Niall Ferguson on Doom, Disaster and Democracy

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, our next guest says that we are getting worse not better at handling disasters like the pandemic, for instance. Historian, Niall Ferguson’s, new

book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe,” sets 2020 into wider context and asks why many countries initial responses to COVID were too slow. Here is

talking with Walter Isaacson about how we got here and what he thinks the next big disaster will be.


WALTER ISAACSON, CNNI HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And Niall Ferguson, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: You know, this book has a very jarring beginning, you’re talking about doom throughout history. And you were at Davos at the World Economic

Forum in January of last year and you’ve been traveling around, you’ve been traveling to Asia. And yet, you also had a sense that this pandemic was

going to get bad. You were talking about it there when everybody else was ignoring it. And then you ended up getting sick.

In retrospect, tell me what were you thinking then and, you know, what should you have been thinking in terms of the networks you were traveling


FERGUSON: Well, one of the themes of doom which is a general history of disaster is that we are not very good as human beings thinking about

disaster. We struggle a bit with the probabilities and we struggle a bit with the frequency of really big disasters. And as individuals we struggle

because of cognitive dissonance to modify our behavior rapidly. And I wanted to be very frank about that kind of dissonance in my own life back

in January and February.

I was traveling a great deal, beginning, in fact, in Asia. I was in Hong Kong and Singapore in Taipei right at the beginning of the year and then I

went off to Europe to the World Economic Forum and then came back to the U.S. And I was aware from early on that there was a significant probability

that this new mysterious coronavirus in Wuhan was going to be the cause of a pandemic but it was difficult to adjust my behavior accordingly.

I was very self-conscious when I got hold of a mask about wearing it on planes in January and February because you would get some strange looks.

And, of course, if you were wearing the mask, it made people wonder if you were actually very sick. And I can remember wearing it and then sort of

embarrassed taking it off. Embarrassment is a powerful force in the determination of human behavior, especially if you’re British.

And it took me a while to take the decision to stop the travelling, and, in fact, to move my family to a very low-density area of the United States,

Montana. And I look back and I think, was I a super spreader? You know, was I one of those people who was actually spreading the virus? And I’ll never

know, Walter, because there was no testing available at that time in the U.S. I’ll never find out if I actually would have tested positive right at

the beginning.

ISAACSON: In your book you describe how science will make many advances like two steps forward in figuring out how to do vaccines or to treat

diseases. And yet, society then takes a step back because we get more networked. Explain how that dynamic played out this time around.

FERGUSON: Well, historically, that’s certainly true. One of the reasons the great plagues in history happened, for example, in the time with Roman

Empire was precisely that communications for trade and other purposes were at new highs because of the expansion and integration of the Roman Empire.

And you get a similar story actually in the 14th century when the worst of all pandemics happens, the Black Death. That’s because trade routes and

pilgrimage routes really connected really large parts of Eurasia and made sure that once a pathogen got to Europe it was pretty quickly all over

Europe and all across the British Isles.

In our time, what happened was that at some points in late 2019, a new coronavirus began to spread in the City of Wuhan and Hubei Province

problems. And for weeks, the Chinese authorities, for reasons that we’ll remember from the movie, “Chernobyl,” covered it up and discouraged doctors

often quite aggressively from talking about it. And in those fateful weeks, Chinese families were traveling not only over China but all over the world

because of the approaching Chinese Lunar New Year. It’s a peak time of travel from China to the United States, January. And it wasn’t until

January the 23rd, long after this virus had spread to most parts of the world that the Chinese authorities imposed a lockdown.

So, I think this illustrates a really key point. We tend to think of our battle with disease as something which is one in successive medical

breakthroughs by brilliant scientists. And that is part of the story, no question about it. But at the same time, because we’ve been globalizing the

world really since they 18th and 19th century, time of empires, we’ve made ourselves more and more vulnerable to a novel pathogen. And that, I think,

is the big takeaway of COVID-19, that we didn’t have circuit breakers in place quickly to turn off flows in case of a novel pathogen.

And only those countries that acted really, really quickly like Taiwan, for example, were able to get a handle on this. Those of us who remained

basically open, United States and the United Kingdom, ended up being hit very hard indeed.

ISAACSON: The economist, Amartya Sen, says that democracies prevent famines. Do you think democracies are inherently better at preventing

pandemics as well?

FERGUSON: Well, that was the question that I began to ponder. There never had been a kind of general history of disasters. But I’d certainly read of

Amartya Sen’s work of famine years ago and have been persuaded of his central point that famines are not really natural disasters, that they

happen because for a variety of reasons, political systems fail to respond to localized a regional shortages.

And then I find myself wondering, well, if democracy is good at famines, shouldn’t they be good at all forms of disaster? And it turns out the

North, or at least, they’re capable of screwing up certain kinds of disaster quite badly. If you stop making a distinction between natural and

manmade disasters and recognize the old disasters of certain common properties, I think what you notice is that actually democracies can be

quite myopic because for some sorts of disaster you have to prepare long- term and you have to make costly investments ahead of the disaster. And quite possibly, if you’re successful, the disaster won’t happened.

And then where is the payoff? I mean, I learned this from Henry Kissinger, a man we both studied. Kissinger’s problem of conjecture, which he

formulated in the 1960s, before he really been in government, was that there are asymmetric payoffs if you’re a Democratic leader because it’s

easy just to kick the can down the road, take the line of least resistance and hope to get lucky. But to take the decisions that would properly have

prepared the United States for a pandemic rather like taking the decisions that would properly prepare the United States for climate change is bound

to be expensive.

And politicians don’t like things that are really expensive, which is of course why the new administration has bought this theory of modern monetary

theory and basically, is acting like he can spend without ever having to pay for the things that it’s spending on.

So, I think democracies have a bigger problem than maybe Amartya Sen’s theory famines implied. Also, if you look at wars, one of the central

failures of the 20th century was Britain’s failure to deter Germany from attempting two major and risky bids for power in Europe. And I wonder if

the United States is in the process of making the same mistake with respect to China. Because if you ask me what’s the next big disaster, I don’t it is

imminent climate change disaster, I think it’s imminent conflicts between the U.S. and China. Because, ultimately, we’re not really deterring the

Chinese from an increasingly aggressive policy especially towards countries like Taiwan.

ISAACSON: Well, do you think that a cold war with China is inevitable and perhaps even desirable?

FERGUSON: Well, I think it’s begun. So, it’s kind of after the fact to discuss whether or not it’s inevitable. I think it’s been going since at

least 2018. And by the way, I think the Chinese know this because whenever I say this to any Chinese representative, they don’t disagree.

The thing about the cold war is that it’s preferable to hot war. And our choice is not between cold war or kumbaya cordiality. China’s clearly

challenging the United States in pretty much every domain, a much as the Soviet Union did beginning in the late 1940s. And we don’t really have a

choice to be in some kind of fraternal friendship with them anymore.

The question is how do you deal with this Chinese challenge in ways that avert World War III? That’s really what cold war strategy was about,

preventing escalation to a full-scale superpower conflict which would be catastrophic for the world. And I think that’s the argument for cold war.

The alternative is that we stumble into a hot war maybe over an issue like Taiwan. And that’s why I think one of the key lessons of doom is that the

disasters that you need to worry about are wars and especially totalitarian regimes. After all, the biggest cause of excess mortality and of premature

death in the 20th century was not natural disaster, it was manmade disaster in the form of totalitarian regimes and the wars that they started or

participated in.

ISAACSON: I was struck in your book about there’s two types of grand dooms we’ve faced over the centuries, one are wars and the other are great

pandemics, and sometimes they go together. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that in the Peloponnesian War, Pericles survives but he’s killed

by the plague. To what extent do wars and plagues go together? It happens then, it happened in 1918, it even happened in some ways during the Black

Death of the 14th century.

FERGUSON: That’s right. I mean, not only is plague a major actor in the Peloponnesian Wars, (INAUDIBLE) describes it, and it’s one of the most

vivid descriptions of a plague and also the earliest. But we also find that in the 1340s, the facts of a devastating play, which was killing 40 percent

of the population of most European countries didn’t get in the way of the 100 Years War between England and France, which got going in that same


1918 and 1919 was the worst plague of modern times with something like 39 or 40 million deaths, which would be 160 million in the 2020 population, it

began on American army bases as far as we can figure out and was spread initially by troop ships crossing the Atlantic. The thing about wars is

that armies march on their stomachs as Napoleon famously said, parasites, pathogens, viruses travel on their backs. Armies are great super spreaders

in their way in many wars if you think back through history comes to an end not because of the defeat of one side or by the other but because both

sides are exhausted by disease. That happened regularly in in European history, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And it wasn’t really until the 20th century that we began to be able to defeat disease so that armies could keep fighting. But even if you look

back at the end of World War I, which we tend to attribute to the military success of Britain and its allies, the United States playing a key role,

it’s quite possible that the reason the German army collapsed in the summer of 1918 was that their ranks were being ravaged by the Spanish influenza.

ISAACSON: As you say, in the summer 1918, we come out of World War I and we have this huge pandemic. And then shortly thereafter, we have, I guess,

I’d call of ideological pandemics, you know, bolshevism and Russian backed communism and the spread of authoritarianism, even Nazism starts to rise.

Are those connected?

FERGUSON: I think they are. And one of the themes of a book I wrote about 10 years ago, “War of the World,” was that there were two plagues at the

end of World War I, the Spanish Influenza, as it was known, and the plagues of the mind of which bolshevism was the first to get going. But fascism

wasn’t far behind.

So, I think if we look at our own experience, we can see something rather similar where the virus caused its contagion but at the same time, there

were contagions of ideas, ideas which included conspiracy theories as we’ve already discussed but become contagion of the mind that caused the great

protests of last summer was somewhat familiar to my historian’s eyes.

When you think about it, it was kind of strange to have mass process in hundreds of cities on the issue of police violence and race relations

following the murder of George Floyd. In the midst of a pandemic to be protesting about that issue was strange. And I think there was something of

that hat medieval mood of expiation in the process of last summer that you saw in the 1340s when penitent flagellant orders marched around Europe

flogging themselves in the hope of warding off divine vengeance. If you look closely at the protests of last year, there was all kinds of religious

undertones there.

So, I think often in times of plague there’s an urge for expiation to kind of confess one’s sins. Most of the. protesters last year were white and

they were protesting against their own or their own past racism.

ISAACSON: But you’re not trying to compare the racial protests of the past year to some of the stranger penitence of the middle ages, are you?

FERGUSON: Well, there are clearly enormous differences and the issue is a real one clearly. Just, I think, one has to bear in mind that the scale of

these protests and the intensity which people felt last year probably would not have occurred in the absence of the pandemic as well as in the absence

of the lockdowns. One has to remember that there is a connection here.

In time of pandemic, there’s a psychological toll even for those who don’t become ill or only mildly sick, and that psychological stress was greatly

increased by the drastic measures that we took. Remember, we missed the opportunity for early detection and early action. And then, in mid-March,

we decided, oh, no, we’ve lost control. Let’s lock everything down. That imposed a heavy psychological toll on the population on both sides of the

Atlantic. And I think it wasn’t surprising that after a certain point the pressure cooker rolled over.

ISAACSON: Well, the title of the book is “Doom.” Does that mean you think that we are doomed to repeat these things or is there some way these

lessons might help us prevent the next crisis, the next problem we face?

FERGUSON: Well, we can’t prevent crises and disasters, they will continue to befall us and they’ll do it at inconvenient and unpredictable intervals

that will catch us out. And one of the lessons of the book is, I’m afraid there’s no cyclical theory of history that will help you forecast the next

pandemic or for that matter, the next enormous earthquake in California or the next super volcano in Montana. There are any number of disasters that

could befall us. And unfortunately, we can’t have probabilities because they just not that easy to anticipate.

But what we can do is be better responsive. We can be quicker on our feet when disaster strikes. And that’s really why I wrote this book even before

the pandemic was over. It’s not really book about the pandemic, it’s a book about how we deal with disaster as a species. And I think if we got worse

at that, and I do think we’ve got worse at that in many western countries, then we need to learn some lessons because the next disaster won’t

necessarily be the one that we’re preparing for.

Huge amounts of effort go into discussing and preparing for a climate change. This is the number one issue. It was the number one issue at Davos

back in January 2020 when the pandemic was beginning. I don’t play those risks. But it’s not the only form that disaster can take in the next 50

years. And indeed, I suspect there are a lot more faster acting forms of disaster out there that we should worry about. Just think of the recent

attack on the Colonial Pipeline, a cyberattack probably by a Russian group that’s paralyzed the transmission of a crucial source of energy across the

East Coast of the United States.

That’s a trailer for one of the next disasters we’re likely to face. Because in the events of a major conflict with China, there’s no question

that one of the things the other side will do will be to try to attack our critical infrastructure through the internet.

So, my general view is, let’s prepare not just for the one crisis that we think a lot about, let’s not prepare for the wrong disaster, let’s try to

be generally paranoid and ready for anything, because disaster in human history just takes many forms. I think there’s more than four horsemen of

the apocalypse by my count.

ISAACSON: Niall Ferguson, thank you so much for joining us.

FERGUSON: Thanks, Walter.

About This Episode EXPAND

Aaron David Miller; Marwan Muasher; Ana Porzecanski; Niall Ferguson