November 20, 2011

The Last Oil Hunt

In the 19th Century whale hunting was a major occupation. Whale oil was the single best source of oil for lamps, as well as a host of other useful industrial and household products, including high-quality machine lubricants and soaps. At that time, the sea abounded in whales and the need for whale oil outweighed any concerns over the well-being of the whales.

That viewpoint wouldn't sail today. Whales are viewed as an endangered species, thanks in large measure to over-harvesting by the whaling industry. International agreements strictly limit or ban whale hunting, depending on the species.Besides, we have an alternative to whale oil. In 1859, the first petroleum oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The fledgling petroleum oil industry would eventually go on to destroy the whaling fleet. We saved the whales, but at what cost?

We stopped killing the whales and began killing the planet. Unrestrained emissions from the burning of fossil fuels over the last 150 years has initiated a warming of the atmosphere, thanks to the dramatically increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This in turn is causing changes to the Earth's climate. New reports directly link the extreme weather we have been experiencing to climate change driven by human activity.

This should not come as a huge surprise. Mankind was largely indifferent to the fate of the whales when it was an essential source of oil. We saved the whales not because we suddenly became a more enlightened species, but because we found something better. And until we find something better, we will continue to hunt for petroleum oil, chasing it to the deepest parts of the earth so that we may squeeze out the last drops, heedless of the damage we are doing to the planet's atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

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