Abandoned dodgems in Chernobyl
Artillery Row Books

Anatomy of disaster

The psychology of political incompetence is brought out well in Niall Ferguson’s Doom

For the historian to be a public intellectual is tough, tough on the historian, tough on the public, and tough on the facile conceit that passes so often as public intellectualism. Tough because there is the pressure to simplify and decontextualise in order to satisfy what the public is alleged to want, and so what many public intellectuals provide, and tough on the historian because this approach is the opposite to that for which they are trained.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson

The combination of range, insight, acuity, clarity and (sometimes) caution that characterises the historians who rise to the challenge is found with few. The combination inevitably, alas, leads to qualification, criticism and, less attractively, envy from the many who lack such characteristics, and Niall Ferguson has faced these in full. He tackles big topics, topics of importance, and does so with energy and skill. So we have a range of studies by Ferguson, one from which I have certainly profited. The new one is the consequence both of an immediate issue and of a wide-ranging intellect that offers a relevant contextualisation. It follows the appearance of a range of relevant internet articles by Ferguson, and reflects his command of the relevant data. This new book is well-written, wide-ranging, conceptually interesting, shrewd, and good value. With Adrian Woolridge’s important new book on meritocracy, it bucks the trend of a number of indifferent, and if not worse, books by this publisher that I have read, notably those by Andrews, Clark and Satia.

Ferguson argues that the end of the world has been a recurrent feature of human thought

Ferguson takes the present situation and puts it in multiple contexts, recent and longer lasting, to argue that the end of the world has been a recurrent feature of human thought and that responses to this have been culturally significant as well as throwing much light on competence. We have the variety of calamities, a variety much wider and in some respect more gripping than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With reference to the Chicxulub asteroid, Ferguson notes that thus far, humanity has been let off lightly by both outer space and our own solar system. If so, as he points out, volcanoes were no walk in the park. The range is fantastic, and the level of accuracy astonishingly high, though the yellow-fever benighted failure at Cartagena was in 1741 not 1740.

The deep history is handled with care, and is gripping, not least in underlining Ferguson’s point about the fatal interplay between the infrequency of disaster and the shortness of human memory. The psychology of political incompetence is brought out well, but so are malign politics: “The difference between Victorian liberals and Soviet Communists should now be clear.” Nature, in the form of a new pathogen, played a much larger role in the Irish Famine. The Ukrainian Holodomor, by contrast, was largely man-made and with malice aforethought.” Intent and scale are currently differently driven home by the man-made humanitarian disaster in Tigray which illustrates the degree to which far more Africans have killed each other since 1960 than were killed in the colonial wars, which does not of course justify the latter but does underline the analytical significance of “whataboutery.” 

In the face of contagion, much depends on the quality of governance

Ferguson then moves onto disease, but throughout emphasising the general points he has brought forward from the earlier discussion. For example, his informed and shrewd analysis of the response to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters is used to discuss points about complexity:

Most disasters occur when a complex system goes critical, usually as a result of some small perturbation. The extent to which the exogenous shock causes a disaster is generally a function of the social network structure that comes under stress. The point of failure, if it can be located at all, is more likely to be in the middle layer than at the top of the organisation chart. When failure occurs, however, society as a whole, and the different interest groups within it, will draw much larger inferences about future risk than are warranted — hence the widespread conclusion from a small number of accidents that nuclear power was chronically unsafe.

As he points out, in the face of contagion, much depends on the quality of governance: not just strategic decision making at the top, but also the speed and accuracy of information flows up and down the command-and-control structure, and the effectiveness of operational execution. In part, this effectiveness is a matter of political culture as much as governmental structure. Following on naturally from The Square and the Tower, his important assessment of information systems, this is a crucial work that truly deserves wide attention.

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