Niall Ferguson on Catastrophe

We talk to the historian Niall Ferguson about the politics of catastrophe, from pandemics and famines to world wars and climate change. Have we been worrying about the right things? Why have some countries done so much better than others with Covid? And what can history teach us about the worst that can happen? Plus, how likely is it that a cold war between the US and China turns hot? 


Talking Points:


Niall argues that COVID is more like the Asian flu in ‘57/’58 than the 1918/1919 Spanish flu.

  • However the economic response is unprecedented; the Internet made lockdowns at this scale and duration possible.
  • Lockdowns were a near panic response that were necessitated by initial political failures in the West.


When we’re trying to assess the political impact of a disaster, the body count is not the most important thing.

  • A disaster can kill a lot of people and be virtually forgotten if it doesn’t have cascading consequences.
  • We will probably remember the experience of lockdown more than the mortality rates.


What did we get wrong about the COVID response?

  • Controlling travel early on made a difference, and most Western states did not do that.
  • The network structure of a polity is the most important thing in a pandemic, especially in an era of globalized travel.


The distinction between natural and manmade disasters is a false one.

  • The scale of impact is a function of how we, collectively and our leaders, individually make decisions.
  • Humans do not seem to be very good at thinking pragmatically about risks; we tend to ignore them in practice while simultaneously constructing apocalyptic fantasies. 


Mentioned in this Episode:


Further Learning: 


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking



 

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