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On Moby Dick’s Anniversary, a Reminder of Our Energy Past

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Photo by Dave Weller/IUCN

To understand how long civilization’s pursuit of energy has pitted man against the natural world, there is perhaps no better chronicle than Moby Dick, the great American novel among Herman Melville books, being celebrated on its 161st anniversary by today’s Google Doodle.

Author Herman Melville, who wrote of his own experience on whale ships, more than a century and a half ago articulated the conflict that continues to echo today in the debates over deepwater drilling, over opening the Arctic bowhead whale habitat to oil exploration, and over seismic surveys and their impact on marine mammals. (See also “Bubble Curtains: Can They Dampen Offshore Energy Sound for Whales?“)

Most people think of Moby Dick as the tale of Ahab’s anguished search for his white whale. But a more enduring story unfolds in the background, of society’s chase for oil (to light its lamps), and the whale-hunting business that grew to satisfy that demand. Melville considered how the practice of energy extraction in the early 1800s was abhorred in the very homes that enjoyed its benefits. “Butchers we are, that is true,” he wrote. “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”

The oil industry’s advocates today talk about jobs creation and the economic benefits that flow from their wells and pipelines. Melville described how the seaport of New Bedford, Massachusetts had become wealthy, “a land of oil.”  “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent… Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?” he asks. “Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Now, the oil industry is delving miles below the sea, and in the frozen north, and squeezing the tar sands of Alberta to satisfy a global demand for energy that Melville’s world could not have imagined. Although the whale still sustains collateral damage from civilization’s pursuit of energy, nations did abandon the brutal industrial sperm whaling business that Melville records in exquisite (some would say excruciating) detail in Moby Dick. It wasn’t a surge of concern for the species that killed the whaling business, of course. It was a cheaper alternative to whale oil; the industry’s fate was sealed with the success of the first commercial petroleum oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859.

But perhaps then, there’s a hopeful message for our energy future in Moby Dick. Less than a decade after Melville’s grand account of the industry was published, in 1861, The New York Times recently noted, the whaling industry was in such decline that the federal government was buying old whale ships (perhaps much like the Pequod,) loading them with stones and sinking them in Charleston Harbor to blockade the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

In a world that is even more ambivalent about its sources of energy (See: “Chilean Wind Farm Faces Turbulence Over Whales“) than Melville’s was, shouldn’t there be greater hope for alternatives that can supplant fossil fuels as quickly as petroleum ended the hunt for Moby Dick?