Niall Ferguson Says We’re Getting Worse at Dealing with Catastrophes (but he’s wrong)

Having suffered through the worst pandemic in a century, we are keenly attuned to catastrophe. Few people are better equipped to document the history of catastrophes and our response to them, for better or worse, than Niall Ferguson, the Scottish-American historian and documentary television star whose previous books have covered everything from The Ascent of Money to Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.

Niall Ferguson

Now, in Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Ferguson applies his sweeping vision to catastrophes beginning in ancient times and ending, for now, with COVID.

Ferguson has never shied away from controversy. His 19th century Tory politics have even infuriated other Tories, for example by suggesting that Britain should not have fought World War I. (He argued that a continental Wilhelmine German empire would have been more benign than what we got, which was Hitler and Nazism.) Ferguson and his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are militantly opposed to Islamism, causing both of them to fear – reasonably – for their lives. And Ferguson is something of an imperialist, believing that colonies of European empires, or at least the British one, benefited more than they suffered.

“All disasters are in some sense man-made.”

This provocative – and profoundly wrong – sentence is trivially true but that’s all: We will be in the way of some bad things. Don’t animals, plants, and other living things also face the risk of disaster, the chief difference being that they don’t write books about it? I imagine that dinosaurs took the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago rather personally.

And, as we have become more numerous and have collected ourselves into cities, we have become more vulnerable to disaster in certain ways, and less so in others. Ferguson attributes the high incidence of communicable diseases to the fact that human beings live in villages and cities, and travel; those are the right conditions for pathogens to thrive, and to mutate in ways unfavorable to us. But one should not conclude from this fact, and other related changes in the way we live, that we are getting worse at dealing with catastrophes. If we are going to fit seven-plus billion people onto the planet, we have to live in groups: there is no other way. Civilization is the feature; diseases are the “bug” (sorry) and we are getting better, not worse, at combating them.

Losing some battles but winning the war

Nature “wants us dead,” in David Mamet’s memorable phrase.1 The evidence from the population statistics is that we are winning, and Nature is losing: there are more of us today, literally, than on any other day in history, and there will be even more tomorrow. (Never mind that we are part of nature.) We’re beating most of the species that ever lived at this game; more than 99% of them are extinct. Here’s some further evidence, beyond our mere continued existence:

Exhibit 1

Source: Bailey, Ronald, and Marian L. Tupy. 2021. Ten Global Trends, p. 26. Washington, DC: CATO Institute.

We’re doing something right. The biggest natural disaster in my memory, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean, with over 227,000 deaths, is just a little blip in Exhibit 1, visible above the last zero in the numeral 2000 on the x-axis. The next year’s hurricane and flood in New Orleans are not visible at all. Natural disasters in the first half of the twentieth century must have really been something.