Disaster Junkies
Detail from Albrecht Dürer's 1498 woodcut depicting the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Image via Wikimedia commons.

We live in an era where catastrophe looms large in the political imagination. On the one side we find hellacious visions of climate crisis and ecological collapse, on the other, grim warnings of social disintegration through plummeting birth rates, mass immigration and crime. Popular culture’s vivid post-apocalyptic worlds, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, increasingly echo in political discourse, most memorably in Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration speech on the theme of “American Carnage.” For more imaginative doom-mongers there are various technological dystopias to contemplate, whether AI run amok, a digital surveillance state, or simply the replacement of physical experience with virtual surrogates. Then, in 2020, the eruption of a global pandemic allowed catastrophe to cross from the silver screen to the news studio, as much of the world sat transfixed by a profusion of statistics, graphs and harrowing reports of sickness and death.

If you are anything like me, the role of catastrophe in politics and culture raises endless fascinating questions. How should we explain our visceral revulsion at fellow citizens dying en mass from an infectious disease, and our contrasting apathy to other forms of large-scale suffering and death? How can we understand our capacity to be terrified by climate change without necessarily feeling a commensurate urgency to do something about it? Why do certain political tribes obsess over certain disasters?

It was questions like these that led me to pick up Niall Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. I did this somewhat nervously, since I found one of Ferguson’s previous books extremely boring, and tend to cringe at his use of intellectual gimmicks – like his idea that the past success of Western civilisation can be attributed to six “killer apps.” Then again, while Ferguson’s contrarianism generally feels contrived, it occasionally produces an interesting perspective, such as his willingness to weigh the negative aspects of the British Empire against the positive, as historians do with most other empires. But as I say, it was really the subject of this latest book that drew me in.

I might as well say upfront that I found it very disappointing. So this is going to be a bad review – though hopefully not a pointless one. The flaws of this book can, I think, point us towards a richer understanding of catastrophe than the book itself offers.

Firstly, Doom is not really about “the politics of catastrophe” as I understand that phrase. A few promising questions posed in the introduction – “Why do some societies and states respond to catastrophe so much better than others? Why do some fall apart, most hold together, and a few emerge stronger? Why does politics sometimes cause catastrophe?” – are not addressed in any sustained way, despite Ferguson calling them “some of the central questions posed by Doom.” What this book is really about is the difficulty of predicting and mitigating statistically irregular events which cause excess deaths. That sounds interesting enough, to be sure, but there’s just one fundamental problem: Ferguson never gets to grips with what actually makes such events catastrophic, leaving a rather large hole where the subject of the book should be. 

The alarm bells start ringing when Ferguson introduces the book as “a general history of catastrophe” and, in case we didn’t grasp how capacious that sounds, tells us it will include:

not just pandemics but all kinds of disasters, from the geological (earthquakes) to the geopolitical (wars), from the biological (pandemics) to the technological (nuclear accidents). Asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, extreme weather events, famines, catastrophic accidents, depressions, revolutions, wars, and genocides: all life – and much death – is here.

You may be asking if there is really much of a relationship, throughout all the ages of history, between asteroid strikes, nuclear accidents and revolutions – and I’d say this gets to a pretty basic problem with tackling a subject like this. Writing about catastrophe (or disaster – the two are used a synonyms) requires finding a way to coherently group together the extremely diverse phenomena that might fall into this category. It requires, in other words, developing an understanding of what catastrophe actually means, in a way that allows for useful parallels between its different manifestations. 

Ferguson seems to acknowledge this when he rounds off his list by asking “For how else are we to see our disaster [i.e. Covid] – any disaster – in proper perspective?” Yet his concept of catastrophe turns out to be circular, inconsistent and inadequate. In effect, whatever aspect of catastrophe Ferguson happens to be discussing in a particular chapter becomes, temporarily, his definition of catastrophe as such. When he is talking about mortality, mortality becomes definitive of catastrophe (“disaster, in the sense of excess mortality, can take diverse forms and yet pose similar challenges”). Likewise when he is showing how infrequent and therefore hard to predict catastrophes are (“the rare, large scale disasters that are the subject of this book”). In Ferguson’s chapter seeking similarities between smaller and larger disasters, he seems happy to simply accept whatever is viewed as a disaster in the popular memory: the Titanic, Chernobyl, the failed launch of NASA’s Challenger spacecraft. 

This is not nitpicking. I’m not expecting the metaphysical rigor of Immanuel Kant. I like an ambitious, wide-ranging discussion, even if that means sacrificing some depth. But attempting this without any real thesis, or even a firm conceptual framework, risks descending into a series of aimless and confusing digressions which don’t add up to anything. And that is more or less what happens in this book.

Consider Ferguson’s chapter on “The Psychology of Political Incompetence.” After a windy and not especially relevant summary of Tolstoy’s concluding essay in War and Peace, Ferguson briefly introduces the idea that political leaders’ power is curtailed by the bureaucratic structures they inhabit. He then cuts to a discussion of the critical role of ideology in creating disastrous food shortages, by way of supporting Amartya Sen’s argument that democratic regimes respond better to famines than non-democratic ones. It’s not clear how this relates to the theme of bureaucracy and leadership, but this is actually one of the few sections where Ferguson is addressing something like “the politics of catastrophe,” and when he poses the interesting question of “why Sen’s theory does not apply to all forms of disaster” it feels like we are finally getting somewhere.

Alas, as tends to be the case in this book, Ferguson doesn’t answer the question, but embarks on a series of impromptu arguments against straw men. A winding discussion of British ineptness during the two World Wars brings him to the conclusion that “Democracy may insure a country against famine; it clearly does not insure against military disaster.” Who said that it does? Then Ferguson has suddenly returned to the issue of individual leadership, arguing that “it makes little sense” to hold Churchill solely responsible for the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Again, who said we should? Ferguson then rounds off the chapter with an almost insultingly cursory discussion of “How Empires Fall,” cramming eight empires into less than five pages, to make the highly speculative argument that that imperial collapse is as unpredictable as various other kinds of disaster.

Insofar as anything holds this book together, it is the thin sinews of statistical probability models and network science. These do furnish a few worthwhile insights. Many of the events Ferguson classes as disasters follow power-law distributions, which is to say there is no regular relationship between their scale and the frequency with which they occur. So big disasters are essentially impossible to predict. In many cases, this is because they emerge from complex systems – natural, economic and social – which can unexpectedly amplify small events into enormous ones. In hindsight, these often seem to have been entirely predictable, and the Cassandras who warned of them are vindicated. But a regime that listened to every Cassandra would incur significant political costs in preparing for disasters that usually won’t materialize.

I also liked Ferguson’s observation that the key factor determining the scale of a disaster, in terms of mortality, is “whether or not there is contagion – that is, some way of propagating the initial shock through the biological networks of life or the social networks of humanity.” But his other useful comments about networks come in a single paragraph, and can be quoted without much further explanation:

If Cassandras had higher centrality [in the network], they might be more often heeded. If erroneous doctrines [i.e. misinformation] spread virally through a large social network, effective mitigation of disaster becomes much harder. Finally… hierarchical structures such as states exist principally because, while inferior to distributed networks when it comes to innovation, they are superior when it comes to defence.

It didn’t strike me as necessary to have slogged through an entire chapter on network science, recycled from Ferguson’s last book, The Square and the Tower, to understand these points.

But returning to my main criticism, statistical and network analysis doesn’t really allow for meaningful parallels between different kinds of catastrophe. This is already evident in the introduction, when Ferguson states that “disaster takes too many forms for us to process with conventional approaches to risk mitigation. No sooner have we focused our minds on the threat of Salafi jihad than we find ourselves in a financial crisis originating in subprime mortgages.” As this strange comment suggests, the implied perspective of the book is that of a single government agency tasked with predicting everything from financial crises and terrorist attacks to volcanic eruptions and genocides. But no such agency exists, of course, for the simple reason that when you zoom in from lines plotted on a graph, the illusion that these risks are similar dissolves into a range of totally different phenomena attached to various concrete situations. The problem is absurdly illustrated when, having cited a statistical analysis of 315 conflicts between 1820-1950, Ferguson declares that in terms of predictability, “wars do indeed resemble pandemics and earthquakes. We cannot know in advance when or where a specific event will strike, nor on what scale.” Which makes it sound like we simply have no way of knowing whether the next conflict is more likely to break out in Gaza or Switzerland.  

In any case, there is something patently inadequate about measuring catastrophe in terms of mortality figures and QALYs (quality-adjusted life years), as though the only thing we have in common is a desire to live for as long as possible. Not once is the destruction of culture or ways of life mentioned in the book, despite the fact that throughout history these forms of loss have loomed large in people’s sense of catastrophe. Ferguson even mentions several times that the most prolific causes of mortality are often not recognised as catastrophes – but does not seem to grasp the corollary that catastrophe is about something more than large numbers of deaths. 

Indeed, perhaps the best thing that can be said about Doom is that its shortcomings help us to realise what does need to be included in an understanding of catastrophe. Throughout the book, we see such missing dimensions flicker briefly into view. In his discussion of the flu pandemic of the late 1950s, Ferguson notes in passing that the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 “may help to explain why the memory of the Asian flu has faded” in the United States. This resonates with various other hints that this pandemic was not really perceived as a catastrophe. But why? And it what sense was it competing with the Cold War in the popular imagination? Likewise, Ferguson mentions that during the 1930s the lawyer Basil O’Connor used “the latest techniques in advertising and fundraising” to turn the “horrific but relatively rare disease” of polio into “the most feared affliction of the age.” This episode is briefly contrasted to the virtual silence of the American media and political class over AIDS during the 1980s. 

In fact, unacknowledged catastrophes are an unacknowledged theme of the book. It re-emerges in several intriguing mentions of the opioid epidemic in the United States, with its associated “deaths of despair.” At the same time as there was “obsessive discussion” of global warming among the American elite, Ferguson points out, “the chance of dying from an overdose was two hundred times greater than the chance of being killed by a cataclysmic storm.” He also describes the opioid crisis as “the biggest disaster of the Obama presidency,” and suggests that although “the media assigned almost no blame to Obama” for it, “such social trends did much to explain Donald J. Trump’s success.” Finally, Ferguson notes that during the current Covid crisis, the relative importance of protecting the vulnerable from the disease versus maintaining economic activity became an active front in the American culture war. 

The obvious implication of all this is that, while Ferguson does not really engage with “the politics of catastrophe,” the concept and reality of catastrophe is inherently political. There is not really an objective measure of catastrophe: the concept implies judging the nature and consequences of an event to be tragic. Whether or not something meets this standard often depends on who it affects and whether it fits into the emotionally compelling narratives of the day. The AIDS and opioid epidemics initially went unrecognized because their victims were homosexuals and working class people respectively. To take another example, the 1921 pogrom against the affluent African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was for the longest time barely known about, let alone mourned (except of course by African Americans themselves), yet a hundred years later it is being widely recognised as a travesty. Last week’s volcanic eruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which may have left 20,000 people homeless, would probably be acknowledged as catastrophic by a Westerner who happened to read about it in the news. But we are much more likely to be aware of, and emotionally invested in, the disastrous Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent weeks. 

Catastrophe, in other words, is inextricably bound up with popular perception and imagination. It is rooted in the emotions of fear, anger, sadness, horror and titillation with which certain events are experienced, remembered or anticipated. This is how we can make sense of the apathy of Westerners to the late-1950s flu pandemic: such hazards, as Ferguson mentions, were still considered a normal part of life rather than an exceptional danger, and people’s minds were focused on the potential escalation of the Cold War. Hence also the importance of the media in determining whether and how disasters become embedded in public discourse. While every culture has its religious and mythical visions of catastrophe (a few are mentioned in a typically fleeting discussion near the start of Doom), today Netflix and the news media have turned us into disaster junkies, giving form and content to our apocalyptic impulses. The Covid pandemic has been a fully mediated experience, an epic rollercoaster of the imagination, its personal and social significance shaped by a constant drumbeat of new information. It is because climate change cannot be made to fit this urgent tempo that is has been cast in stead as a source of fatalism and dread, always looming on the horizon and inspiring millions with a sense of terrified helplessness.  

Overlooking the central role of such cultural and political narratives probably meant that Ferguson’s Doom was doomed from the start. For one thing, this missing perspective immediately shows the problem with trying to compare catastrophes across all human history. Yes, there are fascinating patterns even at this scale, like the tendency of extreme ideological movements to emerge in the midst of disasters – whether the flagellant orders that sprang from the 14th century Black Death, or the spread of Bolshevism in the latter part of the First World War. But such trends only take us so far: to really understand any catastrophe, we have to know what it meant to the people living through it, and this means looking at the particulars of culture, politics and religion that vary enormously between epochs. This, I would argue, is why Ferguson’s attempt to compare the Athenian plague of the late 5th century BC to the Black Death in medieval England feels rather superficial. 

And whatever the historical scope, unpredictability and mortality simply don’t get close to the imaginative essence of catastrophe. Whether or not a catastrophe actually happens is incidental to its significance in our lives; many go unnoticed, others transform culture through mere anticipation. Nor do we experience catastrophes as an aggregate of death-fearing individuals. We do so as social beings whose concerns are much more elaborate and interesting than mere life and death.