As Niall Ferguson acknowledges in his new book, Doom, “a general history of catastrophe” must address three main questions: Why do some societies outperform others? Why do some collapse while others thrive? And what role does politics play in precipitating catastrophe?
To address these questions, Ferguson takes readers on a whirlwind intellectual journey from antiquity to modernity. His overarching theme is that “all disasters are at some level man-made political disasters,” and each of the first eight chapters examines a particular kind of influence on these disasters, such as human psychology, behavioural economics and what he sees as an overly optimistic view of the history of medicine. Then, in the final three chapters, he addresses the challenges and lessons of the current global pandemic (as he saw them at the time of writing, in August 2020), and discusses our handling of the pandemic, its economic implications, and how it has changed the future of American–Chinese relations.
Doom is a beautiful primer for the intellectually curious. For example, Ferguson’s exposition of network theory, in the book’s fourth chapter, “Networld,” explores the phenomenon of what goes viral from the point of view of social science, statistics and physics, and summarises cutting-edge thinking about social networks, such as Stanley Milgram’s small-world experiment (no man is an island), Miller McPherson’s work on homophily (birds of a feather flock together), and Mark Granovetter’s article, “The Strength of Weak Ties”—thus introducing these gems to a broader audience. While some may feel slightly overwhelmed by the amount of information Doom covers, and by some of the technical language in the “Networld” chapter, Ferguson generally has a remarkable ability to describe scholarly research results—across a range of disciplines—in clear language that is accessible to the general reader. “Networld” in particular is a remarkable synthesis.
The same is true of the preceding chapter, “Gray Rhinos, Black Swans, and Dragon Kings,” which makes brief forays into mathematics, geology and seismology. That chapter’s title refers to three metaphors that Ferguson uses to describe his taxonomy of catastrophe. Gray rhinos—threats that are “dangerous, obvious, and highly probable”—are the easiest to predict. Ferguson cites the housing bubble and Great Recession as examples. Black swans (a term coined by Nassim Taleb) are events that may not even be considered possible until they actually occur. Ferguson cites the black-swan level of devastation that World War I and the Covid pandemic inflicted, and shows how our cognitive biases and mental heuristics hindered our ability to accurately predict them. And dragon kings (a term coined by geophysicist Didier Sornette) are events whose catastrophic consequences unfold over the course of several generations. Ferguson’s examples include the sixth-century Justinian Plague and the fourteenth-century Black Plague (the latter, by some estimates, killed more than 30% of the global population).
In these first eight chapters, Ferguson lays a solid foundation in support of his thesis that whether a crisis precipitates a catastrophe depends largely on how well governments respond. “Politics,” Ferguson argues, “explained why World War II killed twenty-five times as many Germans as Americans. Politics explains why COVID-19 has thus far killed eighteen times as many Americans as Germans.” Charles Krauthammer made a similar point about a decade ago: “If we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction … Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history.” It is politics, “in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations,” he writes, which will determine whether humanity sinks or swims.
Ferguson endorses Krauthammer’s view and argues that we are even more susceptible to such bungling today than we were ten years ago because our world has become more complex and interconnected, more bureaucratic, and more vulnerable to communication-network breakdowns, and because elites have become more politically disconnected. Ferguson cites the political response to Hurricane Katrina as an example of how everyday governmental practices unwittingly contribute to unpreparedness and thus to disaster. In support, he offers this excerpt from the report of a bipartisan Congressional committee:
Too often during the immediate response to Katrina, sparse or conflicting information was used as an excuse for inaction rather than an imperative to step in and fill an obvious vacuum. Information passed through the maze of departmental operations centers and … “coordinating” committees, losing timeliness and relevance as it was massaged and interpreted for internal audiences.
As this report suggests, human error and system complexity are the norm, not the exception. Of course, political incompetence (the core theme of Doom’s chapter six) is not in any way unique to America—as we are reminded by events such as the nuclear disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the widespread famines in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
One point that Doom leaves unclear is whether disasters tend to be precipitated more often by the mistakes of mid-level administrators, or those of totalitarian leaders. On the one hand, Ferguson argues that “most disasters occur when a complex system goes critical, usually as a result of some small perturbation.” On the other hand, elsewhere in the book, he emphasises how often disasters are caused by totalitarian leaders’ tendency to distort their citizens’ view of reality, and by the human proclivity to follow the herd. In his conclusion, he focuses on extending his argument about organizational inefficiency and incompetence. He could have provided more nuance by summarising and comparing the contribution of all the causes his book explores. While Doom demonstrates Ferguson’s points convincingly, it also reveals that there is more left to be explained.
In the last three chapters of Doom, which focus on current events, Ferguson explores how the ideas he has marshalled may help us understand our current crises. For example, he muses that the Covid pandemic “began as a gray rhino, predicted by many. It struck as a black swan, somehow completely unforeseen. Could it become a dragon king?” And, in the final chapter, he discusses the reshuffling of global power in the wake of the pandemic and the future of Chinese–American relations. He cites a Pew survey indicating that the American view of China as a peer-competitor has become a more bipartisan concern, and suggests that the pandemic has made the idea that Americans are in a second Cold War—this time with China—more salient.
According to Ferguson, the shape of the post-pandemic world will depend upon the strength of America’s resolve. Borrowing another Taleb concept, he writes that times like the present separate “the fragile from the resilient and the antifragile.” With a nod to Nietzsche’s famous assertion, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” Ferguson asks readers to contemplate what the nature and severity of the next disaster might be, but acknowledges that it is unpredictable: “Much that lies ahead will follow the ancient, perennial rules of human history … [which] tell us to expect the great punctuation marks of disaster in no predictable order. The four horsemen of the Book of Revelation—Conquest, War, Famine, and the pale rider Death—gallop out at seemingly random intervals to remind us that no amount of technological innovation can make mankind invulnerable.” For those who have yet to fully absorb this lesson and its implications, Doom is a good place to start.