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‘The New Map’ and the New Liberal Arts

The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations by Daniel Yergin

Published in September of 2020.

Where you stand on Daniel Yergin’s The New Map will likely depend on where you sit on climate change.

Suppose you believe that global warming is an existential crisis, one that warrants coordinated actions to lower carbon emissions even at the price of slowing economic growth. In that case, you will read The New Map as tepid and under-argued. Conversely, if you view climate change as a manageable (rather than existential) crisis, then you will appreciate Yergin’s even-handed approach to the shifting global energy economy.

Since The Prize, Daniel Yergin’s books have been the ones in which I measure all other energy nonfiction. The New Map may not be as original as The Prize. Still, it is useful in that the book synthesizes the complex story of our 21st-century global energy transition within a fast-moving 512-page narrative.

The overall story of global energy can be summarized in three trends: 1) Fracking changed the energy game, as now the US is the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer. 2) Electricity is fast emerging as an essential type of energy (think electric cars), and natural gas and renewables are quickly replacing coal in producing electricity. 3) While renewable technology is improving quickly, wind and solar and hydro still only account for ~20 percent of global energy production.

Yergin believes that the transition to renewables is inevitable but will come more slowly than progressives would like. Declining demand for oil makes it cheaper, which reduces incentives to switch from gas to batteries. (Or home heating oil to solar). The New Map provides an excellent primer on the relationship between energy production and international political relations, with Russia (an enormous producer) and China (the world’s biggest energy consumer) at the center of this story.

I’ve long thought that the study of energy and society should be included as an essential element of a liberal arts education. Whether you believe that climate change is an existential or manageable crisis, there is little doubt that global warming will be the defining challenge of this century.

The New Map should be on the syllabus of any course on energy and society.

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Monday, November 30, 2020
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