Doom covers an impressive sweep of history at a lively narrative clip and weaves a lot of disparate strands together into an engaging picture, even if they cannot, in the end, be arranged into a meaningful pattern. While it would have been a tidier volume if all of mankind’s historic woes had been drawn into a coherent model, with predictability and rules, it is to Ferguson’s credit as a historian that he accepts the futility of that endeavour. He is wise, in the end, not to posit a grand theory of catastrophe, when his exploration of the subject proves the absence of any such thing.
The chapter on historical cycles — perhaps the most important topic in the field of history — is illustrative. In the space of 20 or so pages, Ferguson races through the theories of Polybius, Giambattista Vico, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, Ian Morris, the anthropologist Jared Diamond, the financier Ray Dalio, with ruminations on the mythical Cassandra, a comprehensive list of behavioural biases from the work of Daniel Kahneman, plus philosophical titbits on Gilbert Ryle and Thomas Kuhn — it is like being caught in an intellectual blizzard.
After that it’s 250 pages of what often feels like a special disasters season of University Challenge, in which all the answers are given by an N Ferguson of Stanford University. There are different themes to his chapters, but after a while they all blur. Early on Cassandra gets a couple of pages, then we’re cantering through the end-times, where we find Greta Thunberg and the left-wing Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez linked with the millennialist preachers of the Middle Ages. This is followed by a long extract from a Beyond the Fringe script of the 1960s featuring the prophet Enim (Peter Cook), whose predicted end of the world fails to materialise.