February 27, 2024

Books of The Times: ‘The Quest,’ by Daniel Yergin

Mr. Yergin is back with a sequel to “The Prize.” It is called “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” and, if anything, it’s an even better book. It is searching, impartial and alarmingly up to date. (Events like the partial meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan, the political upheavals in Egypt and Libya, and the killing of Osama bin Laden, all from this year, are combed into his arguments.) Mr. Yergin brooks no cant about climate-change denial, and lingers on the topic of cleaner future fuels. Our heads may be buried in our sleek laptops and gadgets, his masterly book announces, but our toes are still soaking in dirty, morally contaminated oil.

“The Quest” will be necessary reading for C.E.O.’s, conservationists, lawmakers, generals, spies, tech geeks, thriller writers, ambitious terrorists and many others. But it won’t be easy reading. This is a very large and not overly elegant book; committing to it is like committing to a marriage, or to a car lease, or to climbing Everest. Base camps will periodically need to be established on this 804-page mountain. Sherpas — perhaps in the form of your children, delivering sustaining tea and coffee and rum — will be required. Nearing the summit you may find the dead bodies of those who did not make it all the way.

The book’s girth makes its own environmental statement. The idea that tens of thousands of copies, produced from a slaughtered forest, will then be flown and trucked around the country is honking madness. I don’t own an e-reader and haven’t longed for one. But maybe it’s time; using a Kindle or an iPad, especially as prices fall, is surely an ecological declaration.

“The Quest” is encyclopedic in its ambitions; it resists easy synopsis. What sucks you onward are its strong set pieces, some of the best of which are about what Mr. Yergin calls “the new world of oil.” Examples include the breakup of the Soviet Union and the race for control of oil deposits in the newly independent Russian states. This murderous contest became known as the new “Great Game.”

Mr. Yergin delivers a gripping financial tick-tock account of the swift mergers in the energy industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when six companies — BP and ARCO, Exxon and Mobil, and Chevron and Texaco — became three. He takes in Sept. 11, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the tangled global reasons why oil prices spiked dramatically between 2004 and 2008, ultimately hitting a record $147 a barrel. He appraises the rapid growth of China, now the world’s largest automobile market. “Sometime around 2020,” Mr. Yergin suggests, China “could pull ahead of the United States as the world’s largest oil consumer.”

He considers the notion of “peak oil” — the idea that the world’s supply is rapidly running out — and mostly dismisses it. Thanks to new technologies, estimates of the world’s total stock keep growing. But there are other reasons to move beyond oil, not all of them ecological.

Among Mr. Yergin’s fears is Iran possessing an atomic bomb and upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran is especially terrifying, he writes, because of the West’s lack of direct “communication with Tehran, which could increase the likelihood of an ‘accidental’ nuclear confrontation.” He worries too about future cyber attacks on energy grids, perhaps even a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

Mr. Yergin devotes a large chunk of his book to renewable sources of energy: wind, direct sunlight, biofuels and hydropower, among others. He is particularly interested in the possibility of “disruptive technologies,” or unforeseen, game-changing energy sources. He describes these as the “Googles” of energy, and notes that venture capitalists are increasingly interested in financing research in them.

Threaded throughout the book are small, adept profiles both of world leaders and of less well known figures, like H. L. Williams, the godfather of offshore drilling; the Princeton mathematician John von Neumann, a pioneer of computer-driven weather forecasting; and Roger Revelle, who, while teaching at Harvard in the 1960s, educated Al Gore on global warming.

“The Quest” often works on a micro as well as a macro level; that is, there are incidental pleasures. Mr. Yergin prints an oilman’s maxim: “Easy glum, easy glow.” He quotes the Venezuelan leader Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, a founder of OPEC, who called oil “the excrement of the devil.” He catalogs Jimmy Carter’s Sisyphean struggle to make energy independence a central issue during his presidency. The effort, Mr. Carter argues, was the “moral equivalent of war.” Critics mocked him with that phrase’s initials: MEOW.

When it comes to assessing the world’s energy future Mr. Yergin is a Churchillian. He argues that we should consider all possible energy sources, the way Winston Churchill considered oil when he spoke to the British Parliament in 1913. “On no one quality, on no one process, on no one country, on no one route, and on no one field must we be dependent,” Churchill said. “Safety and security in oil lie in variety and variety alone.”

One of Mr. Yergin’s closing arguments focuses on the importance of thinking seriously about one energy source that “has the potential to have the biggest impact of all.” That source is efficiency. It’s a simple idea, he points out, but one that is oddly “the hardest to wrap one’s mind around.” More efficient buildings, cars, airplanes, computers and other products have the potential to change our world.

So does old-fashioned individual action. Mr. Yergin turns to the Japanese, who have rarely had abundant natural resources. He brings up the notion of “mottainai,” a word that is difficult to translate into English yet explains why the Japanese save wrapping paper from gifts to use again and again. The best translation of “mottainai,” Mr. Yergin writes, is “too precious to waste.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=caa772ab5fac3e472745b35f8833891c

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