Sometime a subject can be so important that it can benefit from a style you might not initially consider, this is such a book. The book is a paradox for me, it is written by a journalist, about a complex issue, and it is actually quite good. For a person who thinks that books written by journalist should have warning signs on them, this book was a pleasant surprise. Obviously David, like most journalists, has a tendency to write about himself a lot more than necessary. And obvious he adds the journalistic trademarks and write about unnecessary details that is not related to the story (what T-shirt a person is wearing, what food he had when he met someone). Note to teachers on journalist schools: These things are very tiring (at least for non journalists who wants to read about the subject of the book and who is not into really TV shows. I think there are a few of us left).
If you can stomach some of the traditional journalism writing, David actually pulls of something very interesting, turning the tendency to write as a movie script intro something good, a story about how infections move from animals to humans. We almost get a detective story where we try to find, and then follow, the "killer" (mostly a virus) as it jumps from an animal and spread though human populations.
The way of describing infections as the spread through society in a way where you can see a camera moving slowly in the beginning between a few people, and then gradually picking up speed. But also noticing that it is not a simple equation, but on that is highly dependent on key individuals, called “superspreader”.
However, the really interesting parts could probably fit on 20 pages and are two things: 1. What are the drivers that can/might trigger a global pandemic? 2. What is the probability for a global pandemic (NBO) that will kill very very many humans (maybe most)?
One reason that these complex issues could fit on 20 pages is that David dodges the second one, saying that it is difficult to assess. It is frustrating that he did not take the time to discuss the probability issue with someone who knows how to deal with complex issues. Obviously it is hard, and some parts are not known, but that is the same for many big challenges. If it is important enough we can start zooming in on orders of magnitude and increase our understanding of the drivers. If not we don’t know if we are actually improving the situation or not.
The first question he does answer, but in the worst possible journalistic way, by just listing a lot of drivers. How important they are in relation to each other, and how they might affect each other is not discussed.
So what we know after reading the book is that the "NBO" (The next big one) can happen, and probably a lot sooner and likelier that most of us like to think, but what we can do about it (apart from general ideas like more research, eating less meat and try not to cut down the last wild forests around the world) is not clear.
What the book might do is to increase the understanding of how close we are to a pandemic and how very small changes at key events can have very big impacts when it comes to events with exponential growth.
The stories where good enough for me, and to his credit he used footnotes (very few journalists do when they write books, or articles for that matter) so maybe David is not really a journalist, but more of a scientists trying to spread important information.
Finally, and something that I hope people pick up, is this message at the end of the book. I took the liberty to cut together the key parts:
“From the ecological point of view an outbreak can be defined as an explosive increase in the abundance of a particular species that occurs over a relatively short period of time… From this perspective, the most serious outbreak on the planet is that of the species Homo sapiens… and here is the thing about outbreaks: They end”