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Review — Doom, The Politics of Catastrophe

So long as we keep our heads while all around are loosing theirs, never dwelling too long on exaggerated threats, we are in a position to muddle through.

If you are anything like me, you worry about the future. You worry about your family, your friends, that lovely OAP (old aged pensioner) down the road who looks both so happy and yet so sad, sitting alone in their front room looking out the window. You worry about yourself, your career, your finances, your future. Perhaps it is this proclivity for worry that so often yields to a certain Schadenfreude we feel, yes, I am roping you in here, to love a good disaster.

Modern sensitivities, not to mention fear of the local woke brigade knocking on the door, sees us adopt a posture of antic recoil if caught looking at the disaster. Yet if our gaze wonders in the direction of harm’s way too long, salvation is at hand so long as we express a suitable level of public moral outrage. But in the privacy of our self-reflection, we can give our tortured public persona a rest and settle down to contemplate humanity’s doom.

Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Doom, is the perfect companion to do just that and muses on the way ‘the end of the world… has been a remarkably recurrent feature of recorded history.’ There is nothing particularly Judeo-Christian about this, though eschatological thinking is particularly strong among the Abrahamic faiths, as the end times are contemplated Hinduism, Buddhism, and secular religions such as Marxism.

Yet as if mirroring FDR’s notion that we have ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’, humanity’s proclivity to expect disaster has a more to do with imagined fears than statistical reality. It cannot be doubted, from an astronomical point of view, that we are running out of time. In about seven billion years from now our sun will have consumed all its hydrogen fuel core and will then turn into a white dwarf. Slowly cooling to the background temperature of the universe. At this point the earth will be too cold to sustain life. But given that is eons away, our tendency to dwell on disaster is more a result of how briefly we have been here. The mere blink of an eye in geological terms.

Ferguson provides an engaging and accessible approach to analysing doom and leverages the typologies of:

  1. Michele Wucker’sgrey rhinos‘: highly probable, high impact yet neglected threats
  2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’sblack swans‘: unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence
  3. Didier Sornette’sdragon kings‘: born of unique origins (a ‘dragon’) and extremely large in size or impact (a ‘king’)

Clearly taking aim at the pundits who abound on the cable networks, and who Ferguson castigates for their ‘increasing absurdity’ when talking about V-shaped, W-shaped or ‘Nike swoosh-shaped’ recoveries, and instead posits the slow recovery from the catastrophic events which will inevitably befall us as shaped ‘more like a giant tortoise’.

In a sense, Ferguson is engaging in the same sort of punditry as those he is taking aim at. Yet there is something endearing, rather than facile, about his approach. As with his other books, the prose leaps from the page with an energy and vibrancy that keeps the pages turning. As the marketing teams of publishers are often given to say, the book is unputdownable.

This is in no small part due to the dizzying array of facts, which are presented as such easy bon mots as to resonate naturally with the reader rather than having to be laboriously remembered. Examples in this genre are that life expectancy among British administrators in the glory days of Empire who worked overseas was considerably lower than for those who remained in the home isles; or that in England, the average man consumed 73 gallons of beer each year.

For all his erudition, Ferguson mixes the popular with the elitist and is as comfortable rattling off references to Dad’s Army and science fiction as he is citing Wagner or Anabaptism in the sixteenth century. He writes at a pace that challenges readers, he expects us to keep up, but presents his case so that we can. This is always the test of a great thinker, that they can convey what ordinarily requires genius level intellect to understand in a way lay readers can comprehend.

A word of warning for those who are the natural audience for The Guardian or fans of Greta Thunberg, who he decries as the ‘child saint of the 21st-century millennialist movement’. Ferguson has not only got to a level of fame and stability in his professional life that he is unwilling to bend to the zeitgeist, but he sees it as a sort of mission against barbarism to use his platform to settle scores. This combativeness could be described by some as ‘distracting’, a label I am familiar with as it was applied to some early edits of my PhD thesis, but which is also highly entertaining — if you do not take yourself or your causes too seriously.

When we can no longer poke fun at something it is likely we are also unlikely to question it. Once we stop doing that, we find ourselves in a Jorge Luis Borges novel in which some schools of thought are cast as ‘analogous to a god’ — next stop, Newspeak. In this environment, we need thinkers like Niall Ferguson to not just speak truth to power, but to speak truth to populism. The latter is, ironically, much harder in an environment so obsessed with ‘punching down’, that it has all but extinguished the ability to critique ideologies so long as the adherents can cast themselves as a minority or as oppressed.

At this point, it is easy to send his book cartwheeling across the room and accuse him of bad taste or poor aim. Yet this would be to miss the point of his work. Which is to be the pebble in the shoe, the assumption challenged, the thought unspoken. A process that makes for uncomfortable reading for anyone living in a liberal bubble and who is used to blaming the noise on right-wing nuts or illiterate Trump supporters. When the sound comes from an erudite academic in the form of a closely argued book, it can be distressing indeed. A sensation I think many felt keenly when the Russian threat, which Obama had consistently dismissed and even mocked, surfaced again this year with the invasion of the Ukraine. The assurances we had been given and had desperately believed proved to be false, as the grey rhino of Russian Imperialism reemerged from the undergrowth.

Ferguson draws parallels between the US Government’s approach to Aids in the 1980s, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the COVID pandemic in 2020. All of which are typified as being failures of leadership as bureaucratic and ideological infighting allowed suffering to unfold on a far greater scale than would have happened with more sober and less partisan management of the disasters. With a media cycle that seems to feed on the deep divides in politics, the book strikes a depressing note; we are seeing the lessons of history but failing to learn from them.

The cause, so Ferguson’s hypothesis goes, is that blind faith in what are often deeply flawed systems, combined with a large serve of general incompetence, is the root cause of most of humanities ills. This even goes for what are termed natural disasters. True, Ferguson admits, there is little humans can do about earthquakes and the like, but the persistent determination to build and rebuild on fault lines or flood plains result in repetitions of disasters and death tolls that rival some wars. A process which globalisation only seems to have accelerated:

Globalisation has brought us closer together, thus making us all more vulnerable to the spread of disease — it’s one damned microbe after another.

For this reason, it is no coincidence that the subtitle of Doom is ‘The Politics of Catastrophe’. If there is one key takeaway from the myriad examples Ferguson gives, it is that it is our own misunderstanding, and the misunderstanding of leaders and managers in their daily decision making, is the real villain of the piece.

Yet those who claim to be prophets of impending doom are as much to blame, in Ferguson’s view, as those who push ahead with a Pollyanna world view. He is incredulous that the Cuban Missile Crisis only occasioned the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock to seven minutes to midnight, and yet today they view a reading of 11:58 as appropriate because:

humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change.

The risk he sees in this thinking is that people are falling for confirmation bias. Seeing patterns, they desperately want to believe rather than perceiving the real risks which lie in wait. Just such faulty logic happened in the wake of the September 11 attacks when road mortality rates shot up because people were afraid to fly.

As one might expect, it is impossible to offer easy solutions to the litany of disasters and tragedies Ferguson recounts. Yet in closing there is a ray of hope, in the shape of humanity’s general resilience, and that so long as we keep our heads while all around are losing theirs, never dwelling too long on the exaggerated threats but instead focussing on risks which are real and likely, we are able to muddle through. A point which echoes the thinking of Adam Smith some two centuries earlier:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Good night, and good luck.

Hindenburg Disaster by Sam Shere (1905–1982) is licensed under Public Domain.

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