An Epic Quest, Indeed

Lately I’ve been reading Daniel Yergin’s seminal work on the history of oil entitled The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. If you happen to have any interest in oil or energy, then I cannot recommend this book enough. Going above and beyond developments specific to the oil industry, Yergin deftly weaves the tale of this brown goop into the last 150 years of global sociopolitical history. Beyond the usual figures of John Rockefeller and Henri Deterding, characters such as Alfred Nobel, Thomas Edison and Mark Twain all make interesting and relevant appearances, further highlighting oil’s importance to our story as a species.

But while the The Prize is a swashbuckling good yarn of immense proportions, there is an underlying context which is very important to apprehend given the current attitudes surrounding oil in much of the developed world: namely, that it is not some Great Evil foisted on us by an elite cadre of businessmen looking to make a quick buck at humanity’s expense. Rather, oil was seen as an eminently useful and available tool for progress. Was there profit to be made? Sure. But that was because the potential great uses for oil were foreseen by some clever businessmen, who were then able to capitalize on its convenience when the rest of the world got a taste of it.

Are there problems associated with oil? Of course. Extraction is often a very dirty and destructive process (one need only look at the broken pipe currently gushing millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico as a stark contemporary example). Is there corruption and cloak-and-dagger-type nonsense surrounding the oil business’s history? Definitely. Do we need to move beyond oil as our primary energy source? Without question. But the key point is that we’re human and we make mistakes. If it hadn’t been oil providing our energy, we would’ve found something else. And we would’ve made a mess of that, too.

The main idea here, then, is that we need to take a conscientious look at oil as an energy source, and not as some devilish temptation that only drives men to madness. By understanding its development, we understand our own history, so that we can work to not replicate the mistakes made in pursuit of oil as we address the energy needs of the 21st century.

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