(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1859, just before the American Civil War, “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake successfully drilled the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drake’s well led to the first oil stampede. In August, 1990, Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, ordered the invasion of neighboring Kuwait. That action led to another stampede, this time on the part of the United States and other United Nations countries, to liberate Kuwait—and Kuwait’s oil. For the past century and a half, oil has been the prize that has led adventurers, scientists, businessmen, politicians, and consumers in a never-ending quest for wealth, power, and energy, argues Daniel Yergin in his massive narrative of the story of oil.The Prize includes a cast of thousands.

Yergin, a graduate of Yale University, received his Ph.D. at Cambridge University; his dissertation became his first book, Shattered Peace: Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State(1977). In the 1970’s he became involved in energy issues. At the end of that decade he co-edited Energy Future (1979). The timing was fortunate, for the book’s publication coincided with the second oil crisis of the 1970’s, one of the primary causes of the decline of the Carter presidency. The Prize was also well timed. The author was reading final proofs of the work when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. With a few revisions and additions, The Prize was as relevant to a current event as any historical work could ever be.

It is a sweeping story that covers the entire globe in both war and peace. Yergin, though he has academic credentials, chose not to pursue the more common academic path of narrow topic and deep analysis. Instead, his work is narrative history in the grand style, his canvas filled with the movers and shakers of history. Yergin credits Charles Dickens, Barbara Tuchman, and other practitioners of the broad narrative as inspirations; The Prize also has similarities with Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989). Both are readily accessible to the intelligent reader, both are narrative rather than analytical works, and both, in different ways, could be included in the neoconservative school of historical writing, for they concentrate upon the few who have power and who seek power, rather than on the many who do not.

Yergin pursues three themes in his narrative. First, he focuses on oil as a business. As he notes, in the late twentieth century seven of the twenty top companies listed in the Fortune 500 are oil companies. Second, he discusses how the pursuit of oil has been central to national and international strategies and politics in the twentieth century. Yergin argues that during World War II Germany and Japan were particularly focused upon gaining access to the oil reserves they did not have in their own territories: Oil and the lack of it was a cause for war. Oil resources also played a major role in the decades after World War II in the Cold War rivalry between the West and the Communist Bloc. Finally, the author claims that the modern world is really a “Hydrocarbon Society” populated by the “Hydrocarbon Man.” Oil products have transformed human expectations, first in the West, and oil has been the energy source that has allowed the life of suburbs, automobiles, plastics, and chemicals to develop. The United States, with its high standard of living, epitomizes that world: One-third of all oil produced is used and consumed there.

Oil, seeping out of the earth, was known to humanity for millennia, but it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that it began to have any extensive value, primarily in the form of kerosene for use in illumination. Drake’s successful oil well in 1859 led to the first oil boom, to be followed by the first oil bust. That paradigm was repeated time and time again in the decades that followed: Discovery and production led to competition, overproduction, and falling prices until consumer demand could once again catch up with production, which in turn might coincide with an exhausted field that generated new exploration, production, and declining prices once again. John D. Rockefeller tried to end the boom-and-bust syndrome by terminating competition through consolidation and monopoly, both in production and distribution. Through his Standard Oil trust he did it brilliantly—and ruthlessly. At one...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)