History, Review, Top Stories

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe—A Review

A review of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson. Allen Lane, 496 pages (May 2021)

Viewed from a certain angle, history appears to be the legacy of our errors—the record of humanity risking too much and anticipating too little, getting things wrong and getting them wrong all over again. If there is a fatal flaw (in a Greek sense) that underwrites our experience of history and gives it a tragic aspect, it is—to appropriate a phrase from Kierkegaard—that we are doomed to live it forwards and understand it backwards. In his novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth called this “the relentless unforeseen,” the treadmill of the unknowable on which we are forever running.

Roth’s novel—in which the isolationist celebrity Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and signs a peace treaty with Imperial Japan and the Third Reich—inverts our conception of catastrophe: America avoids the disasters of Pearl Harbor and the Second World War, but inherits other kinds, as the country finds itself insidiously neutral towards Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism festers, reeducation camps are created for Jewish kids, and nights of broken glass spread through US cities. To us, a story like this is safely contained in the imagination, where we feel it properly belongs. That Roosevelt would win the 1940 election and that the Nazis would be defeated seems to us a foregone conclusion. With enough time, what was once unexpected becomes inevitable. This is the narrative fallacy of history. This is history understood backwards.

Indeed, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, many Germans, like Hannah Arendt, noted its resonant unreality, the profound sense of living in an ersatz world. For some, the same acute incredulity accompanied the financial crash in 2008, the Brexit referendum in 2015, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. And in the spring of 2020, as a novel pathogen from China arrived in Europe and the Americas, many, like Bernie Sanders, took to saying that “never in [his] lifetime” did he think he would see anything like this. Why not? It is strange indeed that as much as we can imagine catastrophes (a reliable business for bookstores and box offices) we rarely seem to be able to imagine them actually happening. This is the narrative fallacy applied in the other direction. This is history lived forwards.

Why, for example, have so many humans knowingly settled along fault lines, or built cities near active volcanoes with eruptive records? And why, despite our knowledge that over three-fifths of infectious diseases are caused by zoonotic pathogens (the result of our close contact with wild and domesticated animals), does hunting and consumption of “bushmeat” persist, as well as Asian wet markets and dark markets, to which a number of recent diseases have been traced? For this, the imagination deserves no indictment. This constitutes, more than anything, a failure to understand reality.

Like so many things, our language proves inadequate when dealing with the matter of disaster. The word (from the Greek, dis • astro “bad star”) suggests something heaven-sent, a leftover from a time when floods were the sign of a deity’s displeasure and eclipses were dragons swallowing the sun. And the phrase “natural disaster” is little improvement over the dismaying and non-explanatory “act of god.” To write off an event as a “natural disaster” then is to some extent to deny liability, to deny our failure to anticipate and prepare for such a phenomenon.

Niall Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, shows us through a tapestry of disasters just how entwined we are with our volatile environment, and serves us a biting and inconvenient thesis: that many disasters, even those dubbed “natural,” are to some extent the result of human error. “It is tempting but misleading,” Ferguson writes, “to divide disasters into natural and man-made … a natural disaster is a disaster in terms of human lives lost only to the extent of its direct or indirect impact on human settlements.” Disasters, in other words, are disasters not simply because they occur, but because of whom they affect, because they strike and destabilize systems.

The zoology of catastrophe is as follows: “Gray Rhinos” (things we can see coming), “Black Swans” (defined by Nassim Taleb as things that “seem to us, on the basis of our limited experience, to be impossible”) and “Dragon Kings” (vast disasters that lie outside normal power law distributions). The history of disasters, Ferguson writes, is the “poorly managed zoo” of these creatures, “as well as a great many unfortunate but inconsequential events and an infinity of nonevents.” The 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, to take two recent examples, were textbook Gray Rhinos. Both had precedents, both were to a large extent foreseeable, and in both cases there were “Cassandras” or doomsayers whose prophetic warnings went unheeded.

Still, our ability to anticipate the right disaster proves elusive, as “we rarely get the disaster we expect.” It can also be difficult to anticipate the rapidity with which disasters occur: “The disintegration of a complex system can happen all at once, with breathtaking speed, or it can take the form of successive, convulsive phase transitions.” The fast collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the 12th century BCE fits the former model, while the slow, decadent decline of the Roman Empire belongs to the latter. The fall of Western Roman administration in the fifth century was an example of a centralized collapse, and it took a third of Europe with it. As a result, many local systems, like Britain, went offline for centuries. In our time, internationalism and the expansion of human solidarity has ensured that these localized blackouts are to an extent a thing of the past.

Although interconnectedness has made local collapses less likely, it has increased the probability that minor destabilizations could trigger a total system shock. The false assumption is that the more intricate a system, the more robust it must be. On the contrary, the more complex, networked, and interdependent a system, the more a catastrophe can cascade. Empires, Ferguson writes, are “the most complex of all political units” which makes them all the more likely to “give way quite suddenly to disorder.”

Disasters have a way of exposing political hierarchies and administrative failings (top-down and bottom-up) in the systems they strike—they show a system for what it is. The Chernobyl disaster, for example, showed the cluelessness of the facility’s operators and the negligence of higher-ups in the Communist Party bureaucracy. Opposite this, the Challenger disaster revealed how financial interests (demand, cost, and delivery) and a failure to heed the warnings of mid-level engineering led to the construction of less-than-safe O-rings that caused the shuttle’s explosion. Catastrophes also highlight inequalities. Citing Richard Evans’s study of the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892, Ferguson describes how a rigid class structure in the city (property owners’ refusal to improve water and sewage systems) was as responsible for the mortality rate (13 times higher for the poor than the rich) as was the virus. Ditto the Titanic, the design of which made the chance of escape 50 percent higher for the upper classes than those on the lower decks. Of the 1,514 deaths on board, 528 were from third class, and 696 were laborers and crew (the death toll of first and second classes combined was 290).

There is always a temptation to attribute catastrophes to the actions of great players, who bestride the world stage and spin the globe with their hands. This is another narrative fallacy, the “great man theory,” properly mocked by Tolstoy, who argued in War & Peace that Napoleon (whom Hegel called “History on horseback”) was just like the men in his grande armée—a mere gear in the machine of diffuse, historical forces. Ferguson, too, finds the Napoleon fallacy dubious and argues that catastrophes are often administrative affairs—system failures, in which leaders are symptoms of the bureaucracies that produced them. The “administrative state,” Ferguson argues, “has produced pathologies every bit as harmful, and perhaps in the long run more so, than the virus SARS-CoV-2.” In the case of the United States, the botched response to the COVID pandemic was as much the fault of the public health bureaucracy as it was the poor messaging and disinformation coming from the White House.

Some societies are better poised than others to handle certain disasters. The Indian economist Amartya Sen argued, for instance, that famines have never occurred—and could never occur—in a functioning democracy, because accountable politicians and market forces will correct trends that might send food prices beyond the reach of low-income citizens. A dictatorship, on the other hand, is more easily able to contain a viral epidemic than a democratic republic, because of the frictionless ability to clamp down, restrict civil liberties, and ruthlessly punish offenders.

Though the Chinese government initially covered up the outbreak in Hubei, once recognized, it was able to crush the contagion with a clenched fist, duly demonstrating the advantages of an authoritarian model under such circumstances. By contrast, a liberty-loving society with an emphasis on individual freedom cannot hope to manage the behaviour of its citizens as efficiently. America’s staggered, half-measure approach produced democratic distemper and revealed the pressures faced by a populist politician. The result was international humiliation, as the United States led the world in infection-rate and death-toll per capita, while many of its citizens flouted lockdown restrictions to protest in large numbers throughout the summer of 2020.

Trust, though a less measurable quality when assessing a country’s response to a crisis, is an important element. The countries that fared best during the first wave in spring 2020 were “high-trust” societies like Sweden and South Korea. The countries that foundered were those, like the United States, where distrust of government is widespread. China certainly demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of its model, while the United States again showcased an overall decline in quality of leadership and good-faith politik. All one needs to do is compare the performance of the Trump administration with that of Eisenhower’s, which helped quell the Asian flu pandemic of 1957–1958 with great success.

The COVID pandemic has, in the minds of some Chinese elites, ratified their idea that liberal democracy is flabby and essentially weak. In the approach to Cold War 2.0, the pandemic has accelerated fears about the reliability of American economic power, moral leadership, and hegemonic posture, and given rise to early declarations like those made by Henry Kissinger that the pandemic will “forever alter the world order…” But funeral rites for the American empire are a cottage industry, and Ferguson, an agnostic Scot, argues that they are, as usual, premature.

As a novelist, I am bolstered whenever appeals are made to the social utility of fiction, and the closing chapter of Doom makes the case that fiction—specifically dystopian fiction, which Ferguson astutely defines as the “history of the future”—gives us an opportunity to glimpse a world we might wish to avoid: “To all of these potential disasters it is impossible to attach more than made‐up probabilities. So how should we envision them? The best answer would seem to be that we must strive to imagine them.” Indeed, the imagination of disaster can be instructive, offering us examples of “the relentless unforeseen.” It can also be inuring, normalizing that which our civilization has conditioned us to see as aberrations, or disruptions to the natural order and our entitled sense of comfort.

But there are things we don’t have to imagine, because we know they will happen. The multiplying villainies of nature swarm upon us, and at any given time, on this wet, temperate planet, there is a host of things ready and waiting to knock us off. If we look to the sky, we see nearby supernovae, whose explosive envelopes threaten to peel our atmosphere; coronal mass ejections (solar storms) that could shut down the world’s electrical grids; rogue asteroids, flung in our direction by heavy bodies in the outer solar system. If we look to the Earth, we find deadly pathogens; the threat of famine, flood, and mass displacement caused by climate change; super-volcanic eruptions (which we have no known engineering to prevent). If we were to include recent threats posed by technological advancement, we could easily add artificial intelligence and nuclear war to the list.

Even if we prove to be near-invincible in our resilience, dodging all of the disasters that come our way, in the long run we can look forward to our sun spending the rest of its nuclear fusion and transforming into a red giant that will engulf most of the solar system, which means not even a Mars colony will save us. And if we do manage to warp to another star system, the collision between our Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy will occur in about four or five billion years.

In a 1955 anti-nuclear manifesto he co-authored with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell wrote that one may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for 10 minutes, but to expect that he could do so for 200 years without accident is foolish. Modern Homo sapiens, it is estimated, have been on this planet for between 100,000 and 200,000 years, during which time we have walked this tightrope. We haven’t faced a potentially species-ending event since the explosion of the Toba Caldera about 75,000 years ago, when the human population may have dropped to as low as 5,000. And if one looks at a graph of the Earth’s geological epochs, they will see that spikes in extinction occur about every 30 million years. The last such event was the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction (which terminated the dinosaurs) approximately 66 million years ago. Another is long overdue.

That thing we call civilization comprises but a small fraction of this time (the last 6,000 years or so). Visitors to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City can walk down a spiral ramp on which a single stride constitutes a million years. At the end of the line is a single hair encased in glass, the thickness of which represents humanity’s presence on the planet. That is us, a hair-second, barely visible on the cosmic clock. That we will continue to experience large-scale disasters is inexorable; that we will eventually reach a world-ending eschaton is inevitable. Faced with this knowledge, we would do well to remember these cautionary words from Jim Morrison: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”


Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada and currently lives in Prague. His work has appeared in LARB, Tablet, Areo, 3:AM Magazine, and the Millions. He is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness (2019). You can follow him on Twitter @JaredMPollen.

Featured Image: Niall Ferguson at the Fronteiras do Pensamento, 2017 (Flickr)