Niall Ferguson on Three Disaster Metaphors: Gray Rhinos, Black Swans, and Dragon Kings

From a Washington Post review by Mark Whitaker of Niall Ferguson’s book titled “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe”:

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson was busily trotting the globe delivering handsomely paid speeches. Ferguson begins this sweeping survey of the dynamics and impact of various types of global crises through the ages — from plagues and natural disasters to wars and financial panics — by listing all the cities he visited as the latest one was gathering force. In January 2020 alone, he flew to London, Dallas, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Zurich and Fort Lauderdale, Fla….

When the whole world locked down in March 2020, however, Ferguson’s lecture gigs were canceled, and he retreated with his wife and two youngest children from their home in Northern California to a refuge in Montana. In that remote writer’s paradise, this scholar of financial history turned best-selling public intellectual and biographer of Henry Kissinger took advantage of all the extra time on his hands to crank out the nearly 400 pages of text in this volume, which with the help of two research assistants he finished by early autumn.

That personal preface is telling, because much of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe” reads like an extended version of one of those high-price talks….

In this fluid yet fleeting manner, Ferguson devotes the first third of his book to analyzing dozens of grand explanations for historical calamity, from religious eschatology to Marxist economics to the more modern innovations of “chaos theory” and “cliodynamics,” or the computer-driven attempt to decode historical patterns through massive data crunching….

In a neat trick of homage and appropriation, Ferguson zeros in on three trendy disaster metaphors in particular, each coined by a lesser-known big thinker. “Black swans,” a term popularized by Lebanese-born scholar Nassim Taleb, are events so rare no one foresees them. “Gray rhinos,” a species identified by consultant Michele Wucker, are big risks that go ignored despite their obviousness. “Dragon kings,” conjured by Swiss “econophysicist” Didier Sornette, are off the charts in size and uniqueness, but also in their capacity to leave social destruction in their wake. All those models are interesting, Ferguson tells us, but no one animal rules the roost. “The history of disasters is a history of a poorly managed zoo full of gray rhinos, black swans, and dragon kings,” he writes, “as well as a great many unfortunate but inconsequential events and an infinity of nonevents.”…

Mark Whitaker is the author of “Smoketown: The Unknown Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Previously, he was managing editor of CNN and editor of Newsweek.

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