Backed by impeccable research, a magisterial work on catastrophes, written in the backdrop of the outbreak of Covid-19, digresses from its central theme
There are two ways to answer a question of history. Why did a particular war take place? One way of answering the question is maybe because one party wanted something and the other party did not want to give it. The other way could be that wars are inevitable as human societies grow from the primitive to modern and communitarian life yields to individualism. As geographical boundaries are drawn and nation-states come into being. As the acquisitive nature of state and humans unfolds. The answers can go on: Wars never cease to take place, only their nature changes, from military to trade, from hot to cold to maybe hot again.
One can say that the first approach focuses on immediate factors, though not simplistically, while in the second, the causes are attributed to long-term evolution of historical forces, though not totally ignoring the immediate factors. There are merits and demerits in both the methodologies, but coherence in the narrative is the key, without which both lose relevance.
Niall Ferguson is a grand historian, so he delves deep into the subjects he picks up and never restricts himself to his area of expertise—financial history—but examines the entire gamut of disciplines—science, medicine, technology, history, economics, politics, nuclear technology, epidemiology.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is no different from his other books in terms of writing style, with the analysis of causes and effects of disasters being long-winding and more than often meandering. The conclusions are still hazy. The overload of information about every discipline under the sun is so immense that the reader may be left puzzled by what she’s reading and, after finishing, may find difficult to understand what, according to the author, are the basic causes and effects of any disaster, and how can they be avoided or can they be avoided at all?
To be clear, the book has been written in the backdrop of the outbreak of Covid-19, but since the virus continues to devastate, it focuses on the general history of catastrophe—all kinds of disasters, from geological to geopolitical, from biological to technological.
The key learnings are: there’s no major distinction between natural and man-made disasters. Disasters can’t be predicted. The scale of the contagion cannot be understood by studying only the virus, but also the social network it attacks. Heads of governments can’t be singularly blamed for badly handling disasters. It’s easier to spot and blame the immediate causes of disasters, but actually the blame should rest largely on the long-term structural causes, which are difficult to spot at first go. And last but not the least, the Covid-19 virus is leading to another cold war between the US and China.
This is how Ferguson explains: “We cannot study the history of catastrophes, natural or man-made—though the dichotomy is somewhat false—apart from the history of economics, society, culture, and politics. Disasters are rarely entirely exogenous events, with the exception of a massive meteor strike, which hasn’t happened in sixty-six million years, or an alien invasion, which hasn’t happened at all. Even a catastrophic earthquake is only as catastrophic as the extent of urbanisation along the fault line—or the shoreline, if it triggers a tsunami. A pandemic is made up of a new pathogen and the social networks that it attacks. We cannot understand the scale of the contagion by studying only the virus itself, because the virus will infect only as many people as social networks allow it to. At the same time, a catastrophe lays bare the societies and states that it strikes… exposing some as fragile, others as resilient, and others as antifragile”.
To illustrate his theory of disasters, Ferguson takes the reader on a tour across the globe since ancient times, examining wars, famines, end of empires, pandemics, HIV, rise of science, growth and expansion of social networks, and political incompetence of large states in dealing with disasters.
For apportioning blame for bad handling of disasters, Ferguson has laid down two types of theory of errors: Active and latent. Active errors are committed by people in direct contact with the human-system interface and are often referred to as human errors. Latent errors are the delayed consequences of technical and organisational actions and decisions, such as reallocating resources, changing the scope of a position, or adjusting staffing.
To illustrate this, he gives the example of the sinking of the Titanic, where while the blame for the sinking can be attributed to the staff manning the ship (active error), the flaw in the design of the ship itself (latent error) cannot be overlooked. He examines the Chernobyl disaster also using this framework, and finally comes to the case of Covid-19 to examine how fair it is to lay the blame solely at the doors of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Though he doesn’t absolve the two leaders, in the same breath, he highlights the failure of the bureaucracy and medical professionals. “Who was to blame for the fact that the two biggest English speaking countries handled the first wave of Covid-19 so much worse than their Asian and European peers? For most journalists, the answer was blindingly obvious: the two most populist leaders, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Neither can be said to have handled the crisis ably, to put it mildly. But to turn the story of Covid-19 into a morality play—The Populists’ Nemesis—is to miss the more profound systemic and societal failure that occurred, in a way that future historians will surely see as facile,” Ferguson writes.
Here, he also brings out the fallacy of interpretations based on the great men theory of history. Quoting Tolstoy, he says that a king, after all, is history’s slave. “Inevitable laws of history are generally scoffed at; the public remains wedded to the great man school of history, even if academic historians eschew it,” he writes. The reasoning is that formally a leader sits atop a hierarchical organisational chart, issuing edicts that are transmitted down to the lowest functionary. In reality, leaders are hubs in large and complex networks.
“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,” Ferguson writes.
Ferguson is highly critical of lockdowns as a way to fight the virus and instead favours social distancing, testing, mask wearing, and contract tracing as the way to deal with it on a long-term basis. Here, he gives the example of countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, and Israel, which handled the pandemic competently without resorting to lockdowns. Lockdowns, according to Ferguson, took a heavy toll on the economic activities and, in turn, brought misery to the working population. The cost benefit analysis, according to him, did not justify lockdowns, as it was aimed at saving lives of the elderly whose residuary life in any case was shorter than those of the younger working population who bore the brunt of the stalled economy. And lockdowns, more than checking, only postpone the disaster. “Most people, however, will be unable to resist the temptations of post-lockdown gregariousness. There will be unsafe socialising just as there still is unsafe sex, even after more than three decades and thirty million deaths from HIV,” Ferguson concludes.
From examining pandemics, lockdowns and economic costs, the book’s concluding chapters abruptly leap to examine the emerging cold war between the US and China, which, though interesting, seems out of place.
Interesting as well as confusing, Doom is certainly a magisterial work by Ferguson, if one goes by the details packed, backed by impeccable research and the range of disciplines tackled. But then, it makes the story digress so much that the central theme gets lost in the process. By no means an easy book, perhaps a concluding chapter summarising the author’s findings would have helped make it more readable and even popular.
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
Penguin Random House
Pp 496, Rs 999