The Whale Oil Peak Curve

The Whale Oil Peak Curve

The American whaling industry rose from modest beginnings in the late 18th century to become an international giant to feed a growing demand for whale oil for lamps and industrial lubricants. The peak year was 1846 when 735 ships and 70,000 people served the industry out of New England ports such as New Bedford and Salem. As whale stocks and reserves decreased, whalers were forced to go farther and farther from their New England home ports. Increasingly whalers were forced to round Cape Horn and venture to far off and desolate locations such Hawaii (whaling led to New England missionaries and the rest is as they say is history), Guerrero Negro on the Baja coast and up to the Bering Strait.

By 1850s the voyages became longer, and risks on required return-on-investment became higher. The peak of production in 1846-47 led to the price of whale skyrocketing in 1855. That lag is similar to one we are seeing now in oil and related fossil fuels. The easy money of Atlantic and Pacific whaling was no more: the only remaining profitable ventures were to Arctic and Antarctic waters. Many ships returned empty, if at all. In 1871, most of the Arctic whaling fleet was crushed by early winter ice and lost at sea. This calamity, in conjunction with the long-term diminishing whale stocks, the diversion of investment capital to more profitable ventures, and the discovery, development, and refinement of abundant petroleum crude oil, struck the death blow to the American whaling industry. By 1890, less than 200 whaling vessels remained in operation. In 1971, the American whaling industry ceased to exist primarily due to pressure from environmentals groups. Today only the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders have any commercial whaling under the guise of scientific studies. A few other societies still engage in whale hunts, most notably the Innuit and the Faeroese but these are primarily are for whale meat.

Historians often debate the start of the modern era. Some argue for the Enlightenment when political thought led to revolution and reforms that saw the birth of representative government. Others point to the period after 1815 when the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. My work as a historian has primarily been on the second stage of industrial development in agarian societies covering the period between 1850 to 1930. And I view this period as the start of the modern era. But I get more specific than this. I argue that we entered the modern era in 1859 when by sheer happenstance two events took place that I argue changed the history of humankind.

The first occured on August 27, 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania when Edwin Drake built the first successful oil drill that allowed the exploitation of oil and fossil fuels on an industrial scale. But for that event, we could not support the nearly seven billion people currently on the planet. Biologists argue the carrying capacity of the planet but estimates range from just under one billion to about three billion. Life without oil implies a return to those levels of human population. I hope you see the problem.

The second event was the publishing of the most important book ever written on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Oil isn’t going to be around forever. It is now behaving as whale oil did in 1855 shortly after whale oil production peaked. And if we are to survive on this planet, we had better get around to figuring out the next energy transition. We got lucky in 1859 and that has allowed for our successful explotation of every resource under the Sun (except the Sun ironically). As for Darwin, let’s hope he can save us from what I fear what is to come, a rise of religious fanaticism that is sure to come as our economy and societies begin to implode. We need a scientific approach to both energy depletion and climatic change. And we needed it 30 years ago.

Ugo Bardi has written an interesting article on the similarities between the curve of whale oil and oil over on The Oil Drum. He also written on this in the past. Here is an earlier article published by the Energy Bulletin.

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Posted in Energy & Peak Oil, Evolution, Science by Charles Lemos
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Is There an Investment Better than Oil?
August 25th, 2009 11:44
[…] There’s the “Peak Oil” argument too. Which makes sense in there isn’t too much “easy” oil left, but there’s still plenty of oil in the world. It’s just more expensive to produce. Also the truly economically viable alternatives will come along, but they’re realistically years away from mass implementation. Remember, it took a couple of decades for the world to get rid of its addiction to whale oil after Peak Whale Oil. […]

Better than Oil | Jutia Group
August 27th, 2009 08:51
[…] There’s the “Peak Oil” argument too. Which makes sense in there isn’t too much “easy” oil left, but there’s still plenty of oil in the world. It’s just more expensive to produce. Also the truly economically viable alternatives will come along, but they’re realistically years away from mass implementation. Remember, it took a couple of decades for the world to get rid of its addiction to whale oil after Peak Whale Oil.

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