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.
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:
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
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".