The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World  by Daniel Yergin
2011 was a great year for nonfiction , but no book comes close to The Quest for claiming top honors. (Although I'm hoping you will disagree in this space!).
Everything we do depends on energy. Every industry, including higher education, ultimately is possible due to energy. Without energy, we could not teach or do research, heat our classrooms and offices, or cool our data centers. If you walked to campus today (or worked at home) that is terrific, but most of us relied on gasoline to power our cars for our commute. Higher ed may not be like the airlines, where fuel is the largest expense (ours is labor), but we are no less dependent on energy to run our business than Southwest airlines.
The past, present, and future of worldwide energy is a big topic, one that requires a big book. The Quest is 816 pages, none of which are wasted. This is an efficient book. Yergin manages to keep the narrative moving along without skimping on either the stories or the numbers.
The Quest systematically examines every major source of energy, including oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar and wind. The origins, technology, sustainability, and personalities attached to each of these major energy sources is given a complete and balanced treatment.
Readers looking either for an indictment or defense of our carbon or renewable fuel sources will be disappointed, as Yergin is scrupulously even-handed and non-polemical. Energy turns out to be too important, and too complicated, to be reduced to simple narratives and slogans. Rather, Yergin manages to consider the role of energy in the environment as well as the economy, while making strong (and actionable) policy recommendations for a sustainable energy future.
Usually I end my book reviews by arguing that:
a) The book should be taught in our college courses.
b) We should invite the author to come to campus to speak.
Both of these arguments are certainly valid with The Quest and Daniel Yergin.
What I most wish for, however, is that anyone running for President read The Quest.
How awesome would it be to have an Energy Debate, moderated by Daniel Yergin himself. The candidate who best understands our energy economy, and can articulate the policies necessary for a secure and environmentally sustainable energy future, would certainly get my vote. Alas, this fantasy is as likely to come true as Rick Perry deciding to drive around New Hampshire in an all electric Nissan Leaf.
What is your vote for the best nonfiction book of 2011?