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Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by [Niall Ferguson]
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Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe Kindle Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 258 ratings

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“[Doom] hopscotches breezily across continents and centuries while also displaying an impressive command of the latest research in a large number of specialized fields, among them medical history, epidemiology, probability theory, cliodynamics and network theory. . . . Belongs on the shelf next to recent ambitious and eclectic books by authors like Jared Diamond, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Steven Pinker. . . . Promises to make a contribution to improving our management of future disasters. . . . Insightful, productively provocative and downright brilliant.” —New York Times Book Review

“[An] intensely researched . . . always entertaining account. . . . Captivating.” Kirkus

Doom seeks to understand why humanity, time and again through the ages, has failed to prepare for catastrophes, whether natural or manmade. . . . Forecasting, network science, economics, epidemiology, together with the psychology of leadership are all considered in a dazzlingly broad examination of the ‘politics of catastrophe’ . . . Magisterial . . . [an] immensely readable book.” —The Financial Times

Doom covers an impressive sweep of history at a lively narrative clip and weaves a lot of disparate strands together into an engaging picture.” The Guardian

Doom is well-researched, well-argued, and all-encompassing. Ferguson uses the depth and breadth of his knowledge to cogently argue for a new understanding of catastrophic events. . . . Reminiscent of William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, [Doom] is a much-needed book on an important and pressing subject. Ferguson provides ample support for his arguments, uses an interdisciplinary approach, and offers new insights and revelations. An exemplary and thought-provoking work from a renowned author that will not disappoint.” Library Journal (starred review)

“We are all trying to gain perspective on Covid, and Ferguson frames the tragedy in the broadest and most bracing way, drawing on humanity’s experience of all kinds of disaster, from the bubonic plague to the First World War. Sweeping in its narrative and multidisciplinary in its approach, Doom proves you can write an engaging book about a repellent subject.” —Sebastian Mallaby, Financial Times

“Sparkling, provocative and entertaining. . . . [Doom] fizzes with ideas and nuggets of information. . . . [Ferguson] is formidably well read and culturally curious.” —Peter Frankopan, Prospect
“[Ferguson] tackles big topics, topics of importance, and does so with energy and skill. . . . [Doom] is well-written, wide-ranging, conceptually interesting, shrewd, and good value. . . . The deep history is handled with care, and is gripping. . . . A crucial work that truly deserves wide attention.” The Critic

Doom is an informative, amusing and thought-provoking read that puts the current pandemic in context, and is full of steadying good sense for these often hysterical times.” South China Morning Post

“Niall Ferguson puts the Covid pandemic into the broadest of historical perspectives, and reminds us that this was not the first time that humans have had to deal with catastrophic events.  Drawing on a deep knowledge of global history, he catalogs the threats that mankind has faced, and the resourceful ways in which human societies have dealt with them.” —Francis Fukuyama

“Humans have so many ways to suffer awful collective disasters that one would think we would have developed better ways of responding. In his sweeping, synthetic, engaging book, Doom, master historian Niall Ferguson explains why not and offers a path forward for better, safer, and saner responses the next time we face catastrophe.” —Nicholas A. Christakis --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



The Meaning of Death


This fell sergeant, death, is strict in his arrest.




We Are All Doomed


"We're doomed." This line, uttered by the Caledonian Cassandra of the British television sitcom Dad's Army, Private James Frazer, was one of the running jokes of my youth. The trick was to say it at the most incongruous moment possible-when the milk had run out or you had missed the last bus home. There's a wonderful scene in one episode ("Uninvited Guests") when Frazer-played by the great John Laurie-tells the other members of his Home Guard platoon a bloodcurdling story of a curse. As a young man, he was anchored off a small island near Samoa, where-according to his friend Jethro-there was a ruined temple, inside which stood an idol decorated with a giant ruby "the size of a duck's egg." They set out to steal the ruby, hacking their way through dense forest. But just as Jethro laid his hands on it, they were confronted by a witch doctor, who cursed Jethro with the words "DEATH! THE RUBY WILL BRING YE DEATH! DE-E-ATH."


Private Pike: Did the curse come true, Mr. Frazer?


Private Frazer: Aye, son, it did. He died . . . last year-he was eighty-six.


We are all doomed, if not necessarily cursed. I shall be dead by 2056, at the latest. My additional life expectancy at the age of fifty-six years and two months is, according to the Social Security Administration, 26.2 years, which would get me to eighty-two, four years less than Frazer's cursed friend. Rather more encouragingly, the UK Office for National Statistics gives a man of my age an additional two years, with a 1 in 4 chance of making it to ninety-two. To see if I could improve on these numbers, I went to the Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator, which bases its estimate on a detailed questionnaire about one's lifestyle and family history. Living to 100 told me I probably wouldn't make a century, but I had a better-than-even chance of living thirty-six more years. It might, of course, have been another story if I had caught COVID-19 back in January, as the disease has a fatality rate of 1 or 2 percent for my age group, and perhaps slightly higher if we factor in my mild asthma.


To die at fifty-six would certainly be a disappointment, but it would be a good result by the standards of the majority of the 107 billion human beings who have ever lived. In the United Kingdom, where I was born, life expectancy at birth did not reach fifty-six until 1920, exactly a hundred years ago. The average for the entire period from 1543 until 1863 was just under forty. And the United Kingdom was notable for its longevity. Estimates for the world as a whole put life expectancy below thirty until 1900, when it reached thirty-two, and below fifty until 1960. Indian life expectancy was just twenty-three in 1911. Russian life expectancy fell to a nadir of twenty in 1920. There has been a sustained upward trend over the past century-life expectancy at birth roughly doubled between 1913 and 2006-but with numerous setbacks. Life expectancy in Somalia today is fifty-six: my age. It is still low there partly because infant and child mortality is so high. Around 12.2 percent of children born in Somalia die before they reach the age of five; 2.5 percent die between the ages of five and fourteen.


When I try to put my own experience of the human condition into perspective, I think of the Jacobean poet John Donne (1572-1631), who lived to the age of fifty-nine. In the space of sixteen years, Anne Donne bore her husband twelve children. Three of them-Francis, Nicholas, and Mary-died before they were ten. Anne herself died after giving birth to the twelfth child, who was stillborn. After his favorite daughter, Lucy, had died and he himself had very nearly followed her to the grave, Donne wrote his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), which contains the greatest of all exhortations to commiserate with the dead: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."


The Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa painted perhaps the most moving of all memento mori, entitled simply L'umana fragilitˆ (Human Frailty). It was inspired by an outbreak of bubonic plague that had struck his native Naples in 1655, claiming the life of his infant son, Rosalvo, as well as carrying off Salvator's brother, his sister, her husband, and five of their children. Grinning hideously, a winged skeleton reaches out of the darkness behind Rosa's mistress, Lucrezia, to claim their son, even as he makes his first attempt to write. The mood of the heartbroken artist is immortally summed up in the eight Latin words the baby, guided by the skeletal figure, has inscribed on the canvas:


Conceptio culpa


Nasci pena


Labor vita


Necesse mori


"Conception is sin, birth is pain, life is toil, death is inevitable." I remember being thunderstruck when, on my first visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge, I read those words. Here was the human condition, stripped down to its bleak essentials. By all accounts, Rosa was a lighthearted man, who also wrote and acted in satirical plays and masques. At around the time of his son's death, however, he wrote to a friend, "This time heaven has struck me in such a way that shows me that all human remedies are useless and the least pain I feel is when I tell you that I weep as I write." He himself died of dropsy at the age of fifty-eight.


Death was ubiquitous in the medieval and early modern world in a way that we struggle to imagine. As Philippe Aris argued in The Hour of Our Death, death was "tamed" by being, like marriage and even childbirth, a social rite of passage, shared with family and community and followed by funerary and mourning rites that offered familiar consolations to the bereaved. Beginning in the seventeenth century, however, attitudes changed. As mortality became more perplexing, even while its causes became better understood, so Western societies began to create a certain distance between the living and the dead. While the Victorians excessively sentimentalized and romanticized death-creating in literature "beautiful deaths" that bore less and less relation to the real thing-the twentieth century went into denial about the "end of life." Dying became an increasingly solitary, antisocial, almost invisible act. What Aris called "an absolutely new type of dying" arose, which removed the moribund to hospitals and hospices and ensured that the moment of expiration was discreetly hidden behind screens. Americans eschew the verb "to die." People "pass." Evelyn Waugh cruelly satirized this American way of death in The Loved One (1948), inspired by an unhappy sojourn in Hollywood.


The British way of death is only slightly better, however. In Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, death is one enormous faux pas. The Grim Reaper-John Cleese, shrouded in a black cloak-arrives at a picturesque English country home where three couples are in the middle of a dinner party:


Grim Reaper: I am death.


Debbie: Well, isn't that extraordinary? We were just talking about death only five minutes ago. . . .


Grim Reaper: Silence! I have come for you.


Angela: You mean . . . to-


Grim Reaper: Take you away. That is my purpose. I am death.


Geoffrey: Well, that's cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn't it? . . .


Debbie: Can I ask you a question?


Grim Reaper: What?


Debbie: How can we all have died at the same time?


Grim Reaper: (After long pause, points finger at serving dish) The salmon mousse.


Geoffrey: Darling, you didn't use canned salmon, did you?


Angela: I'm most dreadfully embarrassed.


The Imminent Eschaton


Each year, around the world, around fifty-nine million people expire-roughly the entire population of the world at the time King David ruled over the Israelites. In other words, roughly 160,000 people die each day-the equivalent of one Oxford or three Palo Altos. Around 60 percent of those who die are sixty-five or older. In the first half of 2020, roughly 510,000 people worldwide died of the new disease COVID-19. Each death is a tragedy, as we shall see. But even if none of these people would have died then anyway-which is unlikely, given the age profile of the dead-that represents only a modest (1.8 percent) increase in total expected deaths for the first half of 2020. In 2018, 2.84 million Americans died, so around 236,000 died per month, and 7,800 a day. Three quarters of those who died were sixty-five or older. By far the biggest killers were heart disease and cancer, which accounted for 44 percent of the total. In the first half of 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 130,122 American deaths recorded as "involving COVID-19." However, total excess (above-normal) mortality from all causes was close to 170,000. If none of these people would have died anyway-again unlikely-that represented an 11 percent increase in deaths for that period above the baseline based on recent averages.


We are all doomed, then, even if medical scientists are able to extend life expectancy still further-as some predict, beyond a century. Despite the ongoing quest for solutions to the problem that life is a terminal condition, immortality remains a dream-or, as Jorge Luis Borges intimated in "The Immortal," a nightmare. But are we also doomed, collectively, as a species? The answer is yes.


Life, as our physicist mother never tired of reminding my sister and me, is a cosmic accident-a view also held by better-known physicists such as Murray Gell-Mann. Our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, in what we call the Big Bang. On our planet, with the help of ultraviolet rays and lightning, the chemical building blocks of life developed, leading to the first living cell 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. Starting around 2 billion years ago, sexual reproduction by simple multicellular organisms unleashed waves of evolutionary innovation. About 6 million years ago, a genetic mutation in chimpanzees led to the first humanlike apes. Homo sapiens appeared extremely recently, 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, dominated other human types around 30,000 years ago, and had spread to most of the planet by around 13,000 years ago. A lot of things had to be just right for us to get to this point. But the "Goldilocks" conditions in which we flourish cannot endure indefinitely. To date, around 99.9 percent of all species ever to have inhabited Earth have become extinct.


In other words, to quote Nick Bostrom and Milan M. irkovi, "extinction of intelligent species has already happened on Earth, suggesting that it would be naive to think it may not happen again." Even if we avoid the fate of the dinosaurs and the dodos, "in about 3.5 billion years, the growing luminosity of the sun will essentially have sterilized the Earth's biosphere, but the end of complex life on Earth is scheduled to come sooner, maybe 0.9-1.5 billion years from now," since conditions will by then have become intolerable for anything resembling us. "This is the default fate for life on our planet." We might conceivably be able to find another habitable planet if we solve the problem of intergalactic travel, which involves almost unimaginably vast distances. Even then, we shall eventually run out of time, as the last stars will die roughly a hundred trillion years from now, after which matter itself will disintegrate into its basic constituents.


The thought that, as a species, we may have around a billion years left on Earth should be reassuring. And yet many of us seem to yearn for doomsday to come much sooner than that. The "end time," or eschaton (from the Greek eskhatos), is a feature of most of the world's major religions, including the most ancient, Zoroastrianism. The Bahman Yasht envisages not only crop failures and a general moral decay but also "a dark cloud [that] makes the whole sky night" and a rain of "noxious creatures." Although Hindu eschatology assumes vast cycles of time, the one currently under way, Kali Yuga, is expected to end violently, when Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, descends on a white horse at the head of an army to "establish righteousness upon the earth." In Buddhism, too, there are apocalyptic scenes. Gautama Buddha prophesied that, after five thousand years, his teachings would be forgotten, leading to the moral degeneration of mankind. A bodhisattva named Maitreya would then appear and rediscover the teaching of dharma, after which the world would be destroyed by the deadly rays of seven suns. Norse mythology, too, has its Ragnaršk (twilight of the gods), in which a devastating great winter (Fimbulvetr) will plunge the world into darkness and despair. The gods will fight to the death with the forces of chaos, fire giants, and other magical creatures (jštunn). In the end, the ocean will completely submerge the world. (Devotees of Wagner have seen a version of this in his GštterdŠmmerung.)


In each of these religions, destruction is the prelude to rebirth. The Abrahamic religions, by contrast, have a linear cosmology: the end of days really is The End. Judaism foresees a Messianic Age with the return to Israel of the exiled Jewish Diaspora, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead. Christianity-the faith established by the followers of a man who claimed to be that Messiah-offers a much richer version of the eschaton. Prior to the Second Coming of Christ (parousia), as Jesus himself told his followers, there would be a time of "great tribulation" (Matthew 24:15-22), "affliction" (Mark 13:19), or "days of vengeance" (Luke 21:10-33 offers the most detail of the Gospels). The Revelation of Saint John offers perhaps the most striking of all visions of doom-of a war in heaven between Michael and his angels and Satan, an interlude when Satan would be cast down and bound for a thousand years, after which Christ would reign for a millennium with resurrected martyrs by his side, only for the Whore of Babylon, drunk with the blood of the saints, to appear atop a scarlet beast, and a great battle to be fought at Armageddon. After that, Satan would be unleashed, then thrown into a lake of burning sulfur, and, finally, the dead would be judged by Christ and the unworthy cast down into the fiery lake. The description of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is astonishing:


And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08JKM9VK3
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Press (May 4 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 15462 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 492 pages
  • Page numbers source ISBN ‏ : ‎ 0241488443
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Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, former Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and current senior fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and founder and managing director of advisory firm Greenmantle LLC. The author of 15 books, Ferguson is writing a life of Henry Kissinger, the first volume of which—Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist—was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History. Other titles include Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die and High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg. Ferguson's six-part PBS television series, &quot;The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World,&quot; based on his best-seller, won an International Emmy for best documentary in 2009. Civilization was also made into a documentary series. Ferguson is a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service as well as other honors. His most recent book is The Square and the Tower: Networks on Power from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018).

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