Ram Madhav
May 7, 2022

Doom – The Politics of Catastrophe

(The review was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on May 7, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)

The Covid pandemic has highlighted one important probability – mankind’s ability to self-destruct. The virus, that had caused SARS two decades ago or Covid two years ago, was suspected to be a byproduct of human experimentation and exploration. Both the viruses were suspected to be of Chinese origin.

Covid is a stark reminder that no amount of technological progress can make mankind ‘invulnerable’. In fact, history shows that it was the so-called human progress that had led man closer to calamity, not the other way.

In an interesting, if not chilling book, “Doom – The Politics of Catastrophe”, renowned Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, highlights this history of mankind, that, through various acts of omission and commission, had brought calamity and catastrophe at its own doorstep.

Take the recent pandemic itself. Like at the time of the SARS pandemic in 2003, the Chinese authorities had dithered in action when the Covid pandemic broke out in Wuhan. While they did shut down the city, they allowed dozens of flights to leave for various international destinations for almost ten full days before finally stopping the export of the virus pathogens. Then they indulged in a massive cover-up and misinformation. They blamed America for the pandemic and launched a massive media and social media campaign of innuendoes and accusations.

In Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, they found a supine, if not sycophantic collaborator. “China had strongly backed his candidacy for the job; Tedros reciprocated by endorsing the Chinese scheme for a “Health Silk Road.” In the early phase of the crisis, Tedros echoed Beijing’s line (“the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission,” on January 14), failed to declare a global public health emergency until a week after Wuhan was locked down, and waited until March 11 to acknowledge that there was a pandemic”, writes Ferguson.

Ferguson’s book is not just about SARS or Covid. It is about the evolution of mankind, which is also a history of catastrophe. All civilisations had the concept of the end of this world or eschatology. The Greeks called the end time as Eskhatos. Zoroastrianism envisaged crop failures, general moral decay and also “a dark cloud [that] makes the whole sky night” and a rain of “noxious creatures.” Buddhism had its apocalypse when the world would be destroyed by the “deadly rays of seven suns”. Christianity had had its deluge and the Day of Judgement, while Islam has its Qiyamat. Hindus believed in the cycle of ages – the Yugas – and Pralaya, the ultimate destruction of the creation.

But Ferguson argues that contrary to religious doctrines of natural or god-inspired destruction of humanity, what we witnessed in history was a man-made catastrophe. This began with ancient wars, whether in Indian or in Greek history, that killed millions and rendered kingdoms desolate. Wars brought with them disease and death.

Famous Athenian historian, also considered the father of modern historiography, Thucydides wrote of the epic war between Athens and Sparta thus: “Never had so many cities been taken and laid desolate …. Never was there so much banishing and blood-shedding, now on the field of battle, now in the strife of faction …. There were earthquakes of unparalleled extent and violence; eclipses of the sun occurred with a frequency unrecorded in the previous history; there were great droughts in sundry places and consequent famines, and that most calamitous and awfully fatal visitation, the plague”.

More followed when colonial conquests began. The Europeans were the first to carry destruction to wherever they went. They not only killed and destroyed indigenous peoples and their cultures but also carried deadly pathogens of various forms of the disease – cholera, plague, smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, haemorrhagic fever – that erased whatever was left of those indigenous peoples. The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie called it “the unification of the globe by disease,” and the creation of a “common market of microbes.” In Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), published in 1908, Mahatma Gandhi called Western civilization itself “a disease”.

Are natural disasters really “natural”? Floods, famines and pandemics are as much a creation of humans as the nature. Ferguson refers to Amartya Sen’s two books – Poverty and Famines (1983) and Development as Freedom (1999). “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Sen argued in those books, because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have [a] strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.” Stalin in Russia and Mao in China had brought enormous suffering and death by millions through their wilful ignorance, while Churchill caused the death of millions during the Great Bengal Famine by his wilful negligence.

The Soviet Union was suspected to be engaged in a massive program of research into biological weapons, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention that it signed in 1972. Ferguson quotes Kenneth Alibek, a former Soviet scientist who worked at Biopreparat in the late 1980s, and writes that “the Soviets developed antibiotic-resistant strains of plague, glanders, tularemia, and anthrax, including the highly virulent 836 strain. Its operational biological weapons were capable of delivering tularemia, glanders, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, and brucellosis about a hundred miles behind enemy lines, while its strategic biological weapons were designed to carry plague and smallpox to targets in the United States”.

Over and above all these is the nuclear weapon, first used towards the end of the 2ndWorld War. “Far from displacing the eschaton, science seemed to bring it nearer. When J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first atomic explosion at White Sands, New Mexico, he famously thought of Krishna’s words from the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu Song of the Lord): ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’”, writes Ferguson.

“Genetic engineering is a more recent innovation that, like nuclear energy, could be used for malign as well as benign purposes”, warns Ferguson. A “genetic engineering home lab kit” is available today for less than 1.5 lakh rupees. “The danger here is not that someone will synthesize the master race, but that some kind of readily reproducible but undesirable modification could be created by mistake”, Ferguson cautions.

Then the frontier technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who leads the Machine Intelligence Research Institute at Berkeley, argues that we may unwittingly create an unfriendly or amoral AI that turns against us—for example, because we tell it to halt climate change and it concludes that annihilating Homo sapiens is the optimal solution.

“One brave attempt to attach a probability to “human extinction or the unrecoverable collapse of civilization” happening in the next hundred years puts it at 1 in 6.34”, the author reminds ruefully.

So, what should we do? Ferguson suggests that “there should be official Cassandras within governments, international bodies, universities, and corporations, and a ‘National Warnings Office’ tasked with identifying worst-case scenarios, measuring the risks, and devising hedging, prevention, or mitigation strategies”.

“History tells us to expect the great punctuation marks of disaster in no predictable order. The four horsemen of the Book of Revelation—Conquest, War, Famine, and the pale rider Death—gallop out at seemingly random intervals to remind us that no amount of technological innovation can make mankind invulnerable”, he concludes in this intriguing and often frightening book.

As Henry Kissinger suggested in his book on AI recently, what we need at this juncture are not merely the Cassandras, the naysayers, but philosophers, who can intervene to guide the destiny of the mankind, right now fully controlled by politics and technology.

A refreshing read.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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