His talk will be based on his new book, Doom (Penguin, 2021), which offers a disturbing but timely thesis: “Disasters are inherently hard to predict. Pandemics, like earthquakes, wildfires, financial crises. and wars, are not normally distributed; there is no cycle of history to help us anticipate the next catastrophe. But when disaster strikes, we ought to be better prepared than the Romans were when Vesuvius erupted, or medieval Italians when the Black Death struck. We have science on our side, after all.” (from the Publisher)
But we are not better prepared. Any thoughtful person who has lived through the panic of ever-shifting bureaucratic responses to COVID-19 and the huge collateral damage thus created knows that. We all have stories; few can trace the historically significant causes.
Ferguson, with many books to his credit, may be able to help here. He offers “not just a history but a general theory of disasters, showing why our ever more bureaucratic and complex systems are getting worse at handling them.” (from the Publisher)
We get a sense of Ferguson’s approach from an interview at Open,
… Some critics have taken you to task for letting leaders at the top, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, off a bit too easily.
The book does not let the populists off lightly. For example: “Trump made matters worse. He downplayed the risk. He touted quack remedies. He made bad appointments. He disparaged masks. He tweeted downright lies. He campaigned with a callous disregard for the health of those around him.” But if we tell ourselves that it was all his fault that 600,000 Americans died prematurely, we are not going to learn the right lessons at all. In fact, we’ll act as if we’ve solved the problem just by electing Joe Biden. But the mistakes that cost the most deaths were not made by Trump but by the public health bureaucracy: example, the CDC’s failure to ramp up testing last year, the absence of an effective contact tracing app, the failure to protect the people in elderly care homes. Just as was true in other Western countries without populist leaders, where excess mortality rose even higher than in the US.Sudeep Paul, “Niall Ferguson: ‘Covid Exposed the Sclerosis of the Administrative State’” at Open (June 18, 2021)
From a review at The Guardian,
Sooner or later, Ferguson’s work tends to come to a realpolitik crunch, usually involving a kind of ranking assessment of the global powers. It would be wrong to say that he’s obsessed with China’s growth – it is, after all, the big story of the late 20th and early 21st century – but all roads do seem to lead to Beijing.
Of course, all the routes that Covid has taken ultimately lead back to China too, and needless to say this confluence of politics and pandemic is not lost on Ferguson. The pandemic, he writes, “merely intensified cold war II, at the same time revealing its existence to those who previously doubted it was happening”.Andrew Anthony, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson review – information overload” at The Guardian, (May 17, 2021)
Here’s a TV interview with Ferguson on the topics raised by Doom:
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You may also wish to read: Peter Thiel is speaking in person at COSM, Seattle, November 10. As a world class venture capitalist, he is known for bluntness about what works and what doesn’t. COSM 2021 focuses on the converging technologies, remaking our world. Thiel asks, is new tech soaring or slumping?
Kai-Fu Lee, inventor of speech recognition, to speak at COSM 2021. Lee is one of many technological geniuses appearing in Seattle this November. Lee’s credentials are many and impressive, including Ph.D. work that produced speech recognition, and high-level positions at Microsoft and Google. (Caitlin Bassett)