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Is there such a thing as a timely history book? If the point of history is to gain objective distance from past events, then timeliness can only be a pleasing accident rather than an outcome that is consciously sought. Yet with a column-writing historian such as Niall Ferguson, someone who is engaged prolifically in current affairs, the call of the now appears nigh on impossible to ignore.
And so his latest book, Doom, takes its lead from the Covid pandemic and seeks to place it in a historical context of other natural and manmade disasters - the two, as he rightly points out, are usually conjoined. The subtitle is The Politics of Catastrophe, and Ferguson's basic thesis is that all disasters are grounded in "a history of economics, society, culture, and politics".
Few would dispute this near-truism, although a study of these various fields won't necessarily yield a working model or even rough image of the complex mechanics of catastrophe. And, indeed, no such clarity of picture emerges from Ferguson's whistle-stop tour of major lethal events. Instead, like someone who doesn't want to let a moment's research go unused, he crams the book with a dizzying array of theories, characters and references that, while sometimes informative and occasionally amusing, combine to a deadening effect. © Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images'Pandemics are notoriously difficult to call': a pedestrian in a face mask in New York, February 2021.
Ferguson is no better at prediction than the scientists he takes to task
Network theory, the "Cassandra Coefficient", the psychology of political incompetence, the fractal geometry of disaster and cliodynamics all vie for headspace alongside Voltaire, Thomas Malthus, Amartya Sen, Aeschylus, Richard Feynman, Liu Cixin and an intellectual cast of hundreds.
In vain does the reader search through Ferguson's impressive breadth of learning for a compelling structure or argument that might make sense of the information overload. As if to make that job even harder, two-thirds of the way through the book, Ferguson starts writing about contemporary events as they're unfolding. He acknowledges the limitations of this endeavour, as a historian, but suggests the chapter should be read as a diary.
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It's no such thing, but instead an extended piece of opinion journalism that doesn't really add much to our understanding of the pandemic, while showing that Ferguson is no better at prediction than the scientists he takes to task. His near namesake, Neil Ferguson, comes in for admonishment for overestimating the death rate from Covid if no preventive measures were taken. The Imperial College London epidemiologist said that, without lockdowns and other prophylactics, as many as 2.2 million American lives were at risk.
Ferguson (the historian) says his own estimate, made in May 2020, was a death toll of approximately 250,000 by the end of 2020 - a total that he still finds plausible when writing in August of last year. In fact, closer to 350,000 Americans died by the end of December (the figure is now over 580,000). And that was with lockdowns, social distancing and masks - at least in most states - and, moreover, the arrival of effective vaccines, which was far from guaranteed earlier in the year.
All of which is to say that pandemics are notoriously difficult to call, because so many variables exist across and within nations. It's the role of epidemiologists to be Cassandras and err on the side of worst-case scenarios, because the costs of overestimating are much less devastating than those of underestimating.
Ferguson is doubtful about the effectiveness of lockdowns, which seems more like an ideological predisposition than an empirically based piece of reasoning. And while he acknowledges Donald Trump's flawed handling of Covid, he argues that it would be wrong to blame populist politics. Looking at what has taken place in Hungary (which has the world's highest per capita Covid death toll), Brazil and India, all of which are struggling with raging Covid outbreaks and are governed by populist leaders who've played down the pandemic, it's probably more accurate to say that populism - the politics of telling people what they want to hear - has proved disastrous.
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Sooner or later, Ferguson's work tends to come to a realpolitik crunch, usually involving a kind of ranking assessment of the global powers. It would be wrong to say that he's obsessed with China's growth - it is, after all, the big story of the late 20th and early 21st century - but all roads do seem to lead to Beijing.
Of course, all the routes that Covid has taken ultimately lead back to China too, and needless to say this confluence of politics and pandemic is not lost on Ferguson. The pandemic, he writes, "merely intensified cold war II, at the same time revealing its existence to those who previously doubted it was happening".
He concludes that the west has no choice but to contest a cold war that China is determined to win. He may well be right, but what the link is with the rest of the book remains, like so much else within its pages, not easy to decipher.
. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply