An oilman, a green techie and a sperm whale walked into a bar.
They got to drinking and, inevitably, boasting.
The oilman looked at the whale and declared that if it hadn’t been for fossil fuels, all 75 species of whales would have been hunted to extinction for oil.
“My industry and its technology saved your large ass.”
The greenie then chipped in and said saving the whales was tiddlywinks.
“You oil guys might have saved a few whales, but low-carbon technologies are going to save the whole damn planet. Including oilmen.”
At that point the sperm whale put down his whiskey and harrumphed.
“Idiots. Oil accelerated the killing of whales, and green tech isn’t likely going to save the planet. You two knuckleheads know nothing about energy or unintended consequences.”
And therein lies a modern energy parable.
People generally assume that when markets run out of one resource or, in the case of whales, exterminate several species, then civilization will find a new resource that replaces the old one — the way renewables are supposed to retire fossil fuels. Right?
But the history of whale killing tells a much more complex and nuanced story, writes U.S. sociologist Richard York in an intriguing 2017 essay titled “Why Petroleum Did Not Save the Whales.”
Oilmen, of course, like to think the 1859 Pennsylvania oil boom, which poured kerosene into the North American marketplace, slackened the demand for whale oil as a source of illumination.
But the historical evidence, as documented by York in his essay, shows that most of the concerted killing of whales took place in the 20th century and largely after the Second World War thanks to fossil fuels and other innovations.
Oil simply made it possible to kill more whales, and more efficiently, than ever before.
And that tale of unintended consequences is already haunting renewable energy sources, adds York.
York has checked the evidence and it strongly suggests that market economies aren’t using solar, wind or geothermal to retire oil, gas or coal, but to boost overall energy consumption.
Moreover the oilman and the greenie share a glaring blind spot: they both believe technology will save the day as the world marches to a better future.
Unfortunately, that assumption isn’t worth a Tesla production promise: the energy world, a complex technical system, doesn’t move in a linear fashion.
The simple reason has to do with the very nature of technology itself, explains York.
Technology, whether fossil-fuelled or green, increases products and services that use energy, which in turn creates more demand.
York deftly summarizes the issue. “Technologies are typically deployed to increase profits, not to conserve resources,” he writes. “Producers work to create markets and expand consumption of their products so as to further the accumulation of wealth.”
This not only explains why oil didn’t save the whales, but it also explains why savings made through energy efficiency generally don’t translate into reductions in energy use. Consumers and producers just spend the savings to find more ways to consume more energy.
But let’s get on with the whale tale.
As any right whale might tell you, Americans mastered the art of slaughtering the giants in the 18th century.
After running out of right whales, the Nantucket killers graduated to sperm whales, whose oil made brighter and better candles than livestock fat.
Sperm whales also made a convenient catch: they were shy and liked to lie on the surface of the water.
By 1833, Americans dominated the whale slaughter fishery. The U.S. industry alone employed 70,000 men and some 1,200 ships. It also raked in big profits for the pacifist Quakers who dominated the business.
(At the time, other “ethical” religious communities eschewed cotton made by slaves and oil lamps because they burned rendered whale blubber.)
In Leviathan, his magnificent history of whales, Philip Hoare notes “the whaler was a kind of pirate-miner — an excavator of oceanic oil, stoking the furnace of the Industrial Revolution as much as any man digging coal out of the earth.”
Whale oil lubricated industrial machinery, and whale oil illuminated homes.
Scientists now estimate that 300,000 sperm whales were killed globally with low technology: “by crews on sailing vessels that used small boats to chase, harpoon, tire out, and lance them” between 1712 and 1899.
But fossil fuels changed those numbers and accelerated the slaughter to almost three million animals in the 20th century.
The modern industrial whale industry emerged in the 1860s as the low-tech U.S. whaling industry entered a crisis.
The Civil War had commandeered most of the American whaling vessels for military ventures and so the Norwegians filled the vacuum.
The standard technology of sailboat, rowboat and handheld harpoon had fished out right and sperm whale populations in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Whale oil prices also plummeted as kerosene started to flood the home illumination market.
The magazine Vanity Fair even highlighted kerosene’s popularity by running a cartoon showing a group of sperm whales celebrating at a “Grand Ball Given by the Whales in Honor of the Discovery of the Oil Wells in Pennsylvania.”
One of the whales carried a banner that declared: “We wail no more for our blubber.”
But the celebration was premature by more than a century.
Soon ships powered by coal and later diesel opened up new whaling grounds by allowing the industry to pursue faster-moving blue and fin whales, among the largest mammals on Earth.
An exploding harpoon developed by a Norwegian sealer, Svend Foyn, also made the task of killing faster whales easier.
Factory ships, which could process whales at sea, also facilitated the killing frenzy.
As an observer recounted in 1938, just one modern factory ship could take more whales in one season “than the entire 1846 American whaling fleet,” which consisted of more than 700 sailboats.
Sociologist York writes “The factory ship and its fleet could not exist without fossil fuels, which powered the whole operation and allowed for long-duration storage of whale products by running freezers (for meat) and processing whale oil so it would not become rancid.”
As the slaughter grew, whalers expanded their products and produced new demands. Baleen bone, the plastic of its day, made corsets and hoops for the fashion industry while militarists found a new product altogether: the manufacture of nitroglycerine. Canadian researchers thought whale meat might sell as well as beef.
The Lever Brothers even owned their own whaling company to help procure supplies of whale fat to make soap. Then the process of hydrogenation helped turn whale oil into margarine, no less. It was a big seller for years until butter earned more respect.
In the 1930s the busy whaling industry sponsored its own unofficial “whaling Olympics.”
The great game pitted all the whaling countries against one another as they scrambled “to catch as many whales as possible before they could be taken by another country’s whalers.”
In the 1930s whale oil formed such a significant part of the United Kingdom food supply that “it comprised 37 per cent of the margarine content, 21 per cent of the lard compound, and 13 per cent of the soap content between 1932 and 1936…. In 1938 the British government classified whale oil, alongside meat and sugar, as essential ‘national defence’ commodities.”
After the Second World War the price of whale oil climbed again due to general shortages in food oils.
As a result a pod of nations including the United States, Argentina, Australia, the U.S.S.R., Denmark, Sweden, Italy and even landlocked Austria announced plans to kill more whales for human progress.
The killing statistics are sobering. Scientists now calculate that the industrial whaling vessels killed nearly 2.9 million whales in the 20th century, “making it (at least in terms of sheer biomass) perhaps the largest hunt in human history.”
The efficiency of the killing beggared belief. “Between 1900 and the middle of 1962, the same number of sperm whales had been killed by industrial methods as had been taken during the 18th and 19th centuries. Astonishingly, this feat was then repeated between 1962 and 1972.”
The Soviets removed most of the humpbacks around New Zealand and Australia in the 1960s not because they needed whale meat or oil, but because they had five-year economic plans to meet and the technology to achieve them. And so they killed, as one scientist later documented “for little reason other than to say they had killed them.”
As the industrial slaughter decreased the size and number of whales, the International Whaling Commission tried to manage carnage, but mostly for the continuation of the industry’s technology. It is telling that the commission didn’t approve a moratorium on whaling until 1985.
The energy lessons here are many.
The industrial whale business tells us, for example, that human economies don’t respond to the depletion of any commodity with alacrity. Or reason.
The discovery and mining of petroleum could have prevented the slaughter of nearly three million whales in the 20th century, but it didn’t.
Just because a substitute exists — kerosene for whale oil or renewables for some fossil fuels — doesn’t mean the market will use them for conservation purposes.
The prospect of regulating whaling also provided whalers with an extra incentive to catch as many whales as they could before the regulations came into force.
Economists now call this perverse response to resource depletion the “green paradox.”
German economist Hans-Werner Sinn, for example, argues that society is playing out the same game with fossil fuels.
He fears that “policies aimed at reducing future demand for fossil fuels could backfire by inducing resource owners to bring forward their extraction plans, thus accelerating global warming.”
In fact most oil-exporting nations such as Canada want to build more pipelines and export more carbon-heavy fuels as quickly as possible.
The whale parable also holds other important truths, says York.
Technological fixes have their limitations and can’t be relied on to solve serious environmental problems.
Oil could have provided all the substitutes needed to end the whale industry, but instead fossil fuels energized the killing.
Petroleum and other new technologies highlight “the basic unpredictability of complex systems,” writes York. Technological innovations don’t retire resources or lead to conservation but increase production “so as to increase revenue.”
The historical record also shows that attempts to manage whaling in the 20th century became an interminable debate about the status of stocks until there were hardly any whales left.
A similar debate is now taking place with climate change and depletion of cheap oil resources. Despite more extreme weather and costly emergencies, global leaders keep on debating.
Meanwhile industry keeps on mining what is now the world’s most expensive and difficult oil, whether it is fracked from a basin in Texas or mined deep from the ocean.
Perhaps the last word should go to York.
“The widespread expectation that new technologies will help societies overcome environmental problems reflects the still common assumption that technologies will principally have the consequences intended by those who develop and/or deploy them.”
The whales, at least, know that’s not the case — because technology delivers unanticipated consequences.
Just as preventing the extinction of whales required banning or reducing whaling, “it is likely the case that transitioning to a carbon-free economy will not be accomplished by technological developments alone,” concludes York.
Real change, he writes, “may require active suppression of fossil fuel use, such as by restricting the amount of fossil fuel that can be extracted.”
Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee where this article originally appeared.