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Review: The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

Daniel Yergin: The Quest

Daniel Yergin won a Pulitzer Prize for his previous work on energy, The Prize, written 20 years ago.

His follow up effort The Quest brings all of that smack bang into the now ten years old 21st Century with a rather large thud: an 800+ page doorstep of a thud, to be precise.

Upon opening The Quest, the reader is immediately treated to Yergin’s writing style which, always knowledgeable, successfully treads the tightrope between assuming too much on the part of the reader and patronizing the audience.

This is not your traditional holiday reading. You may need at least a weekend break to power through such a dense history of all that is energy. But, for anyone who wants to better understand the global power balance, and how it hinges on abilities to meet increasing energy demands in the very near future, that is precisely what is required.

Early into this work, occasionally, one gets the feeling we are to be hearing primarily the establishment, or party, line. Perhaps some balance can be provided by looking at the political motivations behind some of the major events touched upon within The Quest by reading something like John Perkins’ far less weighty and ever-so-slightly-ranting Confessions of an Economic Hitman immediately before, during or afterwards.

Here is a book where – another trouble to the more casual reader – the devil really is in the detail, or, more appropriately, in the copious footnotes. In order to strike a difficult balance, reviewing the energy history of many regions in detail over a reasonably long time-frame, the author must, from time-to-time, put out, in the briefest of sentences, a notion that requires further scrutiny from the reader, to keep the narrative flowing.

Resultantly, one of Yergin’s real powers is to raise the pertinent talking points on a huge variety of issues.

Just reading through the prologue requires a pen and pad, on which to jot down a word or a sentence – usually suffixed with a question mark. Further reading, alas, may take the diligent reader the twenty years this book quite naturally has taken Yergin to conceptualise, devise and create.

The Quest is a tremendous starting point for any student of international relations, geo-politics, or those who, like the rest of us, are simply interested observers and citizens of this planet.

But while everyone should be encouraged to read this book, they should do so with a critical eye. Yergin takes, for the most part, an American perspective on world affairs. The Quest is, as a result, not entirely without some jaundice here or there, particularly where events are described in terms of the news reports of the time, rather than anything less directly influenced by Washington press releases.

After an absorbing introduction and prologue, Yergin opens his tome with Russia, the state having experienced the largest shifts in energy market following the fall of the Iron Curtain just over twenty years ago.

In 1993, Yergin recognised oil as a global business for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution nearly 80 years previously. From such opportunity, this newly capitalist state has quickly wrapped itself around becoming an oil economy on a par with Saudi Arabia; it therefore makes sense that Yergin begins his story in earnest here, with the fall of the USSR, and the subsequent wild-west-like power vacuum which ensued within the new, fossil fuel rich, country of Russia.

The remainder of this first of six parts covers what Yergin classes “The New World of Oil” which along with “Securing The Supply” “The Electric Age” “Climate and Carbon” “New Energies” and “Road To The Future” make up this book in 35 detailed yet readable chapters.

The Quest is something to dip into time and again: it is something to keep on the shelf and review again as the future unfolds itself. What’s more, there is a unique quality to this sort of global history that stirs the soul, particularly when it is described with such simple prose, and an artist’s touch for storytelling.

Perhaps the best endorsement of The Quest is the fact that roughly 75% of your closest contacts are likely to receive a “you have to read this book” email or message after your reading it for just a day. The other 25% probably already recommended it to you.

It is the sort of book that needs to be published more often. The Quest is a twice-in-a-lifetime masterpiece of work. If you have any interest in the world, and how our species might power its future, you should buy this book.

The Quest is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. It is on sale now, following a 22 September 2011 hardback release.

About Robin Scott

Robin Scott
Robin Scott is co-founder and publisher of The Global Herald.

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