When the whole world locked down in March 2020, however, Ferguson’s lecture gigs were canceled, and he retreated with his wife and two youngest children from their home in Northern California to a refuge in Montana. In that remote writer’s paradise, this scholar of financial history turned best-selling public intellectual and biographer of Henry Kissinger took advantage of all the extra time on his hands to crank out the nearly 400 pages of text in this volume, which with the help of two research assistants he finished by early autumn.
That personal preface is telling, because much of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe” reads like an extended version of one of those high-price talks. (Ferguson’s speaking fee reportedly ranges from $50,000 to $75,000, and it will probably go up after this ever-so-topical book.) If you’ve ever attended a corporate retreat with a “thought leader” speaker, or listened to enough TED talks online, you know the genre. Weaving together historical examples from across centuries and continents, illuminating statistics, intriguing academic research, and a few pop-culture references, these lectures have the effect of making audiences feel instantly smarter, without troubling them with the kind of soul-searching questions that might ruin a good night’s sleep or the conference cocktail party.
In this fluid yet fleeting manner, Ferguson devotes the first third of his book to analyzing dozens of grand explanations for historical calamity, from religious eschatology to Marxist economics to the more modern innovations of “chaos theory” and “cliodynamics,” or the computer-driven attempt to decode historical patterns through massive data crunching. Like a good, Oxford-educated, small “c” conservative, he finds them all interesting but ultimately wanting in their failure to acknowledge historical unpredictability and the limits of human foresight.
In a neat trick of homage and appropriation, Ferguson zeros in on three trendy disaster metaphors in particular, each coined by a lesser-known big thinker. “Black swans,” a term popularized by Lebanese-born scholar Nassim Taleb, are events so rare no one foresees them. “Gray rhinos,” a species identified by consultant Michele Wucker, are big risks that go ignored despite their obviousness. “Dragon kings,” conjured by Swiss “econophysicist” Didier Sornette, are off the charts in size and uniqueness, but also in their capacity to leave social destruction in their wake. All those models are interesting, Ferguson tells us, but no one animal rules the roost. “The history of disasters is a history of a poorly managed zoo full of gray rhinos, black swans, and dragon kings,” he writes, “as well as a great many unfortunate but inconsequential events and an infinity of nonevents.”
In the middle of the book, finally, Ferguson arrives at a tool for analyzing disasters that he does embrace: the study of networks. This is hardly surprising for a scholar who has spent his life writing about financial markets and colonial empires, but it’s especially useful for explaining global health crises. From the Athenian plague first described by Thucydides, to the Black Death of the 14th century, to the bubonic plagues that swept Europe for 400 years, to the flu pandemic of 1918 and the recent outbreak of coronavirus cousins SARS and MERS, the story of pandemics is at heart the story of the societies they prey on — how they are linked and what kind of information they share. As Ferguson puts it: “The history of mankind’s changing susceptibility to infectious diseases tends to be written as a history of pathogens — as one damned microbe after another. . . . [But] it might make as much sense to tell this history as the story of our evolving social networks.”
Although this history of plagues is insightful, Ferguson’s discussion of the coronavirus itself is unsatisfying — mostly because it’s not yet history. Concluding his narrative in the fall of 2020, Ferguson predicts that the coronavirus will probably be remembered not in the same league with the 1918 flu but rather with the “Asian flu” of 1957, which was seen as a huge crisis at the time but is largely forgotten 60 years later. But that assessment came before several new twists that are still shaping the pandemic’s trajectory: the rise of scary new variants, the rollout of vaccines and the still-unknown degrees of global vaccine compliance and durability. A chapter on “The Economic Consequences of the Plague” concludes with this sentence: “And what the fourth quarter of 2020 would bring — medically, economically, and politically — was indeed anybody’s guess.” How could that outdated dodge have made it into a book scheduled for publication in May 2021?
Despite the pose of scholarly detachment that characterizes most of the book, Ferguson also betrays several striking biases in his closing chapters. One is his hawkishness toward Beijing and its coolly authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping. Adding a warning about the insidious threat of the popular Chinese video app TikTok to his condemnation of Beijing’s early coverup of the coronavirus outbreak, Ferguson argues that this is no time to let up on America’s undeclared “Cold War II” with China. “It is not up to us whether or not we have a cold war with China,” he concludes ominously. “The question that lingers — and the best argument in favor of Cold War — is whether or not we can avoid stumbling into a hot war in that darkness. If we do stumble into such a war, the outcome could be a disaster far greater in its impact than even the worst-case scenario for COVID-19.”
Ferguson’s other bias is betrayed by omission. Although he makes several astonished references to the boom in U.S. stocks in the midst of the pandemic, he has virtually nothing to say about how those gains and the uneven distribution of pandemic-related job losses have widened America’s already yawning wealth gap. According to the Federal Reserve, more than a third of the $11 trillion in new wealth created in 2020 went to the nation’s richest 1 percent, while another third went to the next 9 percent. In net worth, the “one percenters” now average $30 million, with a minimum of $4.4 million, while the bottom half of American households are worth a mere $39,000.
History also offers many examples of the social and economic havoc that can result from such maddening inequality, but those stories may not go over so well with the well-heeled audiences that await Ferguson back on the speaking circuit. Safely vaccinated and wealthier than ever, they’d rather not picture that gray rhino.
The Politics of Catastrophe
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press. 472 pp. $30