Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-593-29737-7
Incompetence, illusions, and random chance characterize the ways humans cope with disaster, according to this scattershot historical study. Hoover Institution scholar Ferguson (The Square and the Tower) surveys many natural and man-made catastrophes, including volcanic eruptions, plagues, the 1840s Irish potato famine, WWI, the Hindenburg disaster, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident; he also mulls dystopian sci-fi novels and, provocatively, welcomes the “desirable”(because it would foster American innovation) prospect of a “new cold war” between the U.S. and China. The book’s centerpiece is a discussion of the Covid-19 pandemic that faults Western governments for failing to contain the virus with massive testing and tracing, but also opposes lockdowns for their economic and mental health effects. Ferguson’s sharp-eyed catastrophe postmortems debunk received wisdom (more lifeboats on the Titanic might not have made much difference) and spotlight delusional responses, from medieval flagellant rituals to the current “vague deference to ‘the science’... as if gimcrack computer simulations with made-up variables constitute science.” Unfortunately, his own stabs at scientific analysis yield few new insights—he invokes “scale-free network topology” to say that Covid-19 spread quickly via airports—and he draws the obvious conclusion that catastrophes are unpredictable and individual leaders usually have little control over them. This colorful catalogue of misfortune and folly brings little clarity to the subject. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency. (May)
Reviewed on : 02/02/2021
Release date: 05/04/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
Book - 1 pages - 978-0-593-29738-4
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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