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Someone Else Joins the "Peak Whale" Bandwaggon

Katherine Mangu-Ward makes a point I have also made on occasion:

take a moment to thank the man who really saved the whales: John D. Rockefeller.

In 1846, Americans dominated the whaling industry with 735 ships. John D. Rockefeller gets into the oil refining business in 1865. By 1876, kerosene is routing whale oil, and the whaling fleet was down to 39 ships, because kerosene was just so darn cheap:

The price of sperm oil reached its high of $1.77 per gallon in 1856; by 1896 it sold for 40 cents per gallon. Yet it could not keep pace with the price of refined petroleum, which dropped from 59 cents per gallon in 1865 to a fraction over seven cents per gallon in 1895.

This dynamic is also instructive for those fretting that we're going to run out of oil, just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of whales. (Note to self: Check historical record for instances of the phrase "Peak Whale.")

I don't want to be overly self-referential here, but I actually "found" this reference to peak whale theory over two years ago when digging through the archives of this blog's 19th century predecessor, the Coyote Broadsheet:

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak. 250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world's whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

I wrote more about John D. Rockefeller (including his role in saving the whales) in my praise of Robber Barrons several years ago.  In addition to Rockefeller, the article also discussed Cornelius Vanderbilt as the 19th century precursor to Southwest Airlines.  From the Harper's Magazine in 1859:

...the results in every case of the establishment of opposition lines by Vanderbilt has been the permanent reduction of fares.  Wherever he 'laid on' an opposition line, the fares were instantly reduced, and however the contest terminated, whether he bought out his opponents, as he often did, or they bought him out, the fares were never again raise to the old standard.  This great boon -- cheap travel-- this community owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt".

Posted on September 2, 2008 at 12:19 PM | Permalink


Thanks for this post, I've thinking lately about how our politicians would have handled 1908. Glad to see others have spent much more time thinking this out.

Posted by: L Nettles | Sep 2, 2008 5:56:19 PM

just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of whales.

They would have been correct to worry, though! Even after we magically found a superior substitute bubbling up out of the ground, and were lucky enough to have technology to bring it to market, many whales still almost went extinct before the International Whaling Commission started in 1946. And that was back before whalers would have formed a lobbying organization to protect their profits. Here's how the think tanks would have argued, (thanks to dsquared at Crooked Timber)


My latest column at "Whale Central Station" is up, exposing the leftist myth of finite whale supplies.
1. Whales breed. Therefore, the potential supply of whales is unlimited.
2. As whaling technology improves, our ability to exploit this limited supply of whales becomes ever-greater. A few years ago, 40 whales in a four year trip was regarded as good going. Modern Norwegian whalers capture and process 40 whales a month. All of the estimates of the "sustainability" of the whale-based economy were put together before such inventions as exploding harpoons. And remember that the supply of whales is self-replenishing. Leftists seem not to understand that whales have sex.
3. Reducing whaling would cost vast amounts of money and destroy our economy; credible estimates would suggest that without whale-oil lamps we would all sit around in the dark until we die. This money would better be spent on providing aid to the Inuit.
4. We can't give the Inuit property rights over their whales to help them manage the speed of whaling, because that’s just politically impractical.
5. Arrrrr!

And we'd have just about no whales left today.

Posted by: Noumenon | Sep 3, 2008 4:49:11 AM

Coyote, where is this 'Coyote broadsheet' you speak of? I am skeptical of this, since it has the same name as your Coyote Blog, and you said you named it after Wil E. Coyote, who was certainly not around in 1870. Could you post a scan of the broadsheet to prove it?

Also, you once mentioned a Chinese counterpart called "Panda Blog", but I could find no such site. Could you post a URL (or a link from Archive.org if the site is down)?

Posted by: Phil | Sep 3, 2008 10:27:51 AM

Notice he said "found," as in, using it for creative input. Also, where is the panda blog reference?

Posted by: EconStudent | Sep 3, 2008 3:23:34 PM

EconStudent, when he first mentioned the Coyote Broadsheet there were no quotes around it. He mentions PandaBlog here.

Posted by: Phil | Sep 3, 2008 6:02:34 PM

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