kinds of events that have disrupted human cultures and those that currently face us. His conclusion is that the current COVID crisis is revealing how un-flexible and un-resilient we are proving.

The author acknowledges that this is an updating of Arnold Toynbee’s message in his massive A Study of History (1939-61).  Part of the updating comes from Ferguson’s emphasis on complexity as minimising the role played by political leaders - which he calls the ‘Napoleon fallacy’ after Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ showed just how little control Napoleon had over his disastrous 1812 invasion of Moscow. Between Napoleon’s strategy and the facts on the ground there were too many intervening factors and events. The lesson, later drawn out at length, is that we obsess over Trump and other leaders, when in fact it is the ‘middle management’ who tend to bodge things. We need stronger institutions and more rational public behaviour.

COVID is a key focus in the middle of the book and, in a fascinating section, he compares our responses to the American response to the ‘Asian Flu’ pandemic in 1957-8. Back then there was lots of ‘non-pharmaceutical’ interventions like social distancing, and contact tracing, but no lockdowns, which are proving financially disastrous. So, back in 1957-8, recovery was quicker and we barely remember the pandemic at all. I liked his study of Maurice Hilleman, who found the vaccine, and Ferguson’s demonstration that it was the prior development of good international institutions, information sharing, and national red-tape cutting, clear leadership, and public accountability that made Hilleman's work become so effective, so quickly.

Not so our current responses to COVID in which Ferguson sees the marks of a declining quality of public leadership (over decades, leading to populist dismissal of science, information, and experts). We need a bit more authoritarian public ethos, but we need to avoid the top-down surveillance state that is unaccountable to its voters and thus dismissive of individual liberty. Toward the end of the book China emerges as an authoritarian country with designs on our freedoms. We are warned to see China as a viable threat that requires our preparedness. he breaks his earlier Tolstoy rule here and manages to identify Xi Jinping (and his post-2017 advisor Huning) as the one to watch.

Like other popular historians/sociologists (Fukuyama, Picketty) Ferguson uses statistical analysis to develop and support his arguments, which always aim to test and challenge received opinion. He has detailed mastery of a number of relevant subjects and writes well, and is happy to be polemic/controversial. He most resembles Fukuyama in his work to distinguish and champion a right-wing perspective that is separated from free from neoliberal and populist extremes. He knows he is writing about COVID in the midst of events and these events seem to have outrun him. But, the book’s argument really aims at wider objectives and deeper principles. I disagreed with much in the book, but also learned a lot from it.
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