Daniel Yergin's The Prize is regarded as the essential history of the petroleum industry. At over 800 pages, The Prize chronicles the history of oil, from its discovery in small Pennsylvania fields through the Southwest US boom, explaining in rich detail its role in starting and in fighting World War II, and finishing where it is now: a global industry that affects everything from local economies to geopolitics.
I focused on the final two sections of the book: the postwar oil industry and the discovery of Middle Eastern oilfields, and the current era of oil as the most important commodity to international political, economic and military strategy.
After reading it, I was left with a few feelings.
First, I was humbled by the amount I've yet to learn about energy and by the barriers to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. Yes, there are political forces at play that help keep oil in its place. But nature helps as well. No other energy option has oil's combination of availability, efficiency, utility and fungibility. Yergin does not discuss alternative energies at all, but I left the book feeling as though oil had cemented its place in our lives for some very good reasons, and that the other options (which I've only studied superficially) did not come close. Of course, the book didn't lead to a sudden epiphany that oil is a good energy source. It simply made me appreciate it and its place in our lives much more.
Another feeling was futility. For the past 60 years, the oil industry has been a roller coaster: we discover it, we use it, we fear shortage, discovery of new sources and technological innovations lead to another boom, causing an oil glut, and the process repeats itself. Every time we think we're about to run out, we find more, or we come up with better ways of getting to it.
Despite this pattern, energy experts have for the past 60 years made predictions about both the end of oil (for example, when our supply was limited to North America) and the limitless supply of it (upon our discovery of Middle Eastern fields). And neither of them are correct. Demand, supply, technology, nature and politics drive this roller coaster. But lately, a new variable--environmentalism--has begun to figure into these predictions. Because of the power of the other forces at work, I'm left feeling as though the green movement will have no effect as long as it relies purely on popular feeling. Its time will come only after the other forces swing in its favor as well.
My above description might ward off potential readers who don't want a case of depression. But it is a fantastic story that rivals the best fiction. And it is full of knowledge that one needs if they want to begin thinking about energy alternatives in real, practical terms, instead of just as an ideal.