The fossil fuel narrative has understandably focused on the death blow coming from electric vehicles and renewable energy.  However, the history of whaling shows that one should keep an open mind.

The death of Yankee Whaling is not the whole story on technological disruption.  Technological innovations in other industries created new markets for whaling and the industry thrived once more after the displacement of whale oil for lighting in 1850.  Whaling totals only peaked in the 1960s, at more than 20x the 1850 peak.

Whale bone was used in making corsets, skirts, umbrellas. The process of hydrogenation of fats changed the soap and margarine industries, increasing whale demand. And whale meat made up 50%+ of meat consumed in Japan by 1947. Source: Brooks A. Kaiser

This has analogies to crude oil’s use beyond gasoline in plastics, lubricants or in heavy transport fuels, or the importance of met coal for steel production beyond burning steam coal in power plants.

Eventually, after overexploitation, social pressure resulted in coordinated global regulations that finally killed off large-scale whaling by the end of the 20th Century.  However, Japan has started commercial whaling again, which has parallels to many of the holdout countries today when it comes to climate change.


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