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Why Oil Didn’t Save the Whales – and Why it Matters

Why Oil Didn’t Save the Whales – and Why it Matters thumbnail

A widely aired talking point among those who believe that new technological developments are the key to solving our environmental problems is that “oil saved the whales”. In this view, the emergence of petroleum products in the mid-19th century undercut the price of whale oil, prompting the decline of the whaling industry and thus reprieve for the giants of the deep from being hunted to extinction. But “oil saved the whales” isn’t usually a claim about the past so much as one about the future: the seemingly intractable problems of resource over-exploitation that trouble us today will be solved by new technologies, just as the over-exploitation of whales was solved in the past.

It’s a cute argument. But unfortunately its historical claims are blatantly false – and this calls into question its claims for the future. Far from saving the whales, it was oil that nearly obliterated them, and may yet still do so. The real lessons to be drawn from the history of whaling are more interesting and more complex than the oil salvation narrative. By laying them out here, I hope I might help draw attention to better means for tackling present problems than the one suggested by the oil salvation story.

But let’s first delve briefly into some facts and figures to explore that story. I’m hoping to do this in more depth at some point, but for present purposes we can get quite a long way just by looking at this single graph of the global sperm whale catch from 1800-1980 derived from a paper by Merrill Gosho and colleagues1 (the figures are given as ten-year aggregates).

In the first half of the 19th century the sperm whale was the premier species sought by whalers, mostly US-based, for its oil – much of it used in lamps. What gets the oil-salvationists excited is the dip you see in the graph around 1850, which was around the time that kerosene lamp-oil became available – an innovation that this oil salvation narrative personalizes in the name of Abraham Gesner, who formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850. Whether the dip really was caused just by the advent of kerosene is debatable. There were various other factors in play, including the depletion of sperm whales in existing whaling grounds. But it seems plausible that kerosene did play some role.

The real problem for the oil salvation narrative comes when you cast your eyes rightwards along the graph at the 20th century sperm whale catch. If we start in 1950, a century after Gesner’s supposedly game-changing invention, over 8,000 sperm whales were taken that year, more than three times as many as in 1850. In fact, more sperm whales were taken in the single decade of the 1950s than in the entire heyday of the sperm whale industry from 1800-1850.

It gets worse if we look at other whale species. Barely any of the fast and elusive rorqual species like blue whales were taken before the late 19th century, because traditional whaling technology wasn’t up to catching them. But in the years around World War I the number of blues taken, mostly in the Antarctic, was around 6,000 per year, and with the invention of the factory ship this leapt to nearly 30,000 blues in 1930-1. One reason the sperm whale catch accelerated in the 1950s was because there were few blues left to catch.

So that, in a nutshell, is why oil didn’t save the whales. It was the modern, industrialized whaling of the 20th century potentiated by fossil oil that truly put whales into danger.

But let’s turn to what we can learn from humanity’s whaling misadventures, which I would itemize as follows.

Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

…and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.

Small Farm Future



39 Comments on "Why Oil Didn’t Save the Whales – and Why it Matters"

  1. Shortend on Mon, 29th Jun 2020 5:27 pm 

    Whales eating too much plastics

  2. Sissyfuss on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 9:21 am 

    Ocean acidification, insect apocalypse, Arctic Circle meltdown, nearly 8 billion rapacious fools with more on the way. It was a beautiful world out there once.

  3. Earth Planet Killer Trump on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 10:09 am 

    “Trump Lands Devastating Blow Against Environment”

    Trump To Nominate Anti-Environment Extremist As Permanent Public Lands Chief

    President Donald Trump will formally nominate William Perry Pendley, a self-proclaimed “sagebrush rebel” with extreme anti-environmental views and a long history of advocating for the sale of federal lands in the West, to serve as director of the Bureau of Land Management.

  4. Richard Guenette on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 11:34 am 

    Don’t forget microplastics.

  5. Anonymouse on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 5:52 pm 

    Good article. We need to see more of these types of persistent myths busted.

    The writer is completely correct when he says ‘oil’ didnt save the whales from near-extinction, in fact, it (almost) had the opposite effect.

    Currently, there are a lot of folks, and sub-human frauds, that are still promoting myths of there own, but with a modern twist of course. You might have heard a few of these….

    -Self driving cars will save the environment, the suburbs, and happy motoring, and BAU. Now and forever.
    -Fusion power is just around the corner and it will be clean, safe, and unlimited.
    -Well invent a magic bioplastic macguffin, so we can keep tossing all that single-use packaging into the ocean with a clean conscience.
    -Putting up a lots of solar panels and windmills will save the environment, the suburbs, and happy motoring and BAU. Now and forever.
    -Hydrogen cars! (for the truly stupid and moronic)
    -Electric Aircraft! (see Hydrogen cars)
    -Hyperloops! (See electric aircraft)
    -Martian colonies! Moon bases. (See hyperloop).

    There is no’natural’ law, that says substituting one resource, with a different one, will mean it is automatically better, safer, cleaner, or will undo all the negative effects of the old resource.

    Cars replaced horses that were drowning cities with their poop and dead carcasses. Now, we have a billion cars spewing an endless stew of toxic pollutants and have to spend huge amounts of time and energy to get rid of the carcasses of the cars.

    Yay progress….

  6. JuanP on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 5:55 pm 

    great comment Anon, I save it to my notes. We should get on topic more and do less stalking.

  7. makati1 on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 5:56 pm 

    Ditto, Juan, lets turn over a new leaf and make this forum Great Again!

  8. makati1 on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:05 pm 

    Since I have not posted a comment since yesterday, about 20 hours ago, it seems the puppeteers on here miss me.

    NOTE: All above posts since then are their childish games.

  9. Davy on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:06 pm 

    I should do less stalking and ID theft. And stop being a total asshole too.

  10. makati1 on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:08 pm 

    Sissy, yes it was. I got to live in it in my childhood, when there were still parts of the world unexplored and all the chemicals and pollution did nit exist. When things were made to last a long time, not wear out when the warranty expired. When real freedom existed. Sigh!

  11. Anonymouse on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:11 pm 

    I should do less stalking and ID theft. And stop being a total asshole too, thanks Juan.

  12. makati1 on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:13 pm 

    I did not post the comment at 6:05, probably crazy juan.

  13. Davy on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:19 pm 

    I did post the the comment at 6:13, probably crazy davy.

  14. JuanP on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:36 pm 

    I did post the the comment at 6:13 and 6:05, surely me, I am crazy .

  15. Davy on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 6:41 pm 

    I am JuanP. And JuanP is me.

    Were one big happy family here inside my deranged mind.

  16. JuanP on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 7:15 pm 

    criminal left:

    WaPo Does Damage Control After “Far More Damaging” Biden-Ukraine Tapes Disclosed
    Profile picture for user Tyler Durden
    by Tyler Durden
    Tue, 06/30/2020 – 18:25
    The Washington Post is trying to get ahead of what Rudy Giuliani says are “far more damaging” tapes of 2016 phone calls between former Vice President Joe Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, which are set for release over the summer by a former Ukrainian diplomat. To review, Biden conditioned a $1 billion US loan guarantee on the firing of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, who was leading a wide-ranging investigation into Burisma – a Ukrainian energy company which hired Hunter Biden to sit on its board. In May, Ukrainian MP Andrii Derkach released recordings of Biden and Poroshenko which explicitly detail the quid-pro-quo arrangement to fire the prosecutor, Victor Shokin (which Biden already admitted to). Biden’s campaign says the tapes are part of a ‘conspiracy theory to smear him’ – while Poroshenko claims they are fabricated. In one of the May tapes, Poroshenko reports back with “positive news” that Shokin – “despite of the fact that we didn’t have any corruption charges” – had been fired. Last week, more recordings of Biden and Poroshenko were published to the YouTube channel, “NABU Leaks,” where the two can be heard discussing ongoing efforts by the United States to help Ukraine with various matters. And according to a Tuesday report in the Washington Post, more tapes are coming.

  17. CONVICT-19 if i have to wear a special glasses to see the They Live aliens than I at least have a choice but here we gather and each of you have a muzzie ck stuck in your mouth and i cant do a thing to help and it bothers me a grate deal that I on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 7:28 pm 

    dont have a choice in seeing it. Life, you’re strange and it freeks me out”

  18. BAZZARE-19 its really bazzare that you guyes come here with a muzzie ck stuck in your mouth if you think this is thearetical u obv went to teh rong school for the arts on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:03 pm 

    how bazaare

  19. Davy on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:03 pm 

    Were real screwed now. We shoulda moved to Europe…

    “Close To Half Of All Working Age Adults In The US Do Not Have A Job Right Now”
    https://www.zerohedge.com/personal-finance/close-half-all-working-age-adults-us-do-not-have-job-right-now

    “The employment-population ratio — the number of employed people as a percentage of the U.S. adult population — plunged to 52.8% in May, meaning 47.2% of Americans are jobless, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. We have never seen a collapse of this magnitude in all of U.S. history, and it has been truly horrifying to watch so many people lose their jobs.”

  20. Davy on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:11 pm 

    “Why Oil Didn’t Save the Whales – and Why it Matters”

    Who cares about whales? Whales are all dumbasses. They don’t no shit about financin and economical stuff.

    stupid whales are about as smart as juanPeePee and are widdle Pink Poodle cartoon. That are both us.

  21. makati1 on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:13 pm 

    All the bragging about that estate in Italy didn’t work out too well in reality did it Davy? Not only did you find yourself locked in your “exceptional” country, but the place you wanted to escape to was virus center for Europe. Europe is opening up to most everyone BUT Amerikans because of Amerikan incompetence.

    Reality is a bitch isn’t it delusional, demented Davy? LMAO!

  22. REAL Dumb on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:28 pm 

    JuanP can’t see are comments Davy. Cus he has us on ignore. We should ignore JuanP to. No body wants to here are insane shit any more.

    fuckwak

  23. Davy on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:31 pm 

    fuckwaks not.even a real wurd REAL Dumb.

    cuntface

  24. Anonymouse on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:37 pm 

    Well mak, I think we all know by now, the ‘Italian doomstead’ of his, was never more than a figment of davy dumbasses multi-polar imagination. Just like the ‘Italian’ wife. Remember her? The one that always lived in Italy, and not with him in his palatial cabin in the ozarks.

    The only thing he can do anymore, is ID theft and curse at his inability to silence and censor the intelligent posters here. Of course, it has driven him completely insane, but that is his problem. One he still needs treatment for in a nice mental care facility. A not-nice one would be preferable though. One that is inadequately funded and staffed, and simply drugs its patients into a drooling stupor, and just lets them be.

  25. Duncan Idaho on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 9:05 pm 

    “The trouble with ‘taking ideology seriously’, as Piketty puts it, is that if you aren’t careful, it can easily become the explanation for everything.”

  26. joe on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 12:09 am 

    Rabid left resorted again to making stories about Trump. Cant wait to hear General Flynns story when hes released now that the appeals court has ordered the case to be dropped.
    My guess is that the lefts abuse of the law will continue and Obamas man on the ground will destroy his own carrear and end Bidens presidency before its even begun. Dont forget the Medis is still using the phrase ‘presumptive nominee’ in relation to Biden.
    Im still waiting for Michele Obama or Byonce Knowles to step up.

  27. Crazy Joe on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 12:20 am 

    Crazy Joe has his pulse on American politics all the way across the pond- lol.

  28. joe on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 1:44 am 

    Boo Hoo, you guys got up the worlds ass for so long it shouldnt suprise you that the world knows your fingers so well.

  29. makati1 on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 3:03 am 

    Anon, totally agree. Davy is beyond redemption.

  30. Davy on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 5:53 am 

    Anonymouse on Tue, 30th Jun 2020 8:37 pm

    “Well mak, I think we all know by now, the ‘Italian doomstead’ of his, was never more than a figment of davy dumbasses multi-polar imagination. Just like the ‘Italian’ wife. Remember her? The one that always lived in Italy, and not with him in his palatial cabin in the ozarks.”

    Stupid, this is the digital world you have no clue one way or another about me. LMFAO. Yet, I know a lot about you and that is you are a stalker and triggered. You are a rabid west coast Kanadian anti-American with Jew derangement. IOW extremely fucked up

    “The only thing he can do anymore, is ID theft and curse at his inability to silence and censor the intelligent posters here. Of course, it has driven him completely insane, but that is his problem. One he still needs treatment for in a nice mental care facility. A not-nice one would be preferable though. One that is inadequately funded and staffed, and simply drugs its patients into a drooling stupor, and just lets them be.”

    LOL, I do ID theft and socks because they are done to me by your partner in crime so get used to it fuck. You and Mak the Wak don’t think you can support this behavior then not get a taste of it? What kind of thinking is that? LOL. Then you use the usual lame “insane” “treatment” “drug” crap when you are the stalker who needs help. Your life revolves around going to PO dot com and attacking Davy regardless of the topic of the day. You, Mak the wak and, juanPee are obsessed with me because I kick your ass daily. I moderate your mindless crap and neuter it with logic. This has you red faced with anger and hate. That is perfect by me because you 3 are disgusting people and need to be discredited.

    makati1 on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 3:03 am
    “Anon, totally agree. Davy is beyond redemption.”

    Of course you do Wak, Anon is your boy that helps you across the street. You are pushing 80 in senile dementia and daily losing your mental faculties. I expose them daily when you talk out your ass. LMFAO

  31. Davy on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 6:50 am 

    Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

    So there!

  32. THANKS-19 supertard for using low english on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 7:45 am 

    CONVICT-19

  33. zero juan on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:08 am 

    the start of another mindless juanPee day:

    THANKS-19 supertard for using low english said CONVICT-19

    Mohammad Jihad said derka derka derka !

    Davy said Joe. Joe who? Joe MaMa. At least I got a MaMa and…

    Davy said Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck. So there!

    More from the Davy lunatic said zero juan on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 5:56 am zero juan o…

    SocialRevolutioniComing said Love everything that is happening right now. I lov…

    Another Nail for Trump’s Political Coffin said Exclusive: “Hundreds of George W. Bush Admi…

  34. JuanP-19 is codename for Operation MUZZ-19 and CONVICT-19 thanks supertard for participating on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:25 am 

    please love supremacist muzzies more

  35. Davy on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:26 am 

    VICTORY!!!!

    ROFLMDAO

  36. On This Day... Jul 01, 2018: Jalalabad, Afghanistan A suicide bomber targets a gathering of Sikh and Hindus: 19 Killed MUZZ-19 is CONVICT-19 on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:50 am 

    this is why china is gratest nation on earth. they got rid of parasitic muzz living on jizya by amputation of all muzz starting with muzz imams. They rounded up 500 muzz imams and chopp chop

  37. On the moderated side on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:50 am 

    Re: Peak Climate
    by REAL Green » Wed 01 Jul 2020, 08:48:16

    https://peakoil.com/forums/post1453108.html#p1453108

    asg70 wrote:
    FamousDrScanlon wrote:The culprit: burning coal
    https://www.skepticalscience.com/burnin … ction.html

    asg70 wrote:Hey, Real Green. Trivia question for you. Which candidate in 2016 said he would “bring back coal”? Which candidate did you, in your “real green” shamanistic wisdom, decide to vote for?

    REAL Green wrote:
    Hey hit man (Asgee), FamousDrScanlon is a JuanP sock so talk to him.

    In regards to your misplace question assuming I am FamousDrScanlon, waxing your EV and whining Trump derangement is not helping the environment. I am actually living a lower footprint you talk about it and in a FAKE Green way. I have renewables and you don’t (at least that I have seen you admit to in a comment). You are living a higher footprint and fooling yourself that trump derangement will save the environment. Trump has been around 3 short years so I think the real culprit is people like you living the 6 figure lifestyle. A 6 figure guy like you has a big footprint and proud of it. He hides behind the EV and Trump derangmenets to justify his dirty behavior. Trump will be gone soon then who will you blame?

  38. zero juan on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:51 am 

    mindless juanPee:

    On This Day… Jul 01, 2018: Jalalabad, Afghanistan A suicide bomber targets a gathering of Sikh and Hindus: 19 Killed MUZZ-19 is CONVICT-19 said this is why china is gratest nation on earth. the…

    Davy said VICTORY!!!! ROFLMDAO

    JuanP-19 is codename for Operation MUZZ-19 and CONVICT-19 thanks supertard for participating said please love supremacist muzzies more

  39. Paris Police Give Up Search for "Allah Akbar" Gunman at Mall…MUZZ-19 CONVICT-19 on Wed, 1st Jul 2020 8:53 am 

    headline is clearly wrong.
    when muzz allah akbar and going for your neck, it’s supposed to be affectionate. this is actual advice so if muzz allah akbar on plane you’re safe

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