The Prize: The epic quest for oil, money and power - Daniel Yergin

This really is an epic book on the history of oil, recommended by a colleague. It's a Pulitzer prize winner, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know - i.e. it's 800 pages long, has more references than you could read in a lifetime, is chock-full of characters and anecdotes, yet remains remarkably dry. Americans appaarently love this stuff.

It is very good, and the scholarship is undeniable. The central thesis is that the twentieth century was not the information age, or the atomic age, but the hydrocarbon age. This is first really emphasised by the vital role of oil in World War II. How true this is, I don't have the historical knowledge to verify, but the writing here is fascinating and persuasive.

From then on, the rest of the century is unfurled. During times of crisis prices soar and noone can imagine them being low. At other times, prices are low and everyone believes they'll be that way forever. The oil market is nothing like the hypothetical free market, but a good case is implicitly made that the real-world structure is better than that theoretical alternative - oil is too fundamental a commodity, too strategically valuable, discovering new oil is too expensive, and the market has no hope of sensibly dealing with non-renewable reserves....

Also emphasised is how the politics of the Middle East is the politics of oil - something that sounds trite and obvious, but just brought home so very well by this book.

If you want the history and politics of oil, look no further.

Posted 2011-06-16.