The Quest - Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World: Five Minutes with Pulitzer Author Daniel Yergin

Pulitzer Prize winning author and energy expert Daniel Yergin recently sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss his new book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. GJIA: Would you mind telling us about what your intention was in writing The Quest, and how you see it having an impact upon the energy dialogue?

DY: I wanted to capture the story across the entire energy spectrum and see how all of these different sources that get talked about fit together. It’s not just oil; it’s the whole picture: renewables, climate change, natural gas, and electric power. The challenge was to present this in a narrative that would engage readers. I think the reason the book has had an impact is because it provides the framework for looking at where we are in energy today, what the challenges are, and where we’re going. I was in China for two weeks for publication and the interest was really intense, as it was in Japan, Europe, and North America. There is so much going on in energy, but how does it all fit together and what does it mean? I needed to tell the story in a way that engaged readers. That meant using a narrative and finding the emblematic characters that carry the story.

GJIA: What impact do you think this technique had in influencing the way the common reader thinks about this topic?

DY: It helps people get perspective and helps them sort what they hear everyday so they have an idea of how these everything fits together and what is realistic. It is important to have a timeframe in energy. It seems that shale gas happened really quickly, but it was 25 years in the making before it happened. Energy is not on Internet time. You can have a change like we are having with gas that is happened in the last five years, but there is a long, long build up to that. I find one of these really big changes to be the transformation of the U.S. energy position. We thought we were going to be importing vast amounts of natural gas and now we are going to be debating in 2013 how much natural gas we are going to export. A lot of what the book is about is how this happened, where are we, and where we are going. 

GJIA: You detail where we have come from in this industry, and the current progression that has lead up to the present. Do you have another project in the works that you’re hoping will expand on this?

DY: I think in a way, we do this everyday. I was very pleased to receive an award recently from the International Association for Energy Economics and I was talking to a group, including a lot of young people, and I said, “One of the most fascinating things about this subject is that it is always changing. It involves everything from geopolitics, to technological innovation, to how we live our lives. All of that is embodied in the energy story.” It is a great window into the world.

GJIA: Do you have any advice to an aspiring writer regarding the process of compiling information, going through personal interviews, and really crafting a coherent story and a narrative out of it?

DY: If I hadn’t done it before with The Prize and Commanding Heights, it would have been really intimidating. It was somewhat intimidating anyway because I didn't know where everything was going to lead me. You have to focus on one part and pretty much shape that the way you want it to be, and then move on to the next part. Partly doing a book like this, in ways you can’t articulate, you’ll shape it and it will turn into a story. You will find the story. You don't know where it is until you dive into it and then you start to see the geography of the narrative. I had a broad sense, because I live in the energy world, of what the issues are, but it’s one thing to know what they are and another to find your way to turn it into a story that makes people keep turning the page.

GJIA: One of the major points you make throughout the book is that despite all of these projections, disruptive technologies come along and drastically change the landscape. Going through this narrative were you able to pick up on any trends? Do you have any sense of where the next revolution might be?

DY: Always be prepared to be surprised, but keep one’s radar to look for the signal. We are working on a study here now on energy transitions because technologies radically change. I was reading a biography recently about Charles Dickens, and in the nineteenth century the steam engine and the railroad were revolutionary. The view I take in the book is that the global energy mix will have a lot more renewables in 2030, but will also have a lot more conventional energy in it. The real changes will come after that. As we maintain the emphasis on innovation we will see how it plays out. I think one important trend is the declining cost of solar. It has come down significantly. Could that be the next surprise? Again, if it is, it will have been a long time coming. As I write, it begins with Albert Einstein not being able to get a job in the patent office and a having free summer, writing five papers, and getting a Nobel Prize for a paper in photo-electricity. When I tell the story about a man not being able to get a job everyone thinks I am talking about someone now, but I’m talking about Einstein. It should be very reassuring to recent graduates.

Daniel Yergin has been described by Fortune as “one of the planet’s foremost thinkers about energy and its implications.” His newest book is The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, a New York Times bestseller. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Prize. He is vice chairman of IHS and founder of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA).

Daniel Yergin was interviewed by GJIA editor-in-chief William Handel and managing editor Gideon Hanft.