Book review: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, by Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson’s attempt to view the coronavirus pandemic in relation to other major catastrophes is most successful when exploring how governments respond to a crisis, writes Allan Massie
Niall Ferguson PIC: Alejandro Garcia / EPA-EFE / ShutterstockNiall Ferguson PIC: Alejandro Garcia / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock
Niall Ferguson PIC: Alejandro Garcia / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Technology speeds up the writing of History. Twelve years elapsed between Gibbon’s idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the publication of the first volume. Now, prompted by our Covid experience, even while that is still changing, Niall Ferguson is able, with the help of computers, the internet and, doubtless, a team of research assistants, to publish Doom, a fact-filled, statistics-stuffed survey of catastrophes and the responses of societies, governments and other public authorities over the centuries. Much is thought-provoking, much fascinating, much in this accumulation of detail wearisome, much confusing. I would guess that this is a book many will dip into and find fascinating information and speculation, but few will read through.

There are natural catastrophes and man-made ones, but, as Ferguson repeatedly and persuasively demonstrates, there is interaction between them. The eruption of a volcano is natural, but the destruction of towns or cities that may result is the consequence of the rash decision to build them in the vicinity of the volcano. Plague is natural, but the toll it takes varies according to social conditions, government measures and the response of citizens. The timing of a government response may be decisive in determining the death toll. Might there have been fewer deaths from Covid-19 if governments had been quicker to impose lockdowns and restrict, even ban, air travel? Might its spread have been more quickly controlled if the Chinese authorities had been more open when the first cases were identified?

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Conversely, wars are man-made and so, of course, is much of the destruction that results. But they may be provoked by the influence of natural events on a national or local economy: a succession of poor harvests may make for civil strife – peasants’ revolts, for instance – or aggression in search of new resources. War regularly disturbs the natural world and consequently creates conditions which result in famine or make for the spread of deadly diseases.

Doom, by Niall FergusonDoom, by Niall Ferguson
Doom, by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson is at his best when he examines government and public responses to disasters, some made worse by concealment, others made manageable by openness and good decision-making. His comparison of the American (and to a lesser extent British) success in responding to the 1957 Asian Flu epidemic and the failure, represented in a much higher death toll, of responses to the present pandemic, is interesting and to the point. One reason was the greater efficiency of the American bureaucracy then than now. It may be, too, that a public with experience of the Second World War was both readier to respond to government direction and more level-headed than is the case today, at least in the United States.

One should also remark that certain technological developments have both contributed to the rapid and global spread of the coronavirus pandemic and at the same time made certain responses possible. In the first place, long-distance travel and in particular air travel allowed millions to contract and spread disease. In the second, computers, the internet and Zoom, while disseminating rumour at unprecedented speed, have also made it possible for advanced economies to adapt very quickly; home-working and home-schooling, enforced to prevent or at least retard the spread of disease, have also weakened its impact on economic activity, while making year-long confinement endurable.

Ferguson ranges widely, sometimes confusingly, and deluges us with statistics. His book is fascinating at times, boring at others, now clear as a summer day, now murky as a winter night. He raises and examines big questions, yet is often at his best evoking small-scale responses to disasters. What justifies the book and makes it valuable is his recurrent insistence that disasters and catastrophes are not just something which happen to us and before which we are powerless, but are often consequences of social and economic development and of political decisions. This being so, our response, whether to the next pandemic or to Climate Change, or the Cold War II which he thinks already all but underway between China and the West, is unavoidably political, our future as a civilization and even as a species depending on the quality of political decision-making and subsequent action.

Niall Ferguson: Doom, Allen Lane, 472pp, £25.00

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