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The Prize by Daniel Yergin image credit:amazon.co.uk

The Prize by Daniel Yergin, pbk: 1993 (re-issue), Free Press, 0671799320, $15.40 [amazon.com]

definitive history of the oil industry: a book review Five GoldenYak (tm) award

The Prize, written by Daniel Yergin in 1991, tells the history of the oil industry from its early beginnings in 1850s to recent times. Oil has driven the modern world to such an extent that it would not be unreasonable to call the 20th century, the oil century.

Inventions and techniques tend to feed on one another to advance human knowledge, while technology alters societies to a far greater extent than ‘philosophy’. However, without the vast free input from the bank accounts of fossil fuels, built up over hundreds of millions of years, it would be far harder to drive forward a modern civilisation, despite the dreams of our ancestors of flying through the air, or moving at great speeds on flying carpets, or the conceptions of Leonardo.

All life tends to expand into the space available to it, using any accessible energy. Access to oil has resulted in a enormous explosion of human numbers and in the ability to live in most parts of our planet, resulting even in dreams of outer space.

While huge, global oil resources are approaching the peak of availability, from whence supply can only decline. Without the energy resources to support the current population, humans will no longer be able to maintain present lifestyles or even, and this is probable, continue life in such numbers at all. (No, this is not some prophecy of doom, just a wake-up call to serious future planning before the environment starts to do the planning for us in the form of a major population collapse.)

What is fascinating in reading Yergin’s book is the extreme extent to which political history and wars during the 20th century have been driven by considerations of oil: attempts to grab oilfields, the Western dependence on American oil production (which oilfields are now greatly depleted).

To understand the Oil Century, it is essential to grasp that oil is not just a means of energy, it is also an essential driver of political power. Without a secure oil supply, nations cannot long sustain military action, or defence. Consequently, serious wars have revolved around controlling oil, or depriving rivals of supply.

Thus, it is not enough to rely on oil markets to set prices and availability. It is necessary to stop those who wish you ill from gaining political control of oil to the extent that they can switch off the supply. So OPEC, in the hands of fundimentalists, can become a serious geo-political threat, should they decide to stamp on the petrol hose.

I was impressed by the absolute cascade of various backward countries breaking almost every agreement they ever made with the great oil companies and the advanced nations. While Yergin does not emphasise these elements, he does chronicle them in considerable and interesting detail.

The one area on which I would have liked to see more was a section about the life and productivity of oil wells, but after 781 pages and another hundred pages of references and notes [hardback edition], I guess you could say that I believe I got at least my full money’s worth.

If you want to understand the modern age of oil and 20th century politics, I have no awareness of any source which comes close to the clarity and organisation of The Prize. Quite simply, this amongst the best written and the most useful books that I have ever read. I recommend it without reserve. I will also recommend this book as a standard resource for relevant education courses.

The Prize by Daniel Yergin image credit:amazon.co.uk

The Prize by Daniel Yergin, 1991, Simon and Shuster, 0671502484 [hbk – out of print]

pbk: 1993 (re-issue), Free Press, 0671799320, $15.40 [amazon.com]


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