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Book review of THE NEW MAP: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations

Energy | Climate Change | energy industry

Adam Tooze | NYT 

Book cover of THE NEW MAP: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations
Book cover of THE NEW MAP: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations

In the 1990s Daniel Yergin emerged as one of the great chroniclers of our day. Both The Prize, his epic history of oil (which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction), and The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, written with Joseph Stanislaw, were turned into blockbuster television series. The New Map is Mr Yergin’s effort to chart the world of 2020.

A sense of increasing disorder and multipolarity pervades The New Map. Indeed, it is implied in the book’s organising idea — the map. Maps are ordering devices. But they are also perspectival. There are as many maps as there are mapmakers. What Mr Yergin offers us is not one map, but an overview of the many maps contending for influence in the world today.

Mr Yergin’s selection follows the contours of the fossil fuel economy, as seen from the point of view of the major oil and gas suppliers. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a map on which the lost boundaries of the Soviet Union are marked in red. The Chinese assert their control over Central Asia and the South China Sea. Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for influence across West Asia. The Kazakhs, the Brazilians, the Mexicans all get a look in. But what about the rest? If is the theme, why does Mr Yergin concentrate only on the producers? Oil and gas are worthless without demand. But the world’s big consumers — India, Europe, and Japan — barely figure in his book.

No less striking is Mr Yergin’s treatment of the United States. One might expect him to start with the strategies of the American oil majors. But Exxon and Chevron play almost no part in the narrative. Mr Yergin’s main American subjects are the shale frackers. But they are small fry. They matter as a herd, not as individuals. They have changed world markets by vastly increasing quantity and flexibility of supply. This encouraged some American strategists to talk of “dominance.” But if that is a map, it has turned out to be utterly misleading. Grand visions for the export of the frackers’ liquefied natural gas have run up against the harsh realities of market competition. No big producer, not even Russia or Saudi Arabia, any longer controls the market. What this multiplicity of sources gives Washington is not dominance but flexibility. That is only of value if you know how to use it. And on American strategy Mr Yergin is surprisingly silent.

Perhaps Mr Yergin is conflicted, torn by America’s painful polarisation. He seems at odds with the recent turn against China. But he does not elaborate an alternative. On Russia, he merely notes that it has become a hot-button issue.

The result is a history without a centre. A collage in which pigheaded Texan oil men, aspiring tech whizzes, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi — dead in a drain pipe — Xi Jinping and his guy-pal Vladimir Putin, Saudi dynasts and vast arctic gas plants pass in review. The chronology is similarly helter-skelter.

No less jarring is the alternation of voices. Here is Mr Yergin the master storyteller transporting us to the Saudi desert in the late 1930s. And there is Mr Yergin transcribing bullet points on the future of auto-tech. At times the juxtapositions are so disorienting that they evoke surreal associations, for instance, between Syrian suicide bombers and the question of how we might regulate self-driving vehicles.

THE NEW MAP: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations

Author: Daniel Yergin

Publisher: Penguin Press

Price: $38

Pages: 512

The saga of entrepreneurship, great power politics, the climate crisis, the tech economy — any one of these could have provided an organising frame, but Mr Yergin never commits. The New Map is a miscellany.

Perhaps the key to the problem is to be found in his other role as an consultant. In that capacity Mr Yergin inserts himself into the flow of the narrative as one of the mapmakers — the co-author of a 2019 report on clean energy and breakthrough technologies. His thinking about transport futures, he tells us, is informed by a planning scenario developed by IHS Markit, a firm of which he is vice chairman. The New Map might best be thought of as the narrative elaboration of a scenario planning exercise, a collection of unusually well-written backgrounders for managerial role-play (if you are Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, this is what you need to know about the Houthis).

Maybe it is wrong, therefore, to complain about the lack of narrative coherence. What Mr Yergin is doing is holding up a mirror in which we see ourselves, the disillusioned survivors of the end-of-history moment, torn between the pros and cons of Uber, and vague worries about such problems as the historic impasse of Shia-Sunni relations or Mr Putin’s revanchism. Mr Yergin leaves it up to us to make what we will of his panorama.

But Mr Yergin’s indecision has a price and this is most evident with regard to his treatment of climate politics. He oscillates between insisting on the vital importance of the issue and dismissing environmental activism as a pesky nuisance. “The debate over how rapidly the world can and must adjust to a changing climate … is unlikely to be resolved in this decade.” Given the timeline that we face, this blithe acceptance of indecision is a road map for catastrophe.

©2020 The New York Times News Service

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First Published: Mon, September 21 2020. 00:05 IST