Book Review - The New Map - The New York Times

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Book Review - The New Map - The New York Times

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The Future of Energy
Review by Prof. Adam Tooze
September 15, 2020

[Adam Tooze is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of history at Columbia University and the author of numerous books including “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.”]

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 Yergin’s effort to chart the world of 2020.

The challenge is enormous. Familiar schemes for understanding international politics and power are in flux. Even before Covid, market-driven globalization, under the sign of Western hegemony, was in question.

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

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. 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 the Middle East. The Kazakhs, the Brazilians, the Mexicans all get a look in. But what about the rest? If energy is the theme, why does 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 Yergin’s treatment, or rather nontreatment, 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. 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 “energy 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 Yergin is surprisingly silent.

Perhaps Yergin assumes that we have that map in our heads. Perhaps he wants to spare us the embarrassment of reviewing the shambles of Washington’s grand strategy since the war on terror. Perhaps he himself is conflicted, torn by America’s painful polarization. In the era of Trump there is not one American map. Yergin’s own position seems uncertain. 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 center. 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. One minute we are pitching ideas to Elon Musk in Silicon Valley, the next we are back in 1916 peering over the shoulder of the diplomats who carved up the Ottoman Empire. At times it feels as if we are being whirled through a remix of the greatest hits from “The Prize.”

No less jarring is the alternation of voices. Here is Yergin the master storyteller transporting us to the Saudi desert in the late 1930s. And there is 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. As for those vehicles, Yergin asks earnestly, what are we to do “about insurance? Currently, drivers are insured because they have personal liability. But if an accident happens with a driverless car, will it be a matter of product liability?”

The saga of entrepreneurship, great power politics, the climate crisis, the tech economy — any one of these could have provided an organizing frame, but Yergin never commits. If “The Prize” was an epic, “The New Map” is a miscellany.

Perhaps the key to the problem is to be found in Yergin’s other role, not as an author, but as an energy consultant. In that capacity Yergin actually inserts himself into the flow of the narrative, not just as the omniscient narrator but also 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 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 Putin’s revanchism. Yergin leaves it up to us to make what we will of his panorama. He is not going to do that work for us.

“The timing of what eventuates,” he concludes sagely, will depend upon many things — talent, financial resources, “commitment, sheer grit and the well of creativity upon which to draw. These will lead to the new technologies, disruptive and otherwise, that will shape the new map of energy and geopolitics.”

Perhaps in the confusion of the current moment it is vain to expect more from master narratives. But 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. Ultimately, he is ambivalent. “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.

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