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Niall Ferguson Examines Disasters of the Past and Disasters Still to Come (Review)

DOOM: 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.


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.

Read entire article at New York Times