“Will enough energy be available to meet the needs of a growing world? How can security of the energy system on which the world depends be protected? What will be the impact of climate change?” These are the three questions which the author aims to answer in this 800-page volume.
It’s worth considering if they are the right questions. What are “our needs”? It’s only in one single short paragraph towards the end of the book, for example, that Yergin mentions the possibility of an alternative transport system.
And “protected” from whom? He does mention growing competition between the US and China and the word “geopolitics” crops up several times, but really it is only Iran which is spoiling the game. When it comes to geopolitics, China and the Western economies have too many interests in common, so the potential for conflict can surely be managed.
Yergin goes into great detail about the dangers of climate change. So, for instance, we learn that the greenhouse effect was first demonstrated by a certain John Tyndall in 1859.
He also describes how ineffective the various climate summits of Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen and elsewhere have been and all the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes.
So while 15,000 were cramming the main conference hall in Copenhagen in December 2009, Obama, who had been boycotting the whole thing, flew in for a couple of hours wanting to catch Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. He finally found him sitting together with Brazilian president Luis Inacio da Silva (“Lula”), South African president Jacob Zuma and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.
After a lot of heated talk they agreed there would be no treaty and no legally binding targets. But even this was too much for the US Congress, which refused to ratify anything at all.
The strength of Yergin’s book lies in giving a picture of the ups and downs within the energy sector since the advent of capitalism.
Price increases, then price drops, the effects of financial crises and burst bubbles, and the criss-cross of pipelines from the Caucasus to Western Europe and China are vividly brought to life.
The sheer size of the oil industry is overwhelming. We learn that China’s Petrochina has 1.6 million employees – a sobering figure considering all the hype of the supposedly unreal economy of banks and derivatives.
Oil and other energies are technologies that involve real people and real geographical and transport problems. Yergin comes up with a wealth of information that is constantly surprising.
Despite some weaknesses The Quest is an extremely enjoyable, very readable and informative book.
The Quest is published by Allen Lane, £30