A slow motion revolution that is changing the world: An interview with Daniel Yergin

Daniel Yergin’s latest book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World would have been essential reading for energy industry insiders simply as a consequence of Yergin’s status as one of the field’s foremost commentators and analysts. He is, after all, the author of one award-winning volume on the subject, The Prize, ...

MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Yergin's latest book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World would have been essential reading for energy industry insiders simply as a consequence of Yergin's status as one of the field's foremost commentators and analysts. He is, after all, the author of one award-winning volume on the subject, The Prize, not just a great history of energy but one of the best history books of any sort of the past quarter century or so. And he has built an important energy consultancy that every year convenes many of the industry's most important leaders for a week of must-attend discussions.

But this new book is such an exceptional achievement, a work of scholarship that is full of compelling story-telling, an exploration of some of the most vital issues of our time that frames them in a sound history and penetrating analysis, that its publication has much greater resonance. Appearing at number four on the New York Times best-seller list in its first week on the market, showered with well-deserved critical acclaim, the book is essential reading for policymakers, business leaders, and anyone in the public who wants to understand forces that are transforming global politics, driving the rise of some nations and conflicts among others.

As someone who in his spare time runs a consultancy with a considerable energy practice, I was drawn to the book for professional reasons but I have to be clear, I'm going to recommend it to many people I know in Washington because not only does it address issues that link politics, economics, business, today and tomorrow -- but it does so with unusual objectivity and wisdom. It's rather long, but not only is it a read that offers plenty of rewards but it is likely to be a book to which readers will return over and over. (Which is why, if you want my unsolicited opinion, you should buy a hard copy. Easier to dip in and out of.)

Daniel Yergin’s latest book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World would have been essential reading for energy industry insiders simply as a consequence of Yergin’s status as one of the field’s foremost commentators and analysts. He is, after all, the author of one award-winning volume on the subject, The Prize, not just a great history of energy but one of the best history books of any sort of the past quarter century or so. And he has built an important energy consultancy that every year convenes many of the industry’s most important leaders for a week of must-attend discussions.

But this new book is such an exceptional achievement, a work of scholarship that is full of compelling story-telling, an exploration of some of the most vital issues of our time that frames them in a sound history and penetrating analysis, that its publication has much greater resonance. Appearing at number four on the New York Times best-seller list in its first week on the market, showered with well-deserved critical acclaim, the book is essential reading for policymakers, business leaders, and anyone in the public who wants to understand forces that are transforming global politics, driving the rise of some nations and conflicts among others.

As someone who in his spare time runs a consultancy with a considerable energy practice, I was drawn to the book for professional reasons but I have to be clear, I’m going to recommend it to many people I know in Washington because not only does it address issues that link politics, economics, business, today and tomorrow — but it does so with unusual objectivity and wisdom. It’s rather long, but not only is it a read that offers plenty of rewards but it is likely to be a book to which readers will return over and over. (Which is why, if you want my unsolicited opinion, you should buy a hard copy. Easier to dip in and out of.)

I particularly was struck with its core theme — that while headlines blare of an energy revolution and great paradigm shifts, real change in this field happens gradually. The search for breakthrough technologies is not only not unique to our time; virtually everything that is buzzworthy and "new" today has roots that stretch back a century or so if not longer. That said, although a realist about the pace of change, Yergin is keenly aware of the profound shifts that are taking place as well as those that make take decades more to unfold. He proves the adage that the best guides to the future are those who understand the past well.

To get a better understanding of Yergin’s views as they pertain to the issues of greatest important to the readers of Foreign Policy — and because I always welcome the chance to discuss these issues with Dan — I sat down with Yergin for a conversation about the book, its key conclusions, and his views on the state of energy politics and economics at the moment. We covered a great deal of ground, highlights of which will be covered in two parts. Today, the discussion focuses on some of the core ideas in Yergin’s book, those pertaining to the search for new ways to provide the energy the planet needs. In Part II, the discussion turns to the geopolitics of energy in the century ahead.

David Rothkopf: Early in the Obama administration there was a sense that a new energy paradigm was going to be central to American growth, and the president himself was framing new approaches to energy as a primary driver of the next phase of U.S. growth. Yet more recently, expectations have been dramatically reset. What do you think is behind that change?

Daniel Yergin: We have gone through periods of great optimism about how quickly a transition to a different kind of energy system can come about. But our $65 trillion global economy rests on a very big and complex energy foundation. And it’s governed by two laws. One is the law of long lead-times. Because of the scale and nature of energy, it doesn’t change overnight. And the second is the law of scale. To be significant, it has to be large. And the renewable sector, the alternative sector, is still developing within those constraints. It’s certainly a lot farther ahead than it was a decade ago, and indeed it has become a big business and a global business in its own right. But, when you look out 15 or 20 years based on what we know, our energy mix won’t change too dramatically. It’s really around 2030 that we could see the really significant changes.

DR: Is that because 20 years from now we’re going to have great breakthroughs; 20 years from now we will have scaled up to the point that the breakthroughs are possible; or because 20 years from now, we’ll all be dead or retired?

Read the rest of the interview here.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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