Sunday, November 20, 2011

Whales and Green Peace

A very interesting post about the history of sperm-whale killing, demand for sperm-whale oil, and what stopped the killing.
When the world relied on whales as a source of hydrocarbons, they were too expensive to use as fuels, and the demand was self-limiting. 
When the whales were “saved” by petrochemical industry, it was only a short respite. Petrol-powered machinery required new types of lubricants that increased rather than decreased the reliance on sperm oil. Petroleum was plentiful, the cars filled the world, and it is at that point that the whales began to disappear. 
Literally nothing was done to save these whales until the cars evolved to the point when the engines started to operate at a higher temperature; the latter was caused by the concern about human health and efficiency rather than the well being of these whales. The environmental activists drove their cars just like everyone else, and they consumed transported goods and benefitted from sperm oil based lubricants in a myriad other ways, sustaining the demand. It was not their attention grabbing activities that stopped killing whales, but the unsung efforts of chemists finding a synthetic replacement to sperm oil. 
Meanwhile, human lives were lost through multiple transmission failures.

The reason why so many whales were killed in the 20th century was the distant ramifications of replacement of whale oil by petroleum. It took another 100 years to find solutions to these ramifications, and only then it became possible to save the whales. Ecological activism did not play significant role in all of these developments; neither did the numerous well-meaning international treaties, moratoriums, and other chest beating displays.

A chemist who saved the whales has not merited a Wikipedia entry. His name was P. S. Landis and he was a researcher at Mobile Oil.
Also, from the comments:
We still have the national strategic whale oil reserve, and if you badly need it (and can prove that to the US government), you can obtain it from there. I've heard that the gears in the Hubble Telescope were lubricated with sperm oil, though I do not know if this is true. For applications at low temperature it remains unsurpassed. BTW, it still remains unknown what makes it such an exceptional lubricant, there are only theories. 
By the 31st century, no fossil fuels will be left in the ground, so we'll be back to recycling atmospheric CO2 in the sustainable, socially responsible way, of which whale harvesting is an example. The Futurama guys get it right.
I personally think that if there is one thing that the governments are useful for is to protect the intelligent beings that cannot protect themselves (against humans). That includes old ladies and sperm whales.

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