Is modern life a doom machine? Do urbanization, international trade, air transport, immigration, tourism, and travel expose humans to an ever-growing threat of plagues and catastrophes? Are we killing ourselves through our cosmopolitan bustle of business, technology, immigration, cultural exchange, agriculture, and exogamous sex? The distinguished historian and transatlantic pundit-philosopher Niall Ferguson says so in this laboriously learned, encyclopedic catalogue, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.
Taking us from the Chicxulub asteroid impact that likely killed the dinosaurs to Vesuvius, from World Wars I and II to Chernobyl, and from bubonic plagues to the Spanish Flu to AIDS to SARS to covid-19, Ferguson tells us more than we may want to know about the propensity of living things to die multitudinously in disasters that they often cause or exacerbate.
Keep reading, though. He also says many multifarious, fascinating, polymathic things. And, as he confides in a footnote, he does mercifully spare us two additional chapters he wrote on contemporary politics (the 2016 election) and political failures since (“What Was Not Done”).
While preparing his story of covid-19’s precursors and causes from the eminence of the Hoover Tower at Stanford, the former Oxford don continued his loquacious passage through the global aerotropolis of airports and malls, with microphones ablaze until the very moment of the global lockdown. Preening as a possible “superspreader,” he concludes that the more we travel and socialize the more we die.
Lucky for us (and him), he survived to tell the tale, and I survived a similar regime to debunk his dolorous findings. “Three things,” he writes, “have increased mankind’s vulnerability . . . ever larger human settlements, increased proximity to insects and animals, and exponentially rising human mobility—to be more succinct, urbanization, agriculture, and globalization.”
After an opening chapter on “The Meaning of Death” (subtitle—“We Are All Doomed”), he gives an account of the Black Plague in the mid-fourteenth century, which was a recurrence of a similar outbreak, the so-called “Plague of Justinian,” that devastated the Roman Empire eight centuries before. Killing, by some estimates, up to half of Europe’s humans, the fourteenth-century bubonic plague so dwarfs all the exploits of later flus, rats, swine, bats, earthquakes, mosquitoes, Titanics, wars, floods, dreaded dromedary camels, and pandemic covids as to impugn the monitory message of Ferguson’s subsequent sagas of doom.
The principal cause of the “Black Death,” our historian argues, was urbanization: the proliferation of towns in Europe as the population fatefully grew. The problem was what our covid-oriented healthcare pettifoggers would depict as “troubling clusters” of flesh and breath, commerce and modernity.
“The most important feature of a disaster,” Ferguson explains, “is . . . contagion—that is, some way of propagating the initial shock through the biological networks of life or the social networks of humanity.”
In fathoming doom, “features” abound. Our eminent guide may someday be forgiven for penning, “The [bubonic] bug became a feature”; anything is possible, especially in view of his later felicitous riff on an epidemic in eighteenth-century France: “The general massacre of cats and dogs . . . must have been welcomed by the rats of Provence.”
We then plunge into chapters of pickled prose on the overwrought theories of “network science,” “adaptive complexity,” cliodynamics, Poisson death distributions, and cascading fractals, with exponentials, nonlinearities, butterfly effects, “dragon kings,” and black swans galore. Complex systems and “networlds” of ever-growing populations linked ever more densely, we learn, have “emergent properties.” These features follow “power laws,” manifesting themselves in a tendency toward “disintegration . . . all at once, with breathtaking speed . . . or with successive, convulsive phase transitions.” Winston Churchill put it more pithily as “cosmos plunging into chaos.”
These ideas and the agoraphobia they induce lead to the familiar prescription of preventing doom by “social distancing.” Fecklessly favored through history are puritanical bans on human intimacy and interaction. It is only the latest of these righteous sieges we have all undergone in the primitive regime of quarantining the healthy, masking children, and locking down the economy, measures imposed by most governments around the world in the battle against covid.
Ferguson is ambivalent about all this, and he does challenge lockdowns. But posturing as a prophet, he is proud of writing on February 2, 2020, as the show got underway,
We are now dealing with an epidemic in the world’s most populous country, which has a significant chance of becoming a global pandemic . . . . The challenge is . . . to resist that strange fatalism that leads most of us not to cancel our travel plans and not to wear uncomfortable masks, even when a dangerous virus is spreading exponentially.
He confesses that he failed the challenge. He wore a mask “once or twice” during his peregrinations, “but found it intolerable after an hour and took it off.” Like most of the rest of the world, he succumbed later to the prevailing panic, which may have perplexed his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is a fatwa victim and the heroic author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason. Ferguson, though, admonishes, “no more tut-tutting at the hijab and the niqab.” He grumps: “I myself welcome a new age of social distancing, but then I am a natural misanthrope who hates crowds and will not greatly miss hugs and handshakes.” Off to Montana, then.
He quotes with relish the eighteenth-century writer Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, a sort of historical fiction set in 1665 in London, when England lost some 15 percent of its population. Defoe praised restrictions on the “multitude of rogues and wandering beggars . . . spreading . . . infection.” Prominent among the menaces, we learn, were many peripatetic Jews, with frothing crowds of “flagellants” punishing themselves for their disease and spreading it. The response was to ban “All Plays, Bear-Baitings, Games, Singing of Ballads, Buckle-Play [staged sword fights],” and other occasions for promiscuous human breathing on each other in, many of them unimagined even by indignant American governors in 2020 and after.
In my environs in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, more than three centuries after 1665, with drastically smaller justification, the puritans remained in charge under the petty authoritarianism of Governor Charlie Baker. Essentially banned last year were outdoor road and trail races, Tanglewood concerts, church crowds, theater festivals, jazz festivals, baseball games, Jacob’s Pillow ballet, music barns, track meets, swim meets, weddings, massage parlors, fitness centers, dances, basketball contests, school and college classes, indoor restaurants, and agricultural fairs. Wait until Baker hears about “buckle play.”
In our modern world, we might have been expected to have moved beyond such primitive cowering before a virus. But Ferguson impugns the exultant claims of modern medicine, which in previous works he had celebrated as one of the “six killer applications of Western civilization”: For every two steps forward that the men and women with the microscopes were able to take, the human race proved capable of taking at least one step back—by constantly, albeit unwittingly, optimizing [human] networks and behavior [as if] to expedite the transmission of contagious pathogens.
“As a result,” he writes, “triumphalist narratives about the end of medical history have been repeatedly given the lie: by the 1918–19 ‘Spanish influenza,’ by HIV-AIDS, and most recently by covid-19,” though the Spanish Flu killed over twelve times more people of all ages than even the piled-up covid totals of abbreviated lives of near-death octogenarians.
Ferguson’s theory, fraught with fascinating detail, academic fashion, and historic sweep as it is, ends up at the opposite of the truth. The truth is that globalization, technology, capitalism, and personal freedoms multiply population and extend lives. They are the answer to, not the cause of our peril. The most important fact of human life and history over the last three hundred years is the so-called “population explosion.” During this period of ascendancy of all the trends of globalization, trade, and travel that are supposedly dooming our species, not only did human numbers grow elevenfold, from 683 million to 7.7 billion, but the average human life span also nearly doubled, from thirty-five to seventy.
The longevity gains were greatest, as Ferguson shows in a chart on page 39, in such countries as Japan, Italy, France, and South Korea. By all measures, these are among the most urbanized populations on the face of the planet. Mixed amid them are untold millions of dogs, cats, mice, and bats. Early childhood exposure to animal excrement is associated with later resistance to disease.
The population boom peaked in the last century with ever more thousands of crowded planes bearing ever more millions of people every week to ever wider numbers of ever more populous cities. The actual history tells us that the reason for this elevenfold rise in human populations was the very global intercourse among nations and minds and bodies and industries and technologies that Ferguson cites as causes of covid contagion and death. As the number of people grew, so did the levels of wealth and the rate of innovation in a spiral of creativity and learning, crucially fostered by increasing densities of human contact and exchange.
My formula for an information theory of economics ordains that wealth is most essentially knowledge (the caveman, as Ferguson’s colleague Thomas Sowell could have told him, had all the material resources we command today). Economic growth is learning, manifested in “learning curves” of collapsing costs throughout all industries tested by markets. Constraining the processes of learning is time. Money functions as tokenized time, setting the cadence of progress through darkness and ignorance into the future.
No less than in economics, learning is crucial in the biology of human survival. A current professor at Oxford, an epidemiologist uncited in the pages of Doom, is Sunetra Gupta, the author of an incisive text titled Pandemics (2013). I first encountered Gupta as one of the authors of the anti-lockdown “Great Barrington Declaration,” signed by some fifty thousand doctors and other authorities. From her works, I realized that the progress of learning in economics is repeated in human immune systems exposed to new viruses and bacteria.
A key reason for the rise in populations is the disappearance of the death-dealing plagues of the past. Far from promoting pandemics, the rise of industry, medicine, and trade in the enriching spirals of capitalist growth and learning has radically reduced the impact of disease on human life.
The incidence and severity of pandemics has drastically diminished, not increased in any way. Immigration, tourism, air travel, trade, exogamy, and other interactions between different populations have trained our immune systems to recognize new threats. Medical advances and vaccinations have abated or eliminated old threats. With globalized adaptive immune systems comprising layers of antibodies, B-cells, T-cells, and killer cells, we are capable of dealing with almost all the new pathogens that show up in our lives.
Previous pathogens inflicted on “naïve immune systems” caused repeated extinction events that kept world population a tenth of today’s. Mere contact between two formerly isolated populations could cause mass death. Human populations did not pass one billion until globalization took off early in the twentieth century. Since the Spanish Flu after World War I that killed some fifty million, more recent epidemics have been radically less lethal. When deadly, like sars, they have been relatively uninfectious.
Today the world population attests to the new robustness of immune systems. The vast majority of us can readily deal with covid-19 and whatever viral threat may follow it. The reason for our robust immunity is not quarantine, lockdown, masks, and sequestration, but exposure, trade, openness, and interaction. Our globalized immune systems now rarely encounter a totally unfamiliar virus. Gupta fears that our current covid remedies are historically retrograde. Creating “a new dark age for immune systems,” they will summon the very extreme events that we most fear.
As the United Nations predicted, and as Ferguson understands, the worldwide economic depression caused by the lockdowns has been disastrous in the Third World, with a high level of deaths from starvation and other exigencies. In advanced countries, deaths have mounted from suicide, brought on by loneliness and isolation. Further, agoraphobia deters people from seeking medical help for deadly diseases.
In rich nations, with obsessive and constant virus testing, which produces more false positives the more compulsively we test, we are ascribing almost all mortality to covid-19. As the average age of “covid deaths” converges with the average age of all deaths, we pretend to prove that covid-19 is a global plague.
But even the prevailing claim that more than six hundred thousand died from covid-19 in America is wild hyperbole. According to the CDC’s own data, all but 6 percent of these deadly cases were accompanied by more deadly conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and tuberculosis. In many states, half or more of deaths occurred in nursing homes, where the average stay is a few weeks. Now we ascribe the abatement of covid to an impressive “warp speed” program of vaccinations. But the real reason is that covid-19, as Ferguson himself acknowledges, is a trivial event compared to earlier disasters.
Ferguson deserves full credit for a trenchant critique of covid-19 lockdowns. He vividly tells the story of the Asian Flu of 1957 and 1958. Called H2N2, a ribovirus resembling covid, it produced a pandemic far more deadly, striking millions of young people and increasing deaths in the fifteen to twenty-four cohort by 34 percent. As Ferguson observes, “the cost of Asian Flu in terms of qalys [quality-adjusted life years] lost” was “5.3 times higher than that of an average flu season. . . . Between September 1957 and March 1958, the proportion of teenagers infected rose from 5 percent to 70 percent. Then a second wave hit the group between 45 and 70.”
In the face of this formidable threat, President Dwight Eisenhower resolutely kept the country open and allowed economic growth to continue unfettered. As Ferguson reports, “The General recalled his time as a young officer at Camp Colt during the Spanish flu, when he had overseen mitigation efforts so successfully that the Army had not only promoted him but also sent thirty doctors from Camp Colt around the country to teach others.” Eisenhower had trusted the doctors, who in that era were mostly restricted to medical roles rather than usurping politicians through an administrative state of healthcare nomenklatura.
In 1957, “as a cdc official later recalled, ‘Measures were generally not taken to close schools, restrict travel, close borders, or recommend wearing masks. . . . Most were advised simply to stay home, rest, and drink plenty of water and fruit juices.’ ”
Eisenhower’s wise resolve meant that economic growth continued. The onus for remedies shifted entirely from non-pharmaceutical to pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines. Ferguson vividly tells the story of the success of what we would now call a “herd immunity” strategy, combining general exposure of the population with a massive drive to vaccinate.
Here Ferguson recounts the heroic saga of Maurice Hilleman, who not only led the six-month vaccination campaign in 1958 but also as a Merck executive was responsible for developing eight of the fourteen vaccines routinely recommended in current vaccine schedules. He contrived the mumps vaccine almost overnight when his daughter came down with the disease, and the current version is still based on her “Jeryl Lynn” strain.
Ferguson is among the best of academic intellectuals, but his conservative cast of mind and wide range of historic vision ultimately give way to an obsequious credulity toward the most glossy fashions of social science theory. In the end, he accepts the grand illusion behind the covid-19 panic—that the people being hypothetically saved by lockdowns and masks and other non-pharmaceutical interventions “had between five and 15 years of life left,” whis is to say many good years. That is not true. The huge majority of covid deaths hit people already dying of other comorbidities. He is unwilling to follow his own historically informed judgment that covid-19 was far less costly in years of life lost than the Asian Flu of 1957–58 or, ultimately, the lockdowns mounted to combat covid in 2020.
Some four hundred pages of near-footnote font is followed by unreadable acres of centipedal real footnotes in what must be three-point type. It all bespeaks too many research assistants and a victimization by the specialists of the modern world who both impel our economy forward and bog our minds down in minutiae. In the end, Doom misses the great and obvious reality that covid-19 was a picayune incident in human history inflated into a catastrophe by the panic of “experts” and politicians.
Ferguson concludes with a chapter, “The Three-Body Problem,” that tells us all he has figured out about the challenge of China and Europe and the post-pandemic rivalry in technology. In this realm he shares the widespread assumption that the United States, with its masks and lockdowns and with its anti-industrial climate change cult, is still the land of the free and entrepreneurial. Meanwhile China, with its ebullient capital markets, millions of engineers, and pullulating technology ventures, can still be summed up by the Cold War clichés of communist tyranny. It is true that Chinese politics has become far more repressive over the last few years of the regime of Xi Jinping. But the country has also opened up its economy and spurred its technological ventures far beyond the imitative companies that Ferguson and his Washington sources allege.
Confident in the ultimate superiority of the U.S. economy, technology, and finance, Ferguson quotes Larry Summers: “What can replace the dollar, when Europe’s a museum, Japan’s a nursing home, China’s a jail, and Bitcoin is an experiment?” Perhaps not the United States, in the grips of a green paralysis over climate change.
Finally and redemptively, Ferguson arrives at the wisdom of Henry Kissinger (of whom he is a reverent biographer): “The pandemic has prompted an anachronism, a revival of the walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement of people.” And in light of the fashions in spurious new technologies favored by governments, he stresses Richard Feynman’s epigrammatic observation on the Challenger disaster: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Reprinted from New Criterion