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The eminent historian Niall Ferguson has delivered a formidable tract on the "general history of catastrophe," <i>Doom</i>. Ferguson's scope includes both natural and man-made disasters, which also enables one of the work's animating claims: even natural calamities tend to have elements of human or social failure that enable or propagate them.

Ferguson invests usefully in totaling the carnage of history's major catastrophes, highlighting how wars and pandemics have unquestionably had the most deleterious impact on human life. He then questions the predictability and cyclicality of, disasters, where he asserts that many tragedies are difficult if not impossible to predict, especially with specificity. It is unclear if Ferguson is making a case for improved forecasting or abandoning an emphasis on forecasting for general preparedness though. He goes on to distinguish between foreseen (gray rhinos), unexpected (black swans), and world-altering (dragon kings) disasters and then describes how network architectures constrain or enable the scale of disaster, pointing out that contagion (interpreted broadly) is usually necessary for dragon king effects.

After developing this history and partial theoretical framework, Ferguson shifts toward more contemporary commentary (recent pandemics, recent wars, recent accidents, and of course COVID-19). He is less sanguine about the capacity of science relative to thinkers like Steven Pinker, highlighting its previous failures to mobilize to predict, prevent, and allay doom of all sorts but especially disease. Ferguson is also a bit pessimistic about our governing and social institutions, highlighting the malice and incompetence of empires and nation-states (e.g. Rome, the USSR, Mao's China) and arguing the Western democratic governance has grown increasingly incompetent, especially in the vast bureaucracies of the USA and UK. Ferguson wraps up with an extended discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on the failures at the bureaucratic level of governance and the potential effects on the "Cold War" between the USA and China. Ferguson concludes by asserting that our institutions should ideally develop greater resilience and <i>Antifragility</i> (see N. Taleb's book) so that when doom inevitably comes knocking we are ready and can grow through the pain.

<i>Doom</i> was an engrossing read though I felt Ferguson's thesis was a bit ambiguous. He's somehow on many sides of the same issue simultaneously, which is jarring. The work would have definitely benefitted from some reduction and a tighter focus. The work on network theory was intriguing (a clear strength of Ferguson's) and should have been developed and extended. However, I don't penalize him for the ambitious and wide-ranging nature of the project. 

Any reader would benefit significantly from exposure to the content of this book and Ferguson's analysis of disaster history. It is clear he's extremely wide-read on the subject (including dystopian fiction) and very thoughtful, productively critiquing some of the sweeping theories of decline (e.g. Turchin's elite overproduction). In many ways I wanted <i>Doom</i> to be both more and less, but the reading experience was still edifying and entertaining nonetheless. I strong recommend.
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Talk about great timing!! This is an interesting book about how we in the modern world react to events like pandemics. The most interesting chapter compared the similarities between Chernobyl and the Challenger explosion. Well done.
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Excellent, in-depth survey of the history of disaster from one of the world's great historians.  Ferguson is always a fantastic writer and this book is no exception.  Sober, balanced, rational commentary is also provided on the COVID pandemic and the American response to it.  Few, if any, other writers have written such a detailed, balanced analysis and it, alone, is worth the price of the book.
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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.
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“Doom” by Niall Ferguson is analogous to a hastily and haphazardly whipped up world encyclopedia. While the reader is treated to an extraordinary variety of incredible information, she is also plagued by data fatigue. This feature of death by data detracts, from the original essence of the book, which in itself is extremely engrossing and absorbing. Ferguson, a Scottish historian and the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, claims that most of the disasters that have rocked humanity is man-made. Even some of the greatest convulsions of nature such as tectonic earthquakes and roaring volcanic eruptions cause untold misery because of humanity settling and resettling on fault lines and in vulnerable cities. When Mount Vesuvius for example left Pompeii in smoldering ruins, in an apocalyptic explosion, it did not take time for the ruined city to be once again transformed into a teeming and bustling hotbed of trade. But in trying to arrive at this conclusion, Ferguson takes a path that is extraordinarily and excruciatingly circuitous. The exploits of Pliny the Elder in courageously venturing towards Pompeii to chronicle the devastation, before suffocating to death takes up quite a lot of pages and consequently the reader’s time.

 Ferguson’s novel reasoning is based, to a great extent, on the three concepts of “gray rhinos”; “black swans” and “dragon kings”. The term gray rhino as popularized by  American author, commentator, and policy analyst, Michele Wucker, refers to an event that is “dangerous, obvious, and highly probable”. Classic examples being Hurricane Katrina, and the Financial Recession of 2007. A black swan event, on the other hand, according to author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, refers to a situation that “seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience to be impossible.” The COVID-19 pandemic that is at the time of this writing wreaking havoc is a black swan event. Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Didier Sornette defines a dragon king as an event so extreme that it lies outside a power law distribution. According to Sornette, examples of dragon king events can be found in six domains: City sizes, acoustic emissions associated with material failure, velocity increments in hydrodynamic turbulence, financial drawdowns, energies of epileptic seizures in humans and animals, and possibly earthquakes. Dragon kings “are extreme events that are statistically and mechanistically different from the rest of their smaller siblings.”

Ferguson also writes that when it comes to any disaster, the scale of damage is dependent on the contagion. Social network structure plays out a vital role in this regard. Banking on the concept of weak ties as elucidated by Mark Granovetter, Ferguson identifies the importance of nodes and networks. For example, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct factor of the basic rate if reproduction, which in turn is a direct outcome of adherence to or neglect of social distancing norms. Paraphrasing Emile Durkheim’s term for elucidating an element of disconnectedness associated with modernity, Ferguson writes that “an economy without crowds is not a ‘new normal’.

This notion of network effects, says Ferguson is also corroborated by the founder of the Ethernet, Robert Metcalfe. According to Metcalfe, greater the number of nodes in a network, the more valuable the network to the nodes collectively, and therefore to its owners. “The history of mankind’s changing susceptibility to infectious diseases tends to be written as a history of pathogens. But it might make as much sense to tell this history as the story of our evolving social networks.”

Ferguson also dwells on two types of errors that primarily trigger manmade disasters, namely, active, and latent errors. Initially proposed by psychologist James Reason, active errors represent errors that are perpetrated by people who are in direct contact with human system interface. Active errors can either be skill-based, rule-based, or knowledge-based. On the other hand, latent errors according to Reason, are the “delayed consequences of technical and organizational actions and decisions – such as reallocating resources, changing the scope of a position, or adjusting staffing.” Ferguson uses the examples of active and latent errors to describe the sinking of the Titanic and the Andrea Gail. Ferguson also claims that untrammeled advances in the field of transportation and conveyance in the form of steamships and rail networks spread disease across continents. The spread of from the Ganges to the rest of the world, for example.

In the final chapters, Ferguson dwells on a potential conflict between two behemoths, the United States and China, which has the potential of bringing untold harm to the world. He also mulls on the potential perils of artificial intelligence and genome mapping which may bring misery to mankind if fallen into wrong hands. A clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats (CRISPR) technology facilitating gene editing is now so cheap that a genetic engineering home lab kit was available for just $1,845 in the year 2020. Ferguson ends his book with references to a whole horde of Dystopian works which presciently predicted novel and unique disasters. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep all make the cut.

“Doom” is an unrelenting compilation of events, situations, circumstances, and outcomes. It is also a confusing assemblage of qualitative and quantitative information that has the ability to send the reader into a dizzying journey. While the assertion that most, if not all, catastrophes that has plagued mankind thus far is attributable to manmade causes, is bold and ingenious, the back up arguments in favour of such a proposition are, unfortunately convoluted, contrived, and complex. On the whole, “Doom” represents fodder for thought and further evaluation. Currently we as humanity are going through some extraordinary times. Conflicting prerogatives such as vaccine diplomacy and vaccine nationalism are tugging and pushing at the invisible strings of emotion. As the word grapples with a calamity of unimagined proportions, how we tide though this crisis would not just represent a reflection of who we are as an interconnected global family but also how we are as evolved human beings of character.

“Doom” – just a beginning of possibilities, extensive.   

(Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson is published by Penguin Press and would be released on the 4th of May 2021)
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I usually love Ferguson's books and I did give it four stars, but there is something missing here that I can't put my finger on.  The main themes of Doom are war, famine, dystopia, pandemic, and how government have reacted to each of these over the centuries.  Though it's a great premise, for me it just wasn't that interesting, though it was informative.  I guess what I'm trying to relate is that for me it felt like I was reading a textbook, and not a very entertaining one.
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Doom by Nial Ferguson is a broad sweeping history of human disasters and seeks to answer the question of why we seemingly are getting worse at fighting them. I genuinely admire such broad sweep approaches because they can strip away the fear and hysteria of whatever is grabbing headlines of the moment as the worst thing ever. But the scope of the entirety of human disaster is so massive that I found myself drifting in and out of the book, which is a problem given the message that Ferguson has to share.

I’m down with the idea that the complexity of modern government with layers and layers of organization has caused government responses to become slower and less responsive in the face of human disasters. We have certainly seen this not just with the Corona/Covid 19 response, but other far more recent disasters. But what he fails to do is offer any road map forward. I mean what do I as Mike in Rockford do about issues that are so big. Further, where would one envision making changes or cuts?

I also feel like at times he veers far too closely to something that sounds like right-wing talking points rather than a meaningful analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it compares to other moments of human doom, which is interesting because so much of his analysis of the previous hundred years of human disaster is seemingly devoid of it. Even further, including the final sections on Covid 19 while necessary within the context of the book is just about asking for events to overtake the narrative and make you look either prescient or a fool.
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“All disasters are at some level man-made political disasters, even if they originate with new pathogens.“  Discuss. In Doom, Niall Ferguson roams the world, history and even science fiction to examine disasters. There is no shortage holding him back. Too often, he finds midlevel managers at fault.

The disasters he investigates cover the spectrum from war to pathogens, floods, earthquakes and in the end, planetary invasions. It is an education, a peek behind the scenes, a rollercoaster and an argument rolled into one bubbling and appealing package. The conclusion is that government has and continues to fail us:

“Approaching disasters within this broader framework makes it clear that democratic institutions by themselves are far from a sufficient safeguard against disasters of all kinds—especially those that are not normally distributed but follow power-law distributions—regardless of whether we insist on classifying them as either natural or man-made.” 

Ferguson examines various plagues through the ages, as knowledge of how they work gradually grew, and how such knowledge was usually ignored or abused by those in power. This of course is most evident right now, as the Trump administration bungled the COVID-19 pandemic so badly that the USA leads the world in all the worst categories. 

The implications, he says, are gigantic. Not only do Americans not trust their own democratic government, which has been crumbling in terms of effectiveness and service since the 1970s, but now the world is rethinking its evaluation of American leadership and presence. Ferguson presents polls and data from all over that show how others no longer think America is a worthy leader, ally or partner. 

This plays right into the hands of China, the up and coming contender to replace the USA. In what is the best, most insightful chapter of the book, Ferguson examines Cold War II, which China initiated years ago, to isolate and diminish the USA. Ferguson thought he made that up, but when he spoke of it to Chinese experts, no one protested or disagreed. It is an active, if undeclared war the USA is not fighting. Yet. 

This is not a natural disaster, or a disaster of any kind, really, and readers will have to contort themselves to make it fit the theme. But it is the most interesting and thought-provoking concept presented, and it makes the book. 

China’s Belt and Road program clearly seeks to displace loyalty to America with loyalty to China. It is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to buy friends in key places. Its aggressive actions in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and towards Taiwan are muscle-flexing to foreshadow things to come. China wants it all, and it wants it now.

 It is gathering all the intellectual property it can, and all means are approved for use. (Its own scientists don’t seem capable of innovations leading to patents at all. The atmosphere is not really conducive to creativity, he says.) TikTok, the global Chinese social media app, collects data on individuals, opening the way to a global surveillance society that the Chinese at home must live under today. This goes beyond mere tracking of movements to include actions and even attitudes. Unapproved traits or actions can result in travel bans and forced re-education. Reputation is a critical, compulsory foundation-piece of Chinese life. China clearly seeks fans for this brand of repression worldwide, and money talks.

The chapter on the COVID-19 pandemic is the least satisfying, if only because it is far too early to write such a chapter. Ferguson’s data ends in August 2020, before there was even a second wave. And long before a potential third wave fueled by the new variants, now exploding globally. He says he has hopes that a vaccine might be produced soon, what with so many candidates in various trials. The conclusions he draws are of little use with the unpredicted acceleration of infections and deaths. Written in August of 2021 instead, this chapter would read much differently.

Nonetheless, at least one of his conclusions merits real thought: “But arguing that Trump could have averted the public health disaster is rather like saying that Bill Clinton could have prevented the dismemberment of Bosnia or the Rwandan genocide. It is like claiming that Bush could have saved New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina or avoided the 2008 financial crisis, or that Obama had the power to avert or end quickly the Syrian Civil War—or the capacity to save hundreds of thousands of Americans from opioid overdoses. All these arguments are versions of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic fallacy that do a violence to the complexity of political disaster by imagining the U.S. president as an omnipotent executive, rather than an individual perched atop a bureaucratic hierarchy that would appear to have gotten steadily worse at managing disasters over a period of several decades.” 

Other chapters deal with death, disease and war, ranking them by their effectiveness in diminishing the population. Extremely detailed descriptions of the effects of things like plague and yellow fever add great levels of discomfort for readers. War, by contrast, seems to be straightforward slaughter in his hands. He dwells on World War I for the horror we no longer think of it as being, restoring its place in the pantheon of disasters.

There is a chapter on the zoology of disasters, as the current fashion would have it. There are gray rhinos, black swans and dragon kings scampering about, wreaking unprecedented havoc. Hurricanes get personalized with human names. All of them have one thing in common – doom.

Meanwhile, back at government, it is fairly common to blame government for famines (and justifiably so), but Ferguson points to wars as the ultimate of manmade disaster, a perspective we don’t often appreciate. Recently, remote control wars have limited the toll on soldiers, but civilian deaths, the real crime, are as out of control as ever. Nonetheless, soldiers in World War I were far more likely to die from disease on the way to battle than in battle itself. It turns out that was a very common situation throughout history.

Also common throughout history is defiance of quarantines. Life must go on, even if it means killing yourself and your family. Today, masks are fiercely resisted once again. Several writers have compared them to condoms, which have the potential to stop HIV infections and are similarly resisted. The HIV pandemic was the COVID-19 of its day, frightening the whole world. Today, there is still no cure or vaccine to cancel HIV.

In pandemics and plagues, government has often given horrible advice and direction. Mao’s stunning famines were of his own making. In the Irish famine, the strictly Christian English government refused most aid to the Irish and even continued exporting oats away from Ireland, because it was clearly God’s will to punish the evil Irish, and the English government wasn’t about to cross God. Others, like Trump, were simply not up to the task and kept saying it would magically disappear by itself, we’re turning the corner, we’ve got it beaten, we’re leading the world in dealing with it, it’s really hard to get, it’s nothing to worry about, etc., until deaths near half a million and total cases pass 25 million as I write this. China reveals only what it wants to, and directs the population, right down to the individual, in attempting to manage it all for public relations purposes.

So what general conclusions can we draw form all this misery? Ferguson coolly says: “Most disasters occur when a complex system goes critical, usually as a result of some small perturbation. The extent to which the exogenous shock causes a disaster is generally a function of the social network structure that comes under stress. The point of failure, if it can be located at all, is more likely to be in the middle layer than at the top of the organization chart. When failure occurs, however, society as a whole, and the different interest groups within it, will draw much larger inferences about future risk than are warranted—hence the widespread conclusion from a small number of accidents that nuclear power was chronically unsafe.”

Regardless of the potential for death and doom, people carry on regardless, always believing it won’t happen to them. And despite all the evidence to the contrary, so it must be.

David Wineberg
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Complete And Well Documented Examination of Disaster. This is a book that looks not just at one disaster or one type of disaster, but at all of them. It doesn't look to one threat or another threat or a third threat, but moves between types of threats and shows how they, really, are all interrelated by a common element: the human, and in particular the governmental, response to them. From ancient plagues and volcanoes to hot-off-the-press (at the time of writing a few months prior to even my own seeming first public review level early read) details of the current global catastrophes. While docking a star for Ferguson's high praise of John Maynard Keynes (suffice it to say I tend to hold economists such as Hayak, Bastiat, and Von Mises to levels Ferguson holds Keynes), that isn't really my style since those are more a couple of aside level comments randomly in this near 500 page volume. But also, don't let the near 500 page count deter you - in my copy, 48% of that text (or nearly 200 pages) was bibliography, making this one of the more well documented books I've read in the last few years. Truly a book that needs to be considered by at minimum policy makers but really the public at large, at times it doesn't really go far enough to point out that voluntary community based disaster preparedness can often do more good than government top down approaches (even as he continually points out that the failures most often happen at middle management levels). Very much recommended.
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