Why oil didn’t save the whales, and why this matters for farming

Another week, another blog post criticising permaculture. I hadn’t realised that I was so on message when I posted my own critical thoughts on this recently. But that’s not what my post today is about. The comments beneath the post by Ann Owen on Transition Network were snarled up with claim and counter-claim occasioned by the input of this website’s favourite eco-panglossian, that evangelist for the cult of irrationalist faith-based scientism, none other than Graham Strouts himself, spreading discord through another blog site like some dystopian Johnny Appleseed.

The poor saps on Transition Network have learned the hard way that there’s no point debating with Strouts. And poor Graham thinks people in the blogosphere who aren’t fully paid up members of his own irrationalist cult won’t play with him because of their ideological agenda, rather than the sheer misery of toiling through his rancorous Gish gallops of misleading citation. But all that notwithstanding, I do want to examine this one short statement of his: “Coal saved the forests and oil saved the whales” – partly because it’s plain wrong and I just can’t help myself. But it also illustrates the historical naivety of eco-panglossianism, and therefore – to put a more positive spin on things– it starts pointing towards a more promising ethics for grounding what the permaculture folks call ‘earth care, people care, fair share’ which I will address in future posts.

So, taking the issue of whales, the argument in a nutshell is that the invention of the kerosene lamp, which used cheaper mineral oil, undercut the market for whale-derived lamp oil and thus saved the whales from imminent extinction. Now, it’s true that the catch of sperm whales (the preferred species for lamp oil) declined from the 1850s after the introduction of the kerosene lamp, and that the kerosene lamp was one reason (though not the only one) for this decline. However, it’s also true that the discovery of mineral oil potentiated diesel engines, and that this alongside other innovations of late 19th and 20th century industrial whaling later led to whale catches on a scale unparalleled in the pre-kerosene lamp whaling of the early 19th century. The average sperm whale catch from 1835-45, shortly before the invention of the kerosene lamp, was an estimated 6,000-8,000 animals annually1, whereas the average annual catch from 1965-1975 was about 24,000 animals2. And then there are species such as the blue whale – too fast and elusive for pre-mechanised whalers to attack, virtually none were caught prior to the late 19th century. By the end of that century, blue whales were being caught annually in their hundreds, and by the 1930s the annual catch was close to 30,0003. Whales were used among other things for meat, livestock feed and vitamin manufacture, and it was 20th, not 19th, century whaling that caused their widespread and precipitous decline4. Oil saved the whales? I don’t think so.

There are tales to tell too about coal saving the forest. I won’t dwell on them now, but here in Britain, at any rate, the evidence suggests absolutely to the contrary that large-scale woodlands survived precisely where there was an urban or industrial use for them5. The situation was different in North America, for reasons associated with costs of labour and colonial resource mentalities6 –social facts, it might be noted, not purely technological ones.

The larger point is that there is no intrinsic association between technological development and ecological amelioration. The discovery of mineral oil may have given sperm whales some temporary respite in the mid 19th century, but it was also associated with increased exploitation of other species, the development of a vastly more intensive 20th century whaling, human population increase, climate change and a host of other issues affecting the future prospects of whales and many other things besides. Every human decision, including decisions over how to use new technologies, reverberates into the future in myriad unforeseen ways which cannot be captured by a singular narrative of its beneficial (or for that matter its detrimental) effects. If the whales have indeed been saved (and it’s surely too soon to tell), then it’s a result of contingency – a fluke, you might say (sorry…) – and not because of inherent tendencies of technological development. However, if I were pressed to advance a general thesis about human technological development and species survival then the work of the late David Harris may be salutary. When people are absolutely dependent upon a particular resource, they usually take darned good care of it. When they have other options, they usually don’t. That was the case with whales – the fact that their oil was no longer needed for lamps didn’t mean people weren’t willing to exploit them to the point of extinction for other reasons. Perhaps that’s why there’s evidence to suggest we may be in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction event7. And perhaps this points to a problem with the globalisation of resources – a kind of global tragedy of the commons, as in the emerging literature on planetary boundaries that I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere.

Now, much as the Procrustean ideologues of eco-panglossianism wish to position anyone who questions any aspect of technological development as backward-looking romantics, it ought to be obvious that scepticism over the capacity of more efficient new technologies to solve problems of social justice or ecological degradation in themselves involves no particular approbation of past history or disapprobation of technology in general. I don’t think there’s much doubt that new technological developments, both high tech and low tech, can help to tackle many of the tricky issues we currently face, notably in farming and the food supply. But nor do I think there’s much doubt that technological developments alone will fail unless they are placed within some kind of wider social ethic. Let me qualify that immediately. For, after all, the eco-panglossians do have a social ethic, albeit a curate’s egg of one: part faith-based cargo cult, part sunny side up neoliberalism, part ‘God species’ narcissism and part Whiggish progressivism, all served on a bed of universalist scientism in the belief that the life of ease apparently enjoyed by the privileged few will in the future be available to all through largely unspecified but almost purely technological development. And it’s backed up with blatant misreadings of history, of which Strouts’ whale hypothesis is but one small example. So what I really meant to say is that technological developments alone will fail unless they are placed within some kind of sensible social ethic. And for those affected by the food and farming sector (ie. everybody), it strikes me on the basis of these whale and wood examples that a sensible ethic may turn out to be something less productivist, consumerist and progressivist than the one proffered by the eco-panglossians. It will, I suspect, be more conservationist, producerist and satisficing – and hence demand a smaller scale and more localised farming system. If the meaning of those terms is unclear, I’ll try to explain them in some future posts. Indeed, this post (like all my posts really) is principally a memo to myself aimed at future clarification. But if anyone else is reading it, God bless you.


1. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr464/mfr46410.pdf

2. ibid.

3. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr464/mfr4644.pdf

4. Hoare, P. (2008) Leviathan or, The Whale, Fourth Estate.

5. Rackham, O. (2010) Woodlands, Collins.

6. Cronon, W. (1991) Nature’s Metropolis, Norton; Rackham, op cit.

7. eg. Jackson, J. (2008) ‘Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean’ PNAS, Vol. 105, pp. 11458-11465

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