The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World
is a 2011 non-fiction bestseller by energy consultant and historian Daniel Yergin. The Quest
describes the contemporary state of the global energy system from political and scientific perspectives. The book is a follow-up to Yergin’s The Prize
(1992), a comprehensive history of oil from its discovery to the modern era. Through its description of the current state of global energy affairs, The Quest
advances the position that political policy on energy is seriously flawed everywhere: on the political right and left; in the developed and developing worlds. The book has been described as “necessary reading” by the New York Times.
Yergin introduces his subject by setting out the crucial importance of energy to modernity. He reminds the reader that for almost all of human history, the muscle-power of men, horses, and oxen was virtually the sole source of energy. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the means to harness the energy of steam and coal were discovered, and the result was the modern era: material abundance and rapid technological advance. Yergin describes a calculation carried out by pioneering nuclear engineer Hyman Rickover, who estimated that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, 94 percent of global energy was muscle-power. By the 1950s, 93 percent of global energy derived from fossil fuels.
The first of The Quest
’s six sections, “The New World of Oil,” focuses on geopolitical change since the Gulf War and the collapse of the USSR, and its effects on the energy system. The energy demands of the developing world are Yergin’s major theme. Two chapters are devoted to the rise of China and its growing demand for energy. Yergin argues that even if the Western world could achieve near-total energy efficiency, the “rise of the rest” means that energy consumption is likely to increase by 30-40 percent in the next twenty years.
Section 2, “Securing the Supply,” examines the topic of energy security. Yergin describes the various and profound ways in which concerns about the scarcity of energy supplies have shaped political policy, economic development, and planning in the last decades. As a case study, Yergin traces the development of shale gas as an energy source.
“The Electric Age” describes the rise of electricity as a crucial resource in the modern world. Having established the importance of electricity, Yergin turns to the question of which fuels can plausibly “keep the lights on.” He predicts that the vaunted “end of oil” is nowhere in sight. The majority of global electricity is generated from coal, and oil production is five times greater than it was in 1957 (when Rickover first predicted the “end of oil”). Fossil fuels still provide more than 80 percent of the world’s energy.
Section 4, “Climate and Carbon,” turns to the question of climate change. Yergin narrates the history of climate science, from the first inquiries into the make-up of the atmosphere at the turn of the nineteenth century to its current role at the center of debates about responses to climate change.
As part of this narrative, Yergin describes how the global scientific community arrived at a consensus about the existence and seriousness of man-made climate change. He stresses that there is no longer any serious debate amongst scientists about the facts of climate change, although he notes the lack of certainty about its severity. Some studies, he warns, suggest that climate change could have far graver effects that the “average” prediction which is used for much policy-making.
From the scientific approach to climate change, Yergin turns to the political approach. He argues that government policy has generally been dictated by political necessity rather than sensible, science-led planning. He examines the case of governments subsiding ethanol production, finding that this policy has ultimately caused damage. He suggests two clear-cut strategies that governments can adopt to improve the situation: carbon taxes and funding research into alternative energies.
“New Energies” considers the current generation of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency. Surveying the state of play in renewables, Yergin finds that the current technology simply cannot provide enough affordable and reliable energy to replace fossil fuels. In turn, Yergin examines wind power, solar power, biofuels, and nuclear energy, to dissect their limitations. Only wind and solar come without an environmental cost of their own, but they are unreliable, because they depend on windy days and clear skies respectively. Battery technology is too limited to store excess energy produced by these means.
The book’s final section, “The Road to the Future,” considers the future of cars and personal mobility technologies. He considers the third and fourth generations of biofuel technology, hydrogen fuel cells, cars powered by natural gas, and the electric car. Yergin calls for a “globalization of innovation” to generate new and better ideas in these areas.
Yergin closes by arguing that in the absence of “disruptive technology,” a “Google of energy” to secure our energy future, our best hope lies not in new modes of production but in improved efficiency.