Money  /  Debunk

Sea Shanties and the Whale Oil Myth

Oil companies like to point to the demise of the whaling industry as an example of market-based energy solutions. The reality is much more complicated.

While the idea of killing a whale at sea and scooping literal tons of fat from its carcass seems violent and antiquated today, commercial whaling was big business through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and beyond, with whale oil helping to grease, supply, and fuel everything from factories to high fashion to the transatlantic slave trade. The cause of the industry’s demise has long been a contested subject among energy experts. Ideologues peddling the “whale oil myth” highlight petroleum and the free market as the great savior of majestic sea creatures. They point to the 1861 discovery of cheaper, less labor-intensive petroleum in Western Pennsylvania as the main reason the world stopped using whale oil to turn on the lights.

It’s called a myth for a reason. And the whale oil myth can, in turn, say a lot about today’s myths regarding what it’ll take to get off fossil fuels. Optimists have long pointed to the precipitously falling price of renewables as evidence that they’ll soon outcompete fossil fuels, as consumers rationally sub out their gas lines and internal combustion vehicles for greener alternatives. So far, though, ever-cheaper wind and solar has mostly added to the global energy mix, not driven out its competitors at a pace that inspires much hope. “The idea that the development of a new resource will suppress use of a formerly dominant resource is at least as common today as it was in the past—that is, just as some people expected the rise of fossil fuels to suppress whaling in the nineteenth century, the development of nonfossil energy is expected by many to suppress fossil fuel use in the twenty-first,” University of Oregon economist Richard York wrote in a 2017 paper. The proliferation of fossil fuels, he notes, was in fact instrumental in developing modernized whaling techniques, from powered ships to harpoon cannons.