Review: Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Niall Ferguson, the celebrated British historian now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution has spouted his own version of that age-old riddle. In Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the prolific author sets out to undermine the distinction between natural disasters and man-made catastrophes. “All disasters”, he writes towards the end of this 400-page odyssey of present and historical catastrophes, “are at some level man-made political disasters.”

The good news is that Ferguson’s latest isn’t a history of covid, at least not entirely (he freely admits that it’s much too early to write one). Still, the pandemic makes an appearance in almost every chapter, and a few chapters towards the end are fully devoted to it. Falling into precisely the trap outlined for historians prematurely writing the history of the present, he overwhelms his readers in mortality figures, infection rates, policy measures and central bank actions that were outdated when he wrote about them in the fall of 2020 – and bordering on irrelevant for the reader in 2021.

The really bad news is that, well, it’s not clear what Doom’s message is supposed to be: on the last page I’m as confused as I was halfway through. Ferguson’s earlier books have been everything from brilliant to controversial, though always clearly and systematically argued: the institutions that made us rich are decaying (Great Degeneration); the British colonial reign had benefits in addition to its much-publicized horrors (Empire); the “killer-apps” of the West (Civilization); the history of finance and banking (The Ascent of Money). In Doom, we get network science as it applies to infectious diseases; nuclear meltdowns and crashes, from the Titantic and Hindenberg to the Tenerife airport disaster; an excellent rebuttal of historic-cycle theories from Ray Dalio’s debt cycle to Strauss-Howe’s recently revived Fourth Turning; and a very Nassim Taleb-esque description of pandemics that, like earthquakes, follow power-law distributions rather than the more intuitive normal distributions. We also get China and plenty of warnings about a Cold War II, a summary of dystopian science fiction literatures, Medieval quarantines, and a history of medical advances.

It’s both commonsensical and underappreciated that no event of the world becomes a disaster until it greatly affects human wellbeing – the tree in the forest – and no man-made disaster is inseparable from the natural world. This is a welcome reminder, especially to our environmental friends worrying about future natural disasters, but not new or particularly noteworthy. It’s also not clear what it gets us: yes, we may not be the supreme masters of our own fate, but surely we always knew that outcomes were determined in part by how we respond to them – privately and politically?

“You never get the same disaster twice in a row”, Ferguson explained in a lecture on the book from September last year, “you’re always fighting the last disaster more generally.” Again, kicking in open doors, professor. We get political leaders and bureaucracies pursuing a pattern of repeating what seemed to have worked from the last disaster, whether or not that was appropriate for this one. “Bad historians”, explains Ferguson, “tell the story of the First World War like you know who’s gonna win and you know it’s gonna last 4 and a quarter year, but no contemporary had any inkling!”

Despite the wonderfully titled chapter 8 (‘The Fractal Geometry of Disaster’), I’m not so sure Ferguson shows that the relation between small and large disasters mimic the internal structure of lightning bolts or algae or snowflakes. A fractal pattern of disasters would also cast doubt on the main candidate for Doom’s major message: that catastrophes become catastrophes only when we botch our responses. While it’s hard to argue with “Most disasters occur when a complex system goes critical, usually as a result of some small perturbation”, again, arguing butterfly effects seems to undermine the idea that it’s our own responses to disasters that decide our fates.

For the rest of that chapter he identifies some common attributes of events gone bad, taken from psychologist James Reason: active and latent errors. Active errors are human beings making poor decisions, from incompetence to bad incentives or exhaustion. Latent errors are “background conditions”, like resource allocations or organizational structures. How do these categories help us understand catastrophes? They don’t, as Ferguson merely concludes that both matter for the outcome of disasters. Great. 

Chapter 10, on the economic consequences of the plaque, are smack full of weekly death rate, excess mortality numbers, and poll data for spring 2020, with very little discussion of economic impacts. As we later learned, and many then predicted, the “success stories” of early pandemic merely shifted the worst of the shocks into the future. Some celebrated success stories then – say, Hungary or Germany – don’t look so successful anymore.

So, what is Doom about? I’m not sure. Everything, one is tempted to say, and yet nothing. Judging from how often Ferguson cites Nick Bostrom and Milan ?ircovi?’s book Global Catastrophic Risks from a decade ago, we could call Doom a popularized version of that dense and technical handbook of professionally imagined existential risks.

Still, the writing is superb, the stories interesting and the meta-discussions about asymmetric distributions and backward-looking historians are great. Ferguson concludes that black swans rarely “turn life upside down”. “Mostly, for the lucky many, life after the disaster goes on, changed in a few ways but on the whole remarkably, reassuringly, boringly the same.”

That seems like catching the zeitgeist of the moment. If nothing else, Doom provides us with the confirmation bias of what we want 2021 to be like. Perhaps that’s Doom’s most important contribution. 

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