By Jonathon Van Maren
Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press: 2021), 496 pages.
It is characteristic for conservative historian Niall Ferguson to have produced an exceptional history during a pandemic. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is a sweeping chronicle of global disasters large and small from the dawn of recorded history to the end of 2020; a detailed account not only of previous pandemics, but an embryonic analysis of the moment we are currently living through and “a diary of the plague half year.” For those seeking to ground themselves in historical context after the topsy-turvy events of the past year, Ferguson’s latest offering will prove invaluable.
Doom, Ferguson told me in an interview, is his attempt to induce us to self-awareness with regard to how we think about disasters. “I really would love to get people to think differently about things like disaster preparedness,” he said. “If I believe in anything it’s that history is a policy tool as well as a source of intellectual diversion, and although I don’t expect policymakers to read this book, there is a category of person whose job it is to read books for the policymakers and I honestly think this is an important book for those who have to think about disasters in any domain of public policy.”
Ferguson begins, appropriately enough, with the inevitability facing all of us: death. As death in the West has become increasingly contained to sterile medical institutions, we face more fearfully the reality of mortality. Ferguson refers to religion as “magical thinking,” but it is significant and largely unremarked on that we no longer possess the collective metaphysical frameworks that once served to contextualize catastrophe. Not only is public faith in government receding; increasingly, the public itself has no faith to speak of. Conspiracy theories flourish in populations where everyone seeks to create their own truth; the internet has created an infinite number of tailor-made narrative possibilities.