By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
At the influential TED conference last year, Bill Gates declared that if he were allowed one wish to improve humanity’s lot over the next 50 years, he would choose an “energy miracle”: a new technology that produced energy at half the price of coal with no carbon dioxide emissions. He explained that he’d rather have this wish than a new vaccine or medicine or even choose the next several American presidents. To help understand the reasoning behind Gates’s thinking, one should read Daniel Yergin’s intelligent new opus, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.”
Yergin, the founder of a leading energy consulting firm, is the author of several acclaimed books, most notably "The Prize," a monumental history of oil from its discovery to 1990. “The Quest” starts where “The Prize” left off, and at 804 pages it is similar in heft, but in fact a very different kind of book. “The Prize” was grand narrative history, full of characters like John D. Rockefeller and Winston Churchill and driven along by momentous events like World Wars I and II, both of which played a role in making oil the world’s pivotal energy resource.
“The Quest,” which begins with the Persian Gulf war of 1990-91 and goes up to the present, does not have the same kind of material. The world has been through interesting times since 1990, but the events and characters are less striking and too recent to make for a rich dramatic narrative. This book is really trying to answer a question: What will the future of energy look like over the next 50 years? In addressing that issue, Yergin takes on a myriad of other topical questions: Are we running out of oil? Is natural gas the answer? What about shale gas? Is global warming a real danger? Is solar power the answer? He addresses each one of these in a chapter or series of chapters that mix recent history and fair-minded analysis.
Because he tries to confront all these topics — and many more — this book lacks the drama and compulsive readability of “The Prize.” But it is an important book nonetheless, a valuable primer on the basic issues that define energy today. Yergin is careful in his analysis and never polemical. If there is a flaw, it is that he is too cautious in some of his conclusions, shying away from saying outright what his narrative implies. Despite that, “The Quest” makes it clear that energy policy is not on the right course anywhere in the world and that everyone — on the left and the right, in the developed and the developing world — needs to rethink strongly held positions.