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?

(See quiz: “How Much Do You Know About the Gulf Oil Spill?“)


  1. Ken Eklund
    Silicon Valley
    November 29, 2012, 1:45 am

    “…shouldn’t there be greater hope for alternatives that can supplant fossil fuels as quickly as petroleum ended the hunt for Moby Dick?”

    Except that there are extremely powerful interests controlling those fuels who are very familiar with what happened to the whaling industry, and determined that nothing like it will happen to them.

  2. Brian G Spare
    Thunder Bay, ON
    October 19, 2012, 2:04 pm

    The following is an excerpt from the Author’s Note section of my ebook “The Hunt For Mody Dick”

    Author’s Note

    It’s ironic that whaling, so prevalent in the 1800s, which brought many species of whale to the brink of extinction, is itself becoming extinct. When petroleum oil replaced whale oil that chapter of our history came to a close. The diesel engine and propeller replaced the mast and sail. And the romance of a sea voyage in a majestic tall ship gave way to shipping as we know it today.
    The hunting and killing of whales to serve the trappings of society was gruesome and heartless. But was it any crueller than what the burning of fossil fuels is doing to our environment in the present day? The way we’ve exploited our resources to maintain our way of life has taken different faces throughout history, but often to our own detriment. Nature lives and breathes like any animal and maybe, as we lessen our dependence on petroleum, nature can heal itself just as increasing numbers of whales now roam our oceans.
    But we must not forget our past, for in it is our future. Whaling was a way of life for centuries. The fabric of many cultures was formed around it, the tailings of which still touch our societies of today. The direction we choose in forging ahead in this world of ours must be rooted in the knowledge of our history and the lessons learned from it. In this light, the story of Moby Dick is as relevant today as when it was written.

  3. Uncle B
    October 18, 2012, 7:51 pm

    China to have much cheaper to build, much safer, much cheaper to fuel Thorium LFTR reactors bu 2017 – a world changer if they pull it off!