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he overwhelms his readers in mortality figures, infection rates, policy measures and central bank actions that were outdated when he wrote about them in the fall of 2020 – and bordering on irrelevant for the reader in 2021.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 cy
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