Did Petroleum Save the Whales?
An Energy Parable, Versified
by Benjamin Goldfarb
Now travel back with me, if you would please
To a time before planes and electric lights,
When great whaling ships drifted over the seas
Their mainsails unfurled in the nautical breeze
Slaying cetaceans with terrible ease
And selling whale oil to light up the nights.
This was huge business, from Troy to Nantucket
The new fiefdoms of whalers, intrepid and greedy
Each leviathan killed just a drop in the bucket
If whale juice was gold, they had certainly struck it
Population collapse? Well, they just declared Fuck it.
As America mainlined fresh spermaceti.
But just in the nick, the poor whales caught a break
In the year of our lord, eighteen-fifty-and-nine
When a prospector named Edwin Drake
Plunged drill into oily underground lake
And up spurted the black stuff, forever to slake
Our demand for fuel with crude oil divine.
The whaling business withered and died --
Oh rotting hull! Oh flaccid sail!
And ‘pon the slowly turning tide
Returned cetaceans, off the schneid
Say some, “It cannot be denied:
'Twas petroleum what saved the whale.”
But wait! claim other scholars — 'twasn’t so!
For whalers were the authors of their own demise.
As whales declined, pursuers had to go
Ever further in pursuit of “Thar she blow!”
From fevered tropics to remotest Arctic floe
Til it cost more to hunt than was worth the prize.
Now fast-forward to present, Twitter and all
And you’ll see why this story is so apropos
For as you must know, we’re entrapped in the thrall
Of cheap fossil fuels, and if we’re to forestall
Our demise at their hands, we must rapidly call
On renewable energy to dislodge status quo.
But how best to achieve such a difficult dream?
A task at once daunting and wildly thrilling
Let’s look to the whalers, who ran out of steam
When Ed Drake discovered his oily stream,
And let our energy scientists invent and scheme
Until panels and turbines cost less than drilling.
Yet fossil fuels won’t be eas’ly overthrown:
For oil’s still plentiful, embedded and cheap
And King Coal sits ‘top mighty throne
Wind and solar cannot triumph alone
The carbon tax’s wisdom must be shown
When fossils are costly will alternatives leap!
Long ago, the whalers did themselves impeach
By reducing supply and raising price in the bargain
And petrol was there to step into the breach.
Now the lesson this episode is trying to teach
Is that we need cheap renewables, but must too beseech
Our pols for a tax on the high costs of carbon!
Clean tech gets much deserved fame,
But price signals help win the game.