How Our Connections Cause Catastrophes

Non-fiction books take, on average, eight to 12 months to write, followed by an additional year or so of editing, fact-checking, organizing, and other publishing wizardry. The time between book proposal and bookshelf is roughly two years.

Taking that into account, readers should be wary of the flurry of new COVID books, written about an ongoing event that started only a year or so ago. As Michael Lewis opens his pandemic book, Premonition, this subgenre is “an unholy mix of obligation and opportunity,” a publishing goldmine in millions of graves. 

But upon starting Niall Ferguson’s merrily titled Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, it’s clear that pandemics, plagues, and the potential end of the world have been on its author’s mind long before our current dilemma; the author writes of “studying the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892 as a graduate student more than thirty years ago.” COVID was merely the spark for this latest entry to his long run of (quite long) books reframing and reconsidering a historical topic. Here, as in his last book The Square and the Tower, his chosen lens is network theory: an analytical framework that considers how relationships (and their strength, closeness, and number) cause and affect events. Networks are “the single most important feature of natural and man-made complexity”: from the web of neurons within our skulls, to how we make and share ideas, to how we have spread across the globe, forming communities and countries.   

That 2016 book used network theory to consider the history of power, and the overemphasized role of hierarchies. In Doom, it’s about how the world has almost ended (or so it seemed), and how our connections have enabled that.

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