Scottish historian Niall Ferguson’s new book begins and ends with Covid-19, but it’s more than a study on the pandemic. “Doom” (Revelation, in free translation) offers a “general history of catastrophes” which, from time to time, befall mankind. This includes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and pests, as well as wars, financial collapses, major famines, nuclear accidents – and even some sci-fi plagues.
After all, says the author, “we are seldom faced with the disaster we expected, but a threat other than the most overlooked.”
What Ferguson calls the general history of catastrophes is, in essence, a story of how societies react to the imponderable. Why do some succumb, others survive and some even get stronger? “We cannot study the history of calamities, natural or man-made, in isolation from economics, social arrangements, culture and politics,” he says.
The contract requires tools borrowed from other disciplines, such as physics and mathematics. The so-called laws of power reveal the nature of catastrophes. Unfortunately, they reveal that their size and timing of hatching is impossible to predict. Likewise, network theory allows us to understand both the distribution patterns of a pandemic and the weight of true or false information in the midst of a crisis.
While demonstrating the usefulness of these devices, Ferguson has been walking around for millennia. He talks about the eruption of Vesuvius and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the world wars and the Black Death, the 1929 crash and the great famine in China by Mao Zedong. In the last chapters, he returns to Covid-19.
There are passages that have left some readers bristling. Early reactions to the book highlighted the fact that Ferguson is critical of adopting lockdowns on the basis of a cost-benefit logic, which places a monetary value on human life (as insurance companies have always had. made). But it is a delicate reaction.
Ferguson does not approve of the “published general”. On the contrary, he argues that effective systems of testing, contact mapping and selective isolation – which have been implemented in places like Taiwan and South Korea – would allow much more rational responses than the activities of cluttered opening and closing that have been observed. .
The author would also have raised the bar of people like Donald Trump (or Jair Bolsonaro) in the face of the pandemic. After all, in network theory, leaders do not alone dictate the course of history: they are just nodules in complex networks of interactions.
However, Ferguson attributes to the government the role of “superdiseminators”, that is, individuals who disseminate information massively. They certainly influence the social response to times of crisis. In fact, given the crucial role of information in any disaster, Ferguson argues that the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook is subject to more controls than it currently is.
According to Ferguson, the past allows us to identify five types of attitudes that generally lead to shipwreck when calamities are imposed: the inability to learn from history; poverty of imagination; tendency to always focus on the immediate battle; tendency to underestimate the dangers; tendency to wait for certainties that will never come.
Modeling institutions that can escape these traps can make all the difference when the next killer germ escapes from the depths of the forest. But nowhere in “Doom” is it written that picking good leaders doesn’t help at all.