.
I

t is a curious thing to reflect on just how fragile and vulnerable civilization is—not civilization in the sense of humanity, but the modern way of life that we all enjoy and take for granted. It only takes a nominal vertical system shock to reverberate across our horizontally integrated societal network to see the proverbial wheels start to come off.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe | Niall Ferguson | Penguin | May 2021.

Just this week we saw an example of this fragility. The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, which supplies some 45 percent of the East Coast, resulted in states of emergency, gas shortages, long lines, panic buying and hoarding, and skyrocketing prices. Reports suggest that the attack occurred because the IT department was using an unpatched system, allowing criminal hackers known as DarkSide—possibly Russian in origin—to insert the ransomware.

All it took was a few lines of code, unpatched servers (likely due to human error), and humanity’s predisposition to panic, to bring the sense of normalcy in daily life to a screeching halt. Just like the great toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic, humanity fails to see and understand just how interconnected things are, and the role that human agency plays in disasters.

These two points are central to Niall Ferguson’s latest book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe." Ferguson’s writing is broad in scope, but deep in analysis, jettisoning a laser focus on any one incident in lieu of a broad review of disasters—from volcanic eruptions to wars, plagues to the collapse of empires. It is, as others have noted, a refreshing historical analysis as it seems much of popular history today focuses on one incident or one theme, and attempts to craft a broader narrative from that one data point. Lumping all disasters into one volume makes “Doom” a curious book, but one that is thought-provoking given the underlying theses Ferguson presents.

According to Ferguson, “all disasters are at some level man-made,” and here he’s not wrong. The impact of natural disasters is a function of humanity’s response to those disasters. The failings after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were a function of decisions made prior to the storm’s landfall in terms of levee construction and design, and after in terms of a slow bureaucratic response. The Fukushima nuclear plant crisis resulted from conscious decisions to not build seawalls sufficiently high, despite warnings that such a tsunami would imperil the reactors’ back-up systems. Even the devastation from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was the result of Romans’ decision to live in the shadow of the volcano—the eruption itself was a geological event, but it was humanity’s decisions that made it a disaster.  

Disasters do not sit along a bell curve, with a lot of moderate events in the middle, tailing off on the extremes. Rather, they are fat tail events with larger, more impactful disasters clustering towards the extreme end. Smaller disasters barely register in our consciousness, but the large events have disproportionate effects. Here, Ferguson borrows from other writers, crafting three categories of events or disasters: the “gray rhinos” or events we should see coming; the “black swans” or significant, rare, and unexpected events; and “dragon kings” or events that are so extreme and impactful that they lie outside the power law distribution. It is an interesting framework and one that highlights humanity’s difficulty in conceptualizing negative or adverse events. It is certainly easier in hindsight, but forecasting out or preparing for the future is extremely difficult, especially given the tendency to prepare for the last disaster, not what could happen next.

Equally in Ferguson’s analysis, it is less the leader that is responsible for the shortcomings, but rather bureaucratic ineptitude and a failing to understand network analysis. To be sure, having a strong and capable leader can help, just as a weak and ineffectual one can hurt, but to rely solely on a “great man” or “great woman” theory of history is to excuse culpability in other places. While there is certainly a case to be made that President Trump’s blasé attitude towards COVID-19 stifled the country’s initial response, the CDC and other federal, state, and local officials did not display their finest hour. Despite the years of planning, the billions of dollars invested, the thousands of pages written, the United States’ infectious disease response apparatus singularly failed. Internationally, the WHO, for its part, and co-opted by the Chinese Communist Party, did not comport itself with the level of professionalism many expected such a previously august institution to do so.

At the same time, small countries or city states with previous exposure to SARS or MERS, such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, and latterly Israel, comported themselves well. In Ferguson’s telling, the fact that these small countries are each in their own way under siege from external threats, resulted in their institutions performing better than those that do not face such pressures.

While the buck may indeed stop at the desk of the leader, such narratives are myopic and overly simplistic in Ferguson’s telling. Narratives and stories may be engaging, but they are also limiting, trending toward overly simplistic and casual analysis, missing the reality that the big disaster or big collapse is actually the result of hundreds of smaller catastrophes and disasters. The collapse of the Roman Empire is not the function of one specific invasion, defeat, or economic crisis, but the result of hundreds of smaller disasters all contributing to the end of one of the greatest empires in human history—its collapse started slowly and then all at once.

It is here that Ferguson’s emphasis on network analysis and dynamics is particularly well suited and rightly emphasized. An understanding or appreciation of the connection of events, institutions, and even people would better prepare us for the external systemic shock, be it war, pandemic, or natural disaster. The failure to predict World War One, despite all the evidence available, boils down to a lack of understanding of how the states of Europe were so intertwined. The just-in-time delivery system, a marvel of modern logistics, exposed the world to shortages when the system experienced nationalist pressures in the wake of the pandemic—something that could have been foreseen, but was not.

The challenge with "Doom" is that in trying to connect so much—provide a unifying theory of sorts on disasters past and future, and in the latter quarter, provide commentary on both the pandemic and the new Cold War between the United States and China—it loses a bit of the connective tissue that makes Ferguson’s other books so strong and suffers from a bit of a jarring transition. It is worth sticking with, of course, but it is notable nonetheless.

The narrative account of the emergence of COVID-19, China’s mishandling of the initial crisis (both by commission and omission) and the West’s bungled response is interesting, but likely too premature. It is the hottest of hot takes, and while it offers evidence supporting the central thesis, it would have been better if it abandoned the sweeping narrative and focused on the political shortcomings.

“Doom” illustrates humanity’s difficulty in understanding or preparing for disasters, and highlights the cognitive challenges society faces in even understanding adverse events. The tendency towards looking at events in a linear fashion oversimplifies complex network relationships. Disaster response drives disaster preparedness, but often only the last disaster, not the next one. Moreover, the habit of looking at events as either natural or man-made masks the human agency in both, which Ferguson vividly illustrates in “Doom”.

So, are we doomed? If past is prologue, then perhaps we are. Humanity is ill-suited to cognitively understanding and preparing for risk, especially those of the animal variety be it a gray rhino, black swan, or dragon king. The unstated challenge presented by Ferguson’s book is to shift planning and thinking away from preparedness and towards resiliency. We will never have a crystal ball and no amount of data science will craft a predictive algorithm for the chaos of nature and humanity’s interconnectedness. Yet, shifting our understanding of disasters and our agency in them will go some way to ameliorating the vulnerability of our collective civilization.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Photo via Pixabay.

May 22, 2021

It is a curious thing to reflect on just how fragile and vulnerable civilization is.

I

t is a curious thing to reflect on just how fragile and vulnerable civilization is—not civilization in the sense of humanity, but the modern way of life that we all enjoy and take for granted. It only takes a nominal vertical system shock to reverberate across our horizontally integrated societal network to see the proverbial wheels start to come off.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe | Niall Ferguson | Penguin | May 2021.

Just this week we saw an example of this fragility. The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, which supplies some 45 percent of the East Coast, resulted in states of emergency, gas shortages, long lines, panic buying and hoarding, and skyrocketing prices. Reports suggest that the attack occurred because the IT department was using an unpatched system, allowing criminal hackers known as DarkSide—possibly Russian in origin—to insert the ransomware.

All it took was a few lines of code, unpatched servers (likely due to human error), and humanity’s predisposition to panic, to bring the sense of normalcy in daily life to a screeching halt. Just like the great toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic, humanity fails to see and understand just how interconnected things are, and the role that human agency plays in disasters.

These two points are central to Niall Ferguson’s latest book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe." Ferguson’s writing is broad in scope, but deep in analysis, jettisoning a laser focus on any one incident in lieu of a broad review of disasters—from volcanic eruptions to wars, plagues to the collapse of empires. It is, as others have noted, a refreshing historical analysis as it seems much of popular history today focuses on one incident or one theme, and attempts to craft a broader narrative from that one data point. Lumping all disasters into one volume makes “Doom” a curious book, but one that is thought-provoking given the underlying theses Ferguson presents.

According to Ferguson, “all disasters are at some level man-made,” and here he’s not wrong. The impact of natural disasters is a function of humanity’s response to those disasters. The failings after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were a function of decisions made prior to the storm’s landfall in terms of levee construction and design, and after in terms of a slow bureaucratic response. The Fukushima nuclear plant crisis resulted from conscious decisions to not build seawalls sufficiently high, despite warnings that such a tsunami would imperil the reactors’ back-up systems. Even the devastation from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was the result of Romans’ decision to live in the shadow of the volcano—the eruption itself was a geological event, but it was humanity’s decisions that made it a disaster.  

Disasters do not sit along a bell curve, with a lot of moderate events in the middle, tailing off on the extremes. Rather, they are fat tail events with larger, more impactful disasters clustering towards the extreme end. Smaller disasters barely register in our consciousness, but the large events have disproportionate effects. Here, Ferguson borrows from other writers, crafting three categories of events or disasters: the “gray rhinos” or events we should see coming; the “black swans” or significant, rare, and unexpected events; and “dragon kings” or events that are so extreme and impactful that they lie outside the power law distribution. It is an interesting framework and one that highlights humanity’s difficulty in conceptualizing negative or adverse events. It is certainly easier in hindsight, but forecasting out or preparing for the future is extremely difficult, especially given the tendency to prepare for the last disaster, not what could happen next.

Equally in Ferguson’s analysis, it is less the leader that is responsible for the shortcomings, but rather bureaucratic ineptitude and a failing to understand network analysis. To be sure, having a strong and capable leader can help, just as a weak and ineffectual one can hurt, but to rely solely on a “great man” or “great woman” theory of history is to excuse culpability in other places. While there is certainly a case to be made that President Trump’s blasé attitude towards COVID-19 stifled the country’s initial response, the CDC and other federal, state, and local officials did not display their finest hour. Despite the years of planning, the billions of dollars invested, the thousands of pages written, the United States’ infectious disease response apparatus singularly failed. Internationally, the WHO, for its part, and co-opted by the Chinese Communist Party, did not comport itself with the level of professionalism many expected such a previously august institution to do so.

At the same time, small countries or city states with previous exposure to SARS or MERS, such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, and latterly Israel, comported themselves well. In Ferguson’s telling, the fact that these small countries are each in their own way under siege from external threats, resulted in their institutions performing better than those that do not face such pressures.

While the buck may indeed stop at the desk of the leader, such narratives are myopic and overly simplistic in Ferguson’s telling. Narratives and stories may be engaging, but they are also limiting, trending toward overly simplistic and casual analysis, missing the reality that the big disaster or big collapse is actually the result of hundreds of smaller catastrophes and disasters. The collapse of the Roman Empire is not the function of one specific invasion, defeat, or economic crisis, but the result of hundreds of smaller disasters all contributing to the end of one of the greatest empires in human history—its collapse started slowly and then all at once.

It is here that Ferguson’s emphasis on network analysis and dynamics is particularly well suited and rightly emphasized. An understanding or appreciation of the connection of events, institutions, and even people would better prepare us for the external systemic shock, be it war, pandemic, or natural disaster. The failure to predict World War One, despite all the evidence available, boils down to a lack of understanding of how the states of Europe were so intertwined. The just-in-time delivery system, a marvel of modern logistics, exposed the world to shortages when the system experienced nationalist pressures in the wake of the pandemic—something that could have been foreseen, but was not.

The challenge with "Doom" is that in trying to connect so much—provide a unifying theory of sorts on disasters past and future, and in the latter quarter, provide commentary on both the pandemic and the new Cold War between the United States and China—it loses a bit of the connective tissue that makes Ferguson’s other books so strong and suffers from a bit of a jarring transition. It is worth sticking with, of course, but it is notable nonetheless.

The narrative account of the emergence of COVID-19, China’s mishandling of the initial crisis (both by commission and omission) and the West’s bungled response is interesting, but likely too premature. It is the hottest of hot takes, and while it offers evidence supporting the central thesis, it would have been better if it abandoned the sweeping narrative and focused on the political shortcomings.

“Doom” illustrates humanity’s difficulty in understanding or preparing for disasters, and highlights the cognitive challenges society faces in even understanding adverse events. The tendency towards looking at events in a linear fashion oversimplifies complex network relationships. Disaster response drives disaster preparedness, but often only the last disaster, not the next one. Moreover, the habit of looking at events as either natural or man-made masks the human agency in both, which Ferguson vividly illustrates in “Doom”.

So, are we doomed? If past is prologue, then perhaps we are. Humanity is ill-suited to cognitively understanding and preparing for risk, especially those of the animal variety be it a gray rhino, black swan, or dragon king. The unstated challenge presented by Ferguson’s book is to shift planning and thinking away from preparedness and towards resiliency. We will never have a crystal ball and no amount of data science will craft a predictive algorithm for the chaos of nature and humanity’s interconnectedness. Yet, shifting our understanding of disasters and our agency in them will go some way to ameliorating the vulnerability of our collective civilization.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.