Whale oil was “indispensable”, too…


Whale oil lampsG.Paul Burnett/NY Times

Is the oil business the new whaling business? And, if so, is that a good sign or a troubling one?

Bear with us. Whaling, after all, was one of the world’s first great multinational businesses, a global enterprise of audacious reach and import. From the 1700s through the mid-1800s, oil extracted from the blubber of whales and boiled in giant pots gave light to America and much of the Western world. The United States whaling fleet peaked in 1846 with 735 ships out of 900 in the world. Whaling was the fifth-largest industry in the United States; in 1853 alone, 8,000 whales were slaughtered for whale oil shipped to light lamps around the world, plus sundry other parts used in hoop skirts, perfume, lubricants and candles.

❝ But, in fact, whaling was already just about done, said Eric Jay Dolin, who wrote some of the text for the exhibit and is the author of “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.” Whales near North America were becoming scarce, and the birth of the American petroleum industry in 1859 in Titusville, Pa., allowed kerosene to supplant whale oil before the electric light replaced both of them and oil found other uses.

❝ Eric Jay Dolin…the author of “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.”…(says) the message for today was that one era’s irreplaceable energy source could be the next one’s relic. Like whaling, he said, big oil is ripe to be replaced by something newer, cleaner, more appropriate for its moment.

“What you think you can’t live with today, tomorrow can become just a memory,” he said. “That’s what happened with whale oil, and eventually it’s going to happen to oil, but you don’t just turn off one switch and flip on a new one. It’s the product of a long, wrenching process that I hope leads us to a more sustainable path than the one we’re on now.”

RTFA to view a more complete picture of the parallels. The article was published in 2008, BTW.