He’s got a new book, so a conservative Niall Ferguson appeared on TV this morning whitewashing the Trump administration’s competence, or lack thereof, as if the fault lies with more systemic faults, despite the deliberate Trump sabotage of Obama-era pandemic planning. Catastrophes of politics, in pricey Ted-like talks.

As if there no distinction between natural and man-made catastrophes. “But on this, too, there is an ideological tell in Ferguson’s description of Covid regulation as “varying degrees of house arrest” – a formula that conflates necessary public health measures and authoritarian spite.” Fortunately Ferguson, while believing that Trump will run in 2024, is also confident of his losing.

“Genially narrat[ing] the suffering and deaths of countless millions of souls down through the millenniums.”

When the whole world locked down in March 2020, however, Ferguson’s lecture gigs were canceled, and he retreated with his wife and two youngest children from their home in Northern California to a refuge in Montana. In that remote writer’s paradise, this scholar of financial history turned best-selling public intellectual and biographer of Henry Kissinger took advantage of all the extra time on his hands to crank out the nearly 400 pages of text in this volume, which with the help of two research assistants he finished by early autumn.

That personal preface is telling, because much of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe” reads like an extended version of one of those high-price talks. (Ferguson’s speaking fee reportedly ranges from $50,000 to $75,000, and it will probably go up after this ever-so-topical book.) If you’ve ever attended a corporate retreat with a “thought leader” speaker, or listened to enough TED talks online, you know the genre. Weaving together historical examples from across centuries and continents, illuminating statistics, intriguing academic research, and a few pop-culture references, these lectures have the effect of making audiences feel instantly smarter, without troubling them with the kind of soul-searching questions that might ruin a good night’s sleep or the conference cocktail party.


In a neat trick of homage and appropriation, Ferguson zeros in on three trendy disaster metaphors in particular, each coined by a lesser-known big thinker. “Black swans,” a term popularized by Lebanese-born scholar Nassim Taleb, are events so rare no one foresees them. “Gray rhinos,” a species identified by consultant Michele Wucker, are big risks that go ignored despite their obviousness. “Dragon kings,” conjured by Swiss “econophysicist” Didier Sornette, are off the charts in size and uniqueness, but also in their capacity to leave social destruction in their wake. All those models are interesting, Ferguson tells us, but no one animal rules the roost. “The history of disasters is a history of a poorly managed zoo full of gray rhinos, black swans, and dragon kings,” he writes, “as well as a great many unfortunate but inconsequential events and an infinity of nonevents.”[…]History also offers many examples of the social and economic havoc that can result from such maddening inequality, but those stories may not go over so well with the well-heeled audiences that await Ferguson back on the speaking circuit. Safely vaccinated and wealthier than ever, they’d rather not picture that gray rhino.


What began as a taxonomy of doom evolves into a hawkish foreign policy treatise on the coming cold war with China. It is a bracing polemical finale that seems to round off a different book to the one that started in philosophical meditation over death as life’s unshakable shadow.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought its share of irrational fanaticism. There is something medieval about paranoid mobs felling mobile phone masts in the belief that 5G signals are responsible for the disease. But that minor skirmish is far from the frontline in a battle that science is winning, at least until the next disaster strikes. The march of progress gives cause for optimism; the certain recurrence of disaster less so. That tension is the subject of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Niall Ferguson’s excursion into the history of horrible afflictions.


Ferguson would hardly be fulfilling his remit as a historian if he stopped there. He does identify recurrent traits from the vast back catalogue of misfortune. When it comes to finding fault, he is particularly exercised by bureaucratic failure, which he finds in cases of industrial accident and, most recently, in British and American responses to Covid-19.


His new book is an elegant historical tour that lacks a convincing argument

In this week’s podcast, we talk to the author of our cover story, eminent author, historian and broadcaster Niall Ferguson, who advances the theory that the West and China are in the throes of a new cold war which the Unites States is on course to lose, should the Biden administration continue to following Beijing’s lead on apparently everything from lockdown to digital currencies. Joining the debate is Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, from Chatham House. (01:05)

‘All of the features of Cold War I are here today which is why I have been speaking for a couple of years about Cold War II’ – Niall Ferguson.


Niall Ferguson: I assume that Trump will be a candidate in 2024 and I also assume that he will not win if he is the candidate.

  • May 11, 2021