During several afternoons last year, Niall Ferguson invited his son to think about the end of the world. The historian was taking a walk with nine-year-old Thomas to reflect on what makes a disaster terrible. On those philosophical walks, on a ranch in Montana where the family traveled during the first months of the pandemic, the couple mentioned nuclear reactor failures, volcanoes and earthquakes. In the mind of the prolific Stanford University scholar, conservative and controversial author of more than a dozen books, ideas about misfortunes were beginning to take hold. They found a somewhat chaotic way out in
Disaster: History and Politics of Catastrophes
(Debate), a brilliant book with a deep investigation of the traces left over the centuries by dire experiences in the form of fires, floods, famines, wars and, of course, pandemics.
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Ferguson (Glasgow, 57 years old), the son of a doctor and a physicist, explains that the work is written with a lot of black humor and refuses to leave readers in a dark atmosphere.
“It was a comfort to write this book, it gave me an insight into the challenges that I, my children and my family face,” says the author.
culminates with a geopolitical warning, the inevitable conflict between Washington and Beijing.
The interview takes place in a hotel in Palo Alto, California.
The research in the book suggests that it is not the product of a few months of boredom during the pandemic.
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. In 2019 I had an epiphany. I only read history and never science fiction. So I decided to go back to it, an interruption after 40 years of reading history. I was convinced that I should fall in love with science fiction. I thought about how those authors imagined the end of the world in different ways, all kinds of dystopian outcomes. I set out to write a book about it, a kind of history of the future, an idea that my editors didn't like too much, but I still did it. I started writing while voraciously reading everything from Liu Cixin to Margaret Atwood and back to Mary Shelley. When the pandemic came I said to myself: "Sure, it had to happen." Psychologically it was very helpful to compare all kinds of disasters. I found no problem spending the whole day reading like crazy about the plagues from Justinian to Chernobyl.
Q. The book provides perspective on where we are.
Did you think so from the beginning?
The media will always say "this is the greatest disaster ever," is what they want the reader to feel.
When in reality this pandemic is barely in the worst 20, but that's not such an attractive headline.
Your children are not dying.
It has affected 0.06% of the population compared to 2% in 1918-1919 or around 30% of the Black Death.
So part of my goal was to put things in perspective.
The other is to convey that disasters are not normally distributed.
There is a random distribution of wars, pandemics, volcanoes and earthquakes.
Part of the job of historians is to show the correct scale of things and explain how we got to them.
British historian Niall Ferguson Ian Tuttle
P. It is a compendium of misfortunes through the centuries.
Is there an episode that you found decisive?
All disasters have common characteristics.
There is no clear distinction between man-made and natural ones.
All disasters, in some way, are creations of human incompetence or malice.
The cognitive experience of being in a disaster is fairly standard among the different forms of it, whether it be a flood, a fire, a plague, or a war.
When I reread
Journey to the End of the Night,
From Céline, I stopped at a passage about what it was like to be in the French army in 1940. It captures how the individual has no idea what is going on.
There is only a sense of chaos, helplessness, fear and an inexplicable quality of knowing that your death is closer.
This resurfaces when you read Pliny the Younger's account of the earthquake in Pompeii or of those people who were trapped in a forest fire in Wisconsin ...
Q. Your book leaves the idea that we have not prepared better for disasters throughout the centuries.
We tend to think of the end of the world as a spectacular grand finale, but we don't think enough about what it's like to find ourselves faced with a midsize disaster that we're not prepared for. One of the paradoxes of our age is that we have an enormous amount of scientific knowledge, superior to that of the people of 1340, and we are not doing much better. It appears that knowledge does not translate into more effective disaster preparedness. We evolved in modernity to a bureaucratic preparedness system whose administrative habits produce a 36-page pandemic response plan that seems to address everything, but it is not at all like that. You think that if there is a cyber attack, the Pentagon will surely have a plan. The passivity of the people, that expectation that the government will solve everything, is as bad as the bureaucracy.For 20 years, the United States has stumbled from crisis to crisis. The 9/11 attacks, the financial crises, the pandemic, were predicted almost every year at some TED Talk conference. There is a systemic problem that is not unique to the United States.
Q. One of the criticisms that you have been made is that you are soft regarding the responsibility that politicians have in disaster management.
If you read what I have written about Trump it is not smooth. We tell ourselves that it was all Trump's fault and we think we solved the problem because we got rid of it. What happens is that there is a systemic problem. It doesn't matter who the president is or what the disaster is because the reaction will be bad. Once the book was published, I came across an interview with Ron Klein [Biden's chief of staff] where he admitted that if the 2009 swine flu had been as bad as COVID-19, the disaster would have been identical for the Obama Administration. Then I started thinking about the physicist Richard Feynman and the Challenger disaster. He wrote a book about the accident that changed my mind. The press has an overwhelming need to blame the president for whatever shit happens.There was a hilarious claim that Reagan should be blamed for the Challenger. Feynman showed that it had all happened because of an obscure NASA bureaucrat who changed the engineers' warning about the chances of accidents from 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. Historically, it is more likely that many disasters, not all, can be explained by mistakes of middle management, rather than leaders.
Q. Talk about the curse of Cassandra, people who make warnings that defy the dominant narrative and whom no one hears.
There is always a Cassandra.
The reason Cassandra is ignored in the Greek tragedy is that her destiny was to be ignored.
It doesn't matter if you have your Casandra from the Department of State or Defense.
It will be ignored even if it has official status.
What we need is speed of response, not early detection.
Speed is what reduces the body count.
Big bureaucracies like America's are bad at this, in part, because the experts, the professional bureaucrats, are inclined to wait for more information.
Most Western bureaucracies are chronically incapable of quick reaction.
Q. Did the leaders who remain in power learn anything since the pandemic began?
The irony is that those who did poorly in non-pharmaceutical intervention, with repression, later did well with vaccination.
And those who did well with the non-pharmaceutical intervention did very poorly with vaccination.
No one got it right.
Those who did very well last year, President Tsai in Taiwan and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, have low vaccination rates.
Trump got it wrong in almost every way except what matters most in a pandemic, vaccination.
The same thing happened in the UK, where Dominic Cummings succeeded in taking the delivery of vaccines out of the hands of the bureaucracy into venture capital funds.
The people who seemed smarter last year now seem pretty dumb.
Q. Have you been surprised that science has lost its reputation?
Those who carried out the messenger RNA revolution are part of a heroic scientific tradition because they worked against preconceptions and defied scientific consensus.
Science has done very well in the last 18 months.
Nothing has impressed me more than following advances in scientific research around the world - including China - to fight this new pandemic.
It has been inspiring.
Ferguson, in Palo Alto last August Ian Tuttle
Q. You are the son of a physicist.
His sister is also a scientist ...
Yes, at Yale.
Science has done very well, but public health has done terribly wrong.
Scientists whose job it is to advise politicians and communicate have damaged their credibility and that of science with their failure.
The mistake was lying to people.
I think that in the United States there was already a problem of trust, which has collapsed in almost all institutions, with the notable exception of the military.
Covid-19 has been the Vietnam War of public health and there must be an investigation like the one the military did after Vietnam to find out where the problem was.
Q. You write about
the Asian flu of 1957
, when the Eisenhower Administration failed to quarantine and did well by quickly developing a vaccine.
But he lost in the 1958 midterm elections.
That the Republicans fared badly in '58 had nothing to do with the pandemic.
The Asian flu was as bad as the covid, but it did not kill a large proportion of the population, although it did kill younger people.
This would have been a very different experience if our children had been in intensive care.
When you ask yourself historically what the coronavirus is comparable to, my answer is that of the 1957-58 flu.
And yet the response was very different, as if it were a different country.
Q. You wrote the book in October, when things got better, but then they got worse again.
Criticizes the imposition of mandatory quarantines.
Has your opinion changed?
My story of last year has nuances.
I don't think I close everything or leave it open.
Since I wrote the book, we have found a new variant that is much more contagious and that has made the repressive strategy obsolete.
It was something difficult to foresee.
I have learned something new every week.
Q. And what do you say to those who think you wrote the book too early?
It is a fair question for a historian.
Carter Malkasian, who was a student of mine, has published a book on the war in Afghanistan.
He was telling me that some reviews said he must have waited 20 years.
It's a bad argument.
We can't wait 20 years to find out what went wrong.
There is an urgent need to make history as soon as possible.
With an obvious admission: not everything will be all right until it is final.
Q. You wonder what consequences the pandemic will leave in what you call the Second Cold War.
Are you more clear about what has happened recently?
Before the pandemic, many people, especially in Europe, did not want to realize this new Cold War.
The pandemic has revealed it.
No one can now pretend that it does not exist.
I think that a Second Cold War is a good outcome, there is a possibility that we will end a hot war for Taiwan in the near future.
It may be next year.
The geopolitical situation was already bad, it did not depend on Trump.
This is gone and the situation has not changed.
The Biden Administration has more
Very few people understood that if the Democrats won the policy would continue and would be more ideological because Trump wanted a pact with Xi Jinping.
While the people around Biden consider that they are in a cold war.
The only question is when this next crisis will come.
If there really is a conflict because the Chinese invade Taiwan, the escalation will be very different from Iraq and Afghanistan.
People do not have the slightest idea of the cost that it will entail in terms of economic and military strength.
It will be of a different category of war than in the last 20 years.
Q. What will happen to Biden?
He is likely to lose the House of Representatives. But now I also think that [the Democrats] will lose the Senate and that the entire Administration is in crisis because of how they screwed up. It is an objective example of disaster. How could they be so clumsy, withdrawing first the special forces and then the civilians? My wife [activist Ayaan Hirsi] wrote that maybe if the press had been a little harsher in the previous seven months instead of basically being fans of the Administration, they would not have made such a foolish decision. It's hard to make any sense of it. I conclude that much of the advice was ignored and the thesis was assumed that, internally, leaving Afghanistan was profitable despite the cost of all those people left behind.I think that's what Biden thought and that Jake Sullivan's (National Security Advisor) theory of a foreign policy for the middle class led us to it. They will soon realize that they were very wrong. The cost will be profound. And not because international politics is important, but because they have sent a signal of incompetence. They quickly went from Saigon in '75 to Tehran in '79, or at least to a new Benghazi. I affirmed it in April, when they said that Biden was a transformative president like Roosevelt or Johnson. It's Carter. It will be Carter 2.0.They quickly went from Saigon in '75 to Tehran in '79, or at least to a new Benghazi. I affirmed it in April, when they said that Biden was a transformative president like Roosevelt or Johnson. It's Carter. It will be Carter 2.0.They quickly went from Saigon in '75 to Tehran in '79, or at least to a new Benghazi. I affirmed it in April, when they said that Biden was a transformative president like Roosevelt or Johnson. It's Carter. It will be Carter 2.0.
Q. With consequences that will reach 2024?
I see Trump winning.
Trump will return.
People don't want to face it, but this is going so badly that he will get the nomination and come back.
Q. Did this book change your perspective on how you think about history?
Alan Bennett wrote a play several years ago called
The Story Boys
, where the central character is based on me.
In the play there's a line from someone who says, "History is just one fucking thing after another."
Now I realize it's just one fucking disaster after another.
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