A Conversation with Niall Ferguson on The Politics of Disasters & Catastrophe.

Disasters are inherently hard to predict. But when catastrophe 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. Yet the responses of many developed countries to a new pathogen from China were badly bungled. Why?

While populist rulers certainly performed poorly in the face of the pandemic, Niall Ferguson argues that more profound pathologies were at work – pathologies already visible in our responses to earlier disasters. Drawing from multiple disciplines, including economics and network science, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe offers not just a history but a general theory of disaster. As Ferguson shows, governments must learn to become less bureaucratic if we are to avoid the impending doom of irreversible decline.

Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is the author of fifteen books, including The Pity of War, The House of Rothschild, Empire, Civilization and Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist, which won the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Prize. He is an award-making filmmaker, too, having won an international Emmy for his PBS series The Ascent of Money. In addition to writing a regular column for Bloomberg Opinion, he is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, an advisory firm.

In this interview, I speak to Niall Ferguson about how we should think about disasters & catastrophe and how society can (and should) be better prepared. 

Q: What should we be scared of (as a civilisation)? 

[Niall Ferguson]: We’re fascinated by doom, the idea of the apocalypse and the end of the world. These ideas are in most of the great religions and even science fiction. Then again, we don’t like thinking much about our own individual termination – we put-off the thought of our demise, and the demise of others, as much as we possibly can.

Most of us don’t encounter death in the same way we have historically, or the way people still do in some areas of the world. We have this curious disconnect between the fascinating idea of total obliteration of the species and planet, and the altogether repellent idea of our own disappearance. That means we’re somewhat confused when a real disaster happens- we have to immediately adjust our expectations of disasters- they are not the end of the world, and our probability of dying is much higher than we think.

Q: Has the structure of society made disaster more likely? 

[Niall Ferguson]: We want to understand history in life cycles- we’re young, you reach our peak, and then we start to decline. There’s an impulse amongst people who write about the past to find these nice, predictable cycles of history – like the seasons. Those cycles don’t exist – that’s not what history is like. Disasters keep coming along at random intervals, they are not normally distributed. They either come randomly (in the case of war) or they are governed by power-laws (pandemics and earthquakes). That’s hard for our brains to deal with… we don’t like the idea that history is just a lot of random shocks without any predictable features.

Today’s civilisation is more fragile as a result of its complexity. We’ve created an astonishingly networked world in which we communicate and travel in ways which were unimaginable for most of human history. We’ve become more scientifically knowledgeable… we understand the threats to us much better than our forefathers… but at the same time, we have made ourselves more vulnerable to certain kinds of disaster, and even invented new forms of disaster that didn’t’ exist before. We didn’t have a nuclear war option till 1945, and it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that we had nuclear weapons big enough to endanger the entire species.

The story of modernity is a story of scientific advance – but in reality, with every step forward, we’re taking half a step backward in terms of making ourselves more fragile.

Q:  Has our connected society also enabled the spread of disaster?

[Niall Ferguson]: We’ve built two great contagion machines. Firstly, international travel which has enabled vast numbers of people to fly over great distances. Secondly, the internet – and in particular, the way the internet has evolved. In its’ original incarnation, the world-wide-web was not a contagion machine. Once it became centralised into relatively few network platforms, financed by getting eyeballs to stay on screens, we saw the rapid growth of clickbait, sensationalist content, and the internet became a machine for disseminating contagious ideas.

The global pandemic was clearly a biological contagion insofar as it was a new virus – but we also had contagion of the mind which, in some ways, spread faster. This was very obvious in the United States where the circumstances of lockdown, combined with the frustrations building up in the population. Meant that political eruption was very likely. We’ve seen this in history – past plagues were associated with great religious and political upheavals – but we’ve never had the ability for ideas to spread this fast before. When the murder of George Floyd happened, it created a classic contagion of political protest where the Black Lives Matter protests spread and prompted extraordinary behaviour in the US and around the world. To a historian this was fascinating… it’s a little odd to have mass protests on an issue such as racially motivated police violence in the midst of a pandemic… and it might have seemed logical to the people participating, but it would have been tough to explain to a Martian why- in the midst of a severe respiratory disease pandemic- everyone was gathering in towns and cities in close proximity to protest about police violence and race.

Q:  How can we build immunity as a society to contagious ideas?

[Niall Ferguson]:  You have to use a term like inoculation literally or metaphorically. In the literal sense, I’m relieved that we were able to find effective vaccines against COVID-19 quickly. Had it been the case that the virus was harder to fight- like HIV– we would have been in a much worse place today, as we would not have been able to end the pandemic.

When it comes to inoculating people metaphorically against ‘dangerous ideas’ – that’s a very different deal. Now, the idea that Black Lives Matter is clearly not a dangerous idea, it’s very straightforward, and something which we can all agree with. What’s interesting about 2020 is that many other ideas that went viral were not so obviously true. For example, the idea that you would solve the problem of violence against African Americans by defunding the police was not a good idea- it makes no sense- but it went viral. The idea that vaccines against COVID-19 would be used by Bill Gates to establish mind control had a remarkable number of takers on the internet as did ideas around dubious remedies for COVID.  Our online networks are very large and very powerful ways to transmit extreme ideas.

There is no simple solution because the internet- as it’s currently structure- is a machine for disseminating viral content. There are some fixes, however. Whether it’s real-life viruses, or dangerous ideas, they tend to be spread by super spreaders. We know that 20% of infected people do 80% of the spreading of COVID-19. We also know that on Facebook, there is a relatively identifiable cohort of super spreaders of disinformation and misinformation. There’s no question that Facebook could have done much, much more in the last few years to address the problem.

I don’t think we can inoculate people against crazy ideas, they will always have takers- but we can certainly improve the way that platforms like Facebook operate because they don’t have any incentive at the moment to restrict the spread of harmful content which is attractive to eyeballs.

Q: Why are we reluctant to acknowledge real disasters like climate change? 

[Niall Ferguson]: Climate change is a slow-moving disaster by comparison to a pandemic. The worst-case scenario of the international panel on climate change has become much more probable now than when it was first published. That’s hardly surprising as we’ve seen an increase in CO2 emissions every year since the Paris Agreement. This is affecting the global north and the global south. Here in California, we had one of the worst wildfire seasons in modern times. I think there’s a growing awareness in North America that climate change is real, and denial- as a political project- looks increasingly like a fading asset. Here’s the thing… we mustn’t focus exclusively on this threat, and it tends to be the case that the global elite does. I was at Davos in January 2020 and climate change was the agenda – and the pandemic had already begun! It was quite difficult to persuade people that there might be a nearer-term threat facing us than climate change.

It’s also very difficult to persuade people about the need for consequential action because there are so many inconsequential actions that can be done. Consequential action would involve a much quicker reduction in China’s CO2 emissions, but that’s not going to happen. We have no way of constraining them. Nearly half of the increase in emissions since the Paris Agreement can be linked back to China (around 48%), the next big emitter is India (19%) with the remainder being the middle east. The US and Europe have been reducing their emissions for some time. For us to keep saying that we’re going to reduce our emissions is even more inconsequential if China and India don’t. That’s something very few people want to say out loud.

We also have to call out against the kind of radical cuts that Greta Thunberg has proposed. Her wish was ironically granted because the pandemic did lead to zero-emissions in many parts of the world- we saw the cost of that with near economic collapse and mass unemployment. The very radical claims of the extreme environmentalist are not deliverable – and get us nowhere. If you are campaigning to shut the economy to save the planet, most ordinary people would rather take their chances.

Q: How can network theories help us better understand disasters and catastrophe?

[Niall Ferguson]: It would be good if more organisations took network science seriously. Most of us are still in the grip of the org-chart view of the world, which is a pyramid with someone at the top, a bunch of executives, and eventually the rank and file. This is not what organisations actually look like when you graph them as networks and take each individual as a node with edges that connect them. When you look at organisations as networks, you find that it’s very often the Chief Executive who is quite disconnected from the organisation – and a bunch of people at different levels who are much more significant. This is not a lattice – it’s not like everyone has the same number of relationships – there’s a scale-free characteristic where a tiny number of nodes have crazy numbers of relationships, and some have hardly any. If you look at the world as networks, it’s a revelation.

Anyone who’s in charge of a significant sized organisation should graph the network and understand how things really work.

When you do this in the context of disaster, you discover Feynman’s Law. The great physicist Richard Feynman exposed the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger’s explosion shortly after launch in 1986. The media wanted to blame it on President Reagan – but that was a blind alley. If you dive into what really happened, the NASA engineers knew there was a 1% chance that a shuttle would explode at some points, but bureaucrats changed that 1:100 to 1:100,000 because 1:100 didn’t sound good and may have impacted the funding of the program. The point of failure lay somewhere in the depths of NASA bureaucracy, not at the top.

When disaster strikes, we often want to blame the person at the top where we think the buck stops. In truth, that’s not helpful in understanding how disaster plays out. When you look at the way that COVID-19 response went wrong in the USA, it was a failure of public health bureaucracy and the centre for disease control. They had the job, and they failed, despite being (on paper) very prepared.

You can have pseudo-preparedness, you can have preparedness plans, but they’re worthless if you don’t run exercises to see what would happen if disaster struck.

The vulnerabilities in the network are rarely where you would expect to find them. The next disaster- in my humble opinion- will be an attack on critical infrastructure through the internet. It’s highly likely that we have a system that is both open, vulnerable and fragile because we build networks to optimise. That was true of the financial system in 2007/8 which was built for optimisation, not for resilience and certainly not for anti-fragility. So, when Lehman Brothers went down, the fed and everyone else totally underestimated how interconnected the system was, and what the cascade effect would be.

We have to graph networks and identify the points of failure so that we can make them more resilient.

We haven’t begun to think in this way.  Suppose there’s an earthquake right here where I’m sitting in California – we’ll screw it up just in the same way that we screwed up Covid, because no doubt there’s an earthquake preparedness plan covering many pages and a 100 slide PowerPoint deck somewhere in the Californian state bureaucracy which will turn out to be just as useless as the pandemic preparedness plans were.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be? 

[Niall Ferguson]: I’m 57, Glaswegians don’t have a great life-expectancy, and so I think about this question a lot.

I’ve written 16 books and you always have this hope (probably delusional) that there will be some enduring impact through those. Today, books are consumed differently – they’re left on coffee tables more than they’re read, so I would be kidding myself to think that 100 years from now, people will be quoting or assigning my books.

The big problem I face is the kind of history I do starts in economic history but works into different domains. This tends to be very quantitative and based on the principles of science and that world is endangered. On both sides of the Atlantic you have a cultural studies tendency which has become highly politicised, and which judges the past through the lens of contemporary values. That’s the wrong way to do history. So, I’ve got a challenge. I want to try and make sure that younger scholars who like my approach (they don’t need to agree with my ideas) have some prospect of successful academic careers. At the moment, that’s quite a bleak prospect. It’s very difficult to land a decent job in US academia if you do the kind of things I find interesting. I have a big preoccupation with this. Let me emphasise something which is very important. My approach is to disagree with conventional wisdom, and my message to students is to disagree with me. Show me what I’m wrong about, and if you succeed, I’ll be your biggest fan and write you a glowing letter of reference. That’s not a common approach. A lot of academics seem to want to replicate their own ideas and encourage people to be clones. I despise that approach to academic mentorship. My best proteges are the ones who- when they were undergraduates- didn’t hesitate to take apart my books and essays. That’s the spirit I want to encourage to keep alive.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.