Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

May 4, 2021
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

"All disasters are in some sense man-made."Setting the annus horribilis of 2020 in historical perspective,Niall Ferguson explains why we are getting worse, not better, athandling disasters.Disasters are inherently hard to predict. Pandemics, likeearthquakes, wildfires, financial crises. and wars, are notnormally distributed; there is no cycle of history to help usanticipate the next catastrophe. But when disaster strikes, weought to be better prepared than the Romans were when Vesuviuserupted, or medieval Italians when the Black Death struck. We havescience on our side, after all.Yet in 2020 the responses of many developed countries, includingthe United States, to a new virus from China were badly bungled.Why? Why did only a few Asian countries learn the right lessonsfrom SARS and MERS? While populist leaders certainly performedpoorly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Niall Ferguson arguesthat more profound pathologies were at work--pathologies alreadyvisible in our responses to earlier disasters.In books going back nearly twenty years, including Colossus, TheGreat Degeneration, and The Square and the Tower, Ferguson hasstudied the foibles of modern America, from imperial hubris tobureaucratic sclerosis and online fragmentation.Drawing from multiple disciplines, including economics,cliodynamics, and network science, Doom offers not just a historybut a general theory of disasters, showing why our ever morebureaucratic and complex systems are getting worse at handingthem.Doom is the lesson of history that this country--indeed the Westas a whole--urgently needs to learn, if we want to handle the nextcrisis better, and to avoid the ultimate doom of irreversibledecline.