oh ye whale…

Posted on Monday 31 May 2010

Moby Dick [cover] In 1851, Hermann Melville published his novel Moby Dick based on his own seafaring youth and a chance meeting with the son of one of the few survivors of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk by a Sperm Whale in 1820. The American whaling industry was at its peak, producing the oil for the lamps that lit America. To meet the demand for oil, the whalers ventured further and further across the globe looking for new whaling grounds. The Essex, out of Nantucket, had sailed around the Horn and was several thousand miles from the South American coast at the equator when it met a Sperm Whale who turned the tables on the hunters – ramming and sinking the ship. The few survivors made the trip to Chile in lifeboats surviving by cannibalism. First mate Owen Chase wrote an account of the disaster, the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, loaned to Melville by Chase’s son when they met at sea.

the Essex [drawn by a crew member]Melville’s novel wasn’t well received when it was first published. America was preoccupied with the movement west and with the forces that were pointing us to Civil War. Ironically, our whaling era would soon be brought to a close when petroleum gushed from the ground in Pennsylvania in 1859. In addition, much of the whaling fleet was destroyed during the War between the States. So Melville’s novel had to wait to be rediscovered long after his death, long after the heyday of the whalers. And the dark story of the Essex went largely unspoken until recent times.

Beneath the epic of Melville’s Ahab and the sordid journey of the real survivors of the Essex, this was a tale of increasingly risky behavior in the face of dwindling resources. The whalers so depleted the whale population in the Atlantic that they were forced to make long and dangerous journeys deep into the uncharted Pacific to feed the coffers of the ship owners – the ones who profited from the trade in lamp oil and lubricants.

the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill [05/24/2010]It’s a story repeated to the present from whaling, to coal mining, to drilling for oil. As the easily accessed resources become depleted, continued production becomes harder and harder. Profit margins fall, leading to "cost cutting." The outcome – whaling ships lost, mining accidents, oil spills. The contemporary analogy can’t be lost on us. The whalers were taking increasingly greater risks to find new whaling grounds as they decimated the whale population, much as our quest for petroleum seems to have outrun our technology with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


Fuel type Average power in TW
1980 2004 2006
Oil 4.380 5.580 5.740[37%]
Gas 1.800 3.450 3.610[23%]
Coal 2.340 3.870 4.270[27%]
Hydroelectric 0.599 0.933 0.995[  6%]
Nuclear power 0.253 0.914 0.929[  6%]
Geothermal, wind,
solar energy, wood
0.016 0.133 0.158[  1%]

Total 9.48 15.0 15.8

As much as we love to venerate our technological prowess, the replacement for our oil-based energy economy [the elusive ‘sustainable’ energy resource] is not yet in the wings [as it was when we began to run out of whales in the nineteenth century]. Now we have the added problem that burning fossil fuels is actually adversely affecting our climate. So that spot in the Gulf of Mexico represents more than a simple mess to clean up, it’s a harbinger of things to come. We actually cannot continue as we are. We’re outrunning our technology chasing after a disappearing resource, one  that is actually afflicting our planet. That spot in the Gulf is our contemporary rogue whale, the one that’s beating us, the one saying that nature isn’t ours to just take…

Of course we need to reassess our energy policies, improve our technology, wake up about our climate. But we also have to recognize that this time, it’s not the whale population that is going to have to shrink. It’s ours…

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