The class I am taking on Energy and Sustainability has given me occasion to rethink the cost upon our living planet in man’s pursuit of energy, and profit. Living in the moment, it has been difficult to imagine a world not run by oil and its hand-maidens (Exxon, BP, Shell, OPEC, etc.).
After a quick search, it turns out that oil is a relatively recent arrival in the history of civilization.
From the early 1600′s, until shortly after the invention of kerosene, whale oil lit the lamps of America and Western Europe. Consumers also used the bone, fat, and meat, of whales to make soap, perfumes, hoops for dresses, shirt stays, and to illuminate their homes with whale oil burning lamps and candles.
1846 was the peak the whaling industry was the fifth largest income producing industry in the United States economy. Coincidentally, it was also the year in which kerosene was discovered and the petroleum industry began.
In 1851 Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was published, six years past the whaling industry’s peak. By that time, kerosene had started to make inroads into the marketplace. The advent of less-expensive, more reliable petroleum technology eroded the need for rendered fat from whales to burn for light.
By 1861 America’s once valuable fleet of 640 whaling vessels were nearly worthless. Whaling ships were purchased by the Union Army, filled with granite, and strategically sunk in a failed attempt to blockade rivers during the American Civil war.
Before the end of the century, the whaling industry had declined by ninety percent, thanks to a still burgeoning petroleum technology and the discovery of plastics.
It may be difficult to imagine, but as the technology of the day, no one thought whaling would lose its position in the marketplace:
“Great noise is made by many of the newspapers and thousands of the traders in the country about Lard oil, Chemical Oil, Camphene Oil, and a half dozen other luminous humbugs; and it has been confidently predicted by more than one astute prophet that the Sperm Oil trade would soon come to an end, and the whales be left in undisturbed possession of their abode . . . But let not our envious… hog-gish opponents, indulge themselves in any such dreams.” — From whale oil and beyond By Eric Jay Dolin That text sounds a lot like the gospel spouted by petroleum bloggers and pundits of today.
Today we have other sources of energy, fashion accessories, food, and and more, but the slaughter of whales continues.
The barbaric whaling video isn’t as much of a non sequitur as you might first think.
The deal is that the technology of petroleum will inevitably face the same fate as Ahab. The problem is that the new technologies for extracting petroleum products from the earth are equally murderous, barbaric and short-sighted.
Instead of poking harpoons into living breathing animals, we’re now doing the same to sections of the living earth which sustain us all. 97% of the water on our earth is undrinkable. After big capital has poisoned the aquifers, and solar or another technology has consumed the oil industry, Mobil, Shell, Exxon, and others will be selling you clean water to drink. If this sounds far-fetched, or paranoid, they are already in these industries.
Tisch School of the Arts