The main idea is to apply historical analysis and comparison to a contemporary situation characterized by the COVID pandemic and the Cold War with China, then clarify all the challenges resulting from this. The author also reviews several ideas about the cyclical character of society’s development and the variety of non-cyclical catastrophic events, both natural and artificial.
The author begins with his attendance of Davos just when COVIS pandemics had been starting and then describes the allure of doom and uncertainty of catastrophic events. He defines five categories of unpreparedness, which he characterizes as political malpractice:
- Failure to learn from history
- Failure of imagination
- Tendency to fight the last war or crisis
- Threat underestimation
- Procrastination, or waiting for a certainty that never comes
The author points out the lack of incentives for preparedness:” Leaders are rarely rewarded for what they did to avoid disasters—for the non-occurrence of a disaster is rarely a cause for celebration and gratitude—and more often are blamed for the pain of the prophylactic remedies they recommended.” At the end of the introduction, the author discusses some statements of Elon Mask about the future possibilities of singularity or destruction of the civilization and concludes that it is all unknowable.
- The Meaning of Death
This chapter discusses a death, its representation in literature and pop culture, its philosophical meaning, its statistics, and its retreat in recent times due to advances in medicine and improved quality of life:
The author completes this chapter by pointing out the difficulties in quantifying the impact of various disasters, including economic and military disasters. He also referred to locational specifics, noting that COVID was 150 times less deadly than the Spanish flu of 1918, but in New York City, many more people died in 2020 than in 1918-19.
2. Cycles and Tragedies
In this chapter, the author discusses the search for cycles of human development, including various disasters. The author refers to the variety of authors from ancients- Polybius to contemporaries such as William Strauss and Neil Howe, who proposed cycle of “High” – “Awakening” – “Unraveling” and finally a “Crisis.”, Peter Turchin’s “Secular Cycles” with four phases:
1. Expansion: Population is growing rapidly, prices are stable, and wages keep pace with prices.
2. Stagflation: Population density approaches the limits of carrying capacity; wages decrease and/or prices rise. Elites enjoy a period of prosperity, as they can command high rents from their tenants.
3. General crisis: Population declines; rents and prices fall, and wages rise. Life might improve for the peasantry, but the consequences of an enlarged elite sector begin to be felt in the form of intra-elite conflict.
4. Depression: This phase of endemic civil war ends only when the elite has shrunk to the point that a new secular cycle can begin.
He also reviewed in detail the work of Jared Diamond and his twelve-step strategy for coping with a national crisis:
The chapter’s final part discusses how language reacts to times with neologisms like SNAFU or FUBAR.
- Gray Rhinos, Black Swans, and Dragon Kings
In this chapter, the author complains that many people, including world leaders, are unfamiliar with the history of disasters and often claim that it is unprecedented, whatever the current catastrophe is. Next, the author provides a brief review of multiple catastrophic events and a brief discussion of the Chaos theory and its butterfly effect. Finally, as an excellent graphic example of huge populations constantly living at the edge of disaster, the author provides an Earthquake locations map:
This chapter is about human networking. The author starts with discussions about disasters between philosophers from Voltaire to Kant and even provides an excerpt from Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” about human psychology when one’s own minor problems are much more important than catastrophic disasters elsewhere. After that, the author refers to his previous work on networks that he summarizes in six headings:
1. No man is an island
2. Birds of a feather flock together.
3. Weak ties are strong.
4. Structure determines virality.
5. Networks never sleep.
6. Networks network. He then discusses how human networks transmit various diseases and plagues and provides a map of pilgrimages and trade routes that were used since ancient times:
5. The Science Delusion
This chapter briefly describes the impact of various infections on human societies and their history. It includes discussions about malaria that limited access to tropical areas, the plague that changed the course of Europe, smallpox that cleared up America from its native population, and so on. The chapter also reviews attempts to fight diseases, often without any understanding of them whatsoever. Finally, it looks at the successes of the late XIX and XX centuries that actually worked.
6. The Psychology of Political Incompetence
This chapter is somewhat philosophical, discussing Tolstoy’s approach to history as an uncontrolled and unpredictable movement of millions vs. a process when leaders actually control masses, at least partially. The second part of the chapter looks at political systems, especially democracy, and how they managed natural and manufactured catastrophes, especially famines and wars. Finally, the author provides a summary table for famines:
The author also discusses British-specific events and the tendency to repeat the same political mistakes over and over again. Finally, the author ends this chapter by discussing how empires fall and the impossible dreams of the next generation of leaders about restoration, which usually do not end well.
7. From the Boogie Woogie Flu to Ebola in Town
This chapter looks at the history of the 1957-58 pandemic in the USA and compares its handled then with the COVID pandemic now. He finds material deterioration in the quality of American leadership and bureaucracy despite a huge increase in their quantity and costs. He also looks at the same events, processes, and comparisons worldwide. Finally, the author compares the views of Steven Pinker and Martin Rees and concludes that Rees was correct when:” In 2002, the Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees publicly bet that “by 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties* in a single event.”
8. The Fractal Geometry of Disaster
This chapter is about accidental catastrophes such as Titanic or Bhopal or Challenger, or Chernobyl, caused by human imperfections or plain errors.
9. The Plagues
This chapter looks at the current COVID pandemic, its origins, development, and handling by the media, politicians, and the people. Unfortunately, all of them demonstrated high levels of incompetence and irrationality.
10. The Economic Consequences of the Plague
Here, the author discusses the pandemic’s long- and short-term economic consequences and provides some numbers based on various analyses, all huge and imprecise. Lots depend on future developments, way beyond the scope of this book. The author also allocates quite a bit of space to political polarization in America that seems to be increased with the pandemic, clearly hampering effective handling of the situation.
11. The Three-Body Problem
The final chapter is about China, its rise, and its constantly increasing aggressiveness. The author links it to COVID and other catastrophes. He notes that the China issue is the only issue in American politics in which there is a bipartisan agreement. The author also discusses other geopolitical events of recent years, concluding that we are at “the foothills of a Cold War.” He concludes that the Cold War is already underway, and all that could be done is to avoid it from turning into the Hot War.
Conclusion: Future Shocks
The conclusion pretty much summarizes the book in such a way:
- COVID-19 will be to social life what AIDS was to sexual life: it will change people’s behavior.
- Most big cities are not “over.” COVID demonstrated the difficulty of remote work
- The consequences of the pandemic are not clear, but history indicates that a comeback would make America stronger.
- There are other threads on the horizon, some of them resulting from the coming mass changes due to AI.
- The new Cold War with China is underway, and it is not clear who will win.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This book is a pretty straightforward presentation of current and previous catastrophic events and their consequences. I am well familiar with ideas of cyclical development, and even if recent events arrived right on schedule, I still think that the future is unpredictable. I believe it depends not on some cosmic powers but on actions that people apply here and now and, if these actions are effective, we are at the brink of the new world, maybe even a lot better than our current world. The author’s attention to China and the new Cold War is fully justified. This problem had to be handled much more seriously than it was done by Trump’s administration, leave alone Biden’s appeasement. However, I think that China’s internal weakness, which is not that obvious right now, as well as America’s inner strength, will produce a very positive outcome for everybody. It will be precious for Chinese people if the final result is communists’ removal from power and real prosperity.