“The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power”
by Daniel Yergin
1991 by Free Press

Yergin’s classic book The Prize surveys a sweeping history of oil, and its storied relationship to War, Geopolitics, and Imperial ambitions. The strengths of the book are its thoroughly detailed accounts of events such as World War II, The Arab Oil Embargo, and the various European/American meddlings in the Middle East region. No other book takes such a comprehensive view of oil’s geopolitical history, and at 800 pages this book actually seems short for such a major topic.

On the other hand, there are some severe limitations to Yergin’s analysis. Yergin tells the story of oil from a mainstream/dominant perspective, which means the entire history is in the words of capitalists, heads of states, diplomats, etc.; in a word, the story of oil is told from the perspective of imperialism.

There is also very little critical analysis of the horrible atrocities committed by these powers in their “epic quest”, so the oil capitalists and U.S. state agencies come out looking like intrepid realists rather than the greedy and ruthless destroyers they are.

Yergin praises Jimmy Carter for his “human rights record” and cautious attempts at conservation, but bland liberalism doesnt get deep enough below the surface, and he makes no criticism of the horrors of so-called “alternative fuels” like Coal Liquefaction, Tar Sands, etc. Exxon-Valdez, Three Mile Island and other environmental catastrophes are glossed over, and global warming is barely mentioned, leaving the reader with no real understanding of the environmental or social effects of global oil exploitation. Petroleum as a source of war and conflict is discussed, but not in a way that truly explains the sheer horror of mass-industrial violence unleashed by the energy source.

In sum, a useful book for background knowledge of some of the 20th century’s grandest geopolitical events, but not useful at all for critically understanding the tragedies of those events, nor how oil has fueled that tragedy.

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