Book Review: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson.

AuthorMichelsen, Niall
PositionArticle 9

Ferguson, Niall. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. New York: Penguin Press, 2021. xvii + 472 pages. Hardcover, $30.00.

The book's ambitious title provides a clue that this is not a narrowly focused monograph. The author delivers on the promise and covers several issues in great depth and advances a clear argument about how societies, throughout time, have dealt with major unfortunate events. He is by no means restricted to disasters caused by diseases, rather, his analysis is applied to earthquakes and volcanoes and other natural phenomenon of that ilk. One sentence encapsulates the thesis: "The extent to which the exogenous shock causes a disaster is generally a function of the social network structure that comes under stress" (283). In other words, the earthquake or the virus do not discriminate against their victims, and their impacts will depend on the nature of the victims themselves.

In covering so much ground, from scientific material about Covid-19 and earlier "plagues" to global financial interactions, the author weaves together historical and contemporary strands. While the book has weaknesses, its strengths are plenty. The author's task is to put the Covid pandemic into historical context. It is important to note that the book was completed in August 2020 and though the pandemic was far from over, the author nonetheless interprets it for us. For example, he found the Covid pandemic to be more similar to the 1957-8 pandemic than to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. He also discusses and largely discounts many scholarly accounts of why disasters occur and why some have minor impacts while others have major impacts. In particular, he embraces what he terms the "Napoleon Fallacy." This pertains to the tendency to attach far too much importance to the actions or inactions of important people. By contrast, his approach argues that the institutions that a society has when the disaster strikes deserve more attention. Thus, while matter-of-factly listing the errors that President Trump made in relation to Covid in 2020, he then argues that even if he had not made those mistakes the pandemic would have played out very much the same. The culprit in that case is the institutional framework of the Center for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, and so forth.

Ferguson recognizes that some governments acted wisely and effectively in facing the pandemic but the larger and supposedly better prepared countries failed. That...

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