No, Niall Ferguson, Travel and Trade Improved Health

Is modern life a doom machine? Do urbanization, international trade, air transport, immigration, tourism, and travel expose humans to an ever-growing threat of plagues and catastrophes? Are we killing ourselves through our cosmopolitan bustle of business, technology, immigration, cultural exchange, agriculture, and exogamous sex? The distinguished historian and transatlantic pundit-philosopher Niall Ferguson says so in this laboriously learned, encyclopedic catalogue, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

Taking us from the Chicxulub asteroid impact that likely killed the dinosaurs to Vesuvius, from World Wars I and II to Chernobyl, and from bubonic plagues to the Spanish Flu to AIDS to SARS to covid-19, Ferguson tells us more than we may want to know about the propensity of living things to die multitudinously in disasters that they often cause or exacerbate.

Keep reading, though. He also says many multifarious, fascinating, polymathic things. And, as he confides in a footnote, he does mercifully spare us two additional chapters he wrote on contemporary politics (the 2016 election) and political failures since (“What Was Not Done”).

While preparing his story of covid-19’s precursors and causes from the eminence of the Hoover Tower at Stanford, the former Oxford don continued his loquacious passage through the global aerotropolis of airports and malls, with microphones ablaze until the very moment of the global lockdown. Preening as a possible “superspreader,” he concludes that the more we travel and socialize the more we die.

Lucky for us (and him), he survived to tell the tale, and I survived a similar regime to debunk his dolorous findings. “Three things,” he writes, “have increased mankind’s vulnerability . . . ever larger human settlements, increased proximity to insects and animals, and exponentially rising human mobility—to be more succinct, urbanization, agriculture, and globalization.”

After an opening chapter on “The Meaning of Death” (subtitle—“We Are All Doomed”), he gives an account of the Black Plague in the mid-fourteenth century, which was a recurrence of a similar outbreak, the so-called “Plague of Justinian,” that devastated the Roman Empire eight centuries before. Killing, by some estimates, up to half of Europe’s humans, the fourteenth-century bubonic plague so dwarfs all the exploits of later flus, rats, swine, bats, earthquakes, mosquitoes, Titanics, wars, floods, dreaded dromedary camels, and pandemic covids as to impugn the monitory message of Ferguson’s subsequent sagas of doom.

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