Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
February 01, 2005

Whale Oil

A really good comment from a thread at Crooked Timber about the economic validity of whaling in the nineteenth-century:

My latest column at “Whale Central Station” is up, exposing the leftist myth of finite whale supplies.

1. Whales breed. Therefore, the potential supply of whales is unlimited.

2. As whaling technology improves, our ability to exploit this limited supply of whales becomes ever-greater. A few years ago, 40 whales in a four year trip was regarded as good going. Modern Norwegian whalers capture and process 40 whales a month. All of the estimates of the “sustainability” of the whale-based economy were put together before such inventions as exploding harpoons. And remember that the supply of whales is self-replenishing. Leftists seem not to understand that whales have sex.

3. Reducing whaling would cost vast amounts of money and destroy our economy; credible estimates would suggest that without whale-oil lamps we would all sit around in the dark until we die. This money would better be spent on providing aid to the Inuit.

4. We can’t give the Inuit property rights over their whales to help them manage the speed of whaling, because that’s just politically impractical.

5. Arrrrr!

Posted by b on February 1, 2005 at 13:53 UTC | Permalink


Hello b,

Billmon's posted... wanna open a thread

Posted by: esme | Feb 1 2005 15:50 utc | 1

Too funny b....

It points to a confusion between stock (e.g. light crude) and flux (e.g. sunlight.)

Where to class the whales?


Mathematically speaking, the leftists win, as whatever set of whales one might like to define will be finite. That is not important, though, if the preoccupation is real life snake-oil, sorry, whale-oil.

Posted by: Blackie | Feb 1 2005 18:11 utc | 2

Point number 5 sums it all up: conservative/libertarian rhetoric is basically window dressing for piracy of the public good and the rest of society. And it's funny to boot.

Posted by: Tom DC/VA | Feb 2 2005 0:22 utc | 3


Thanks for this link. I needed to laugh.

Posted by: fauxreal | Feb 2 2005 12:23 utc | 4

But wait, what about those Abiotic Whales?

more later...

Posted by: DeAnander | Feb 2 2005 17:55 utc | 5

OK here is the more, quite a bit later...

I have just finished reading Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse -- which I heartily recommend as much for its eminently readable prose and the author's engaging voice, as for the extraordinary research effort behind it and the small phonebook of footnotes and references. For those who enjoyed Guns Germs and Steel, all I can say is that this is an even more compelling read.

Here are a few relevant excerpts:

I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We don't have proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering"? [...]

Contrary to what Joseph Tainter and almost anyone else would have expected, it turns out that socieites often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived.
Many of the reasons for such failure fall under the heading of what economists and other social scientists term "rational behaviour," arising from clashes of interest between people. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behaviour harmful to other people.[...]
Scientists term such behaviour "rational" precisely because it employs correct reasoning, even though it may be morally reprehensible. The perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behaviour, especially if there is no law against it or if the law isn't effectively enforced. They feel safe because the perpetrators are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated by the prospect or reaping big, certain, and immediate profits, while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals. That gives the losers little motivation to go to the hassle of fighting back, because each loser loses only a little and would receive only small, uncertain, distant profits even from successfully undoing the minority's grab[...]

At current rates most or all of the dozen major sets of environmental problems discussed at the beginning of this chapter will become acute within the lifetime of young adults now alive. Most of us who have children consider the securing of our children's future as the highest priority to which to devote our time and money. We pay for their education and food and clothing, make wills for them, and buy life insurance for them, all with the goal of helping them to enjoy good lives 50 years from now. It makes no sense for us to do these things for our individual children, while simultaneously doing things undermining the world in which our children will be living 50 years from now.
This paradoxical behaviour is one of which I personally was guilty, because I was born in the year 1937, hence before the birth of my children I too could not take seriously any event (like global warming or the end of the tropical rainforests) projected for the year 2037. I shall surely be dead before that year, and even the date 2037 struck me as unreal. However, when my twin sons were born in 1987, and when my wife and I then started going through the usual parental obsessions about schools, life insurance, and wills, I realized with a jolt: 2037 is the year in which my kids will be my own age of 50 (then)! It's not an imaginary year! What's the point of willing our property to our kids if the world will be in a mess then anyway?[...]

The acknowledged interdependence of all segments of Dutch society contrasts with current trends in the United States, where wealthy people increasingly seek to insulate themselves from the rest of society, aspire to create their own separate virtual polders, use their own money to buy services for themselves privately, and vote against taxes that would extend those amenities as services to everyone else. Those private amenities include living inside gated walled communities, relying on private security guards rather than on the police, sending one's children to well-funded private schools rather than to the underfunded crowded public schools, purchasing private health insurance or medical care, drinking bottled water instead of municipal water, and (in Southern California) paying to drive on toll roads competing with the jammed public roads. Underlying such privatisation is a misguided belief that the elite can remain unaffected by the problems of society around them: the attitude of those Greenland Norse chiefs who found that they had merely bought themselves the privilege of being the last to starve.[...]

In my experience of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Africa, Peru, and other Third World countries with growing environmental problems and populations, I have been impressed that their people know very well how they are being harmed by population growth, deforestation, overfishing, and other problems. They know it because they immediately pay the penalty, in forms such as loss of free timber for their houses, massive soil erosion, and (the tragic complaint that I hear incessantly) their inability to afford books, clothes, and school fees for their children. The reason why the forest behind their village is nevertheless being logged is usually either that a corrupt government has ordered it logged over their often-violent protest, or else that they signed a logging lease with great reluctance because they saw no other way to get the money they needed next year for their children. My best friends in the Third World, with families of 4 to 8 children, lament that they have heard of the benign forms of contraception widespread in the First World, and they want those measures desperately for themselves, but they can't afford or obtain them, due in part to the refusal of the U.S. government to fund family planning in its foreign aid programs. [...]

The whole world today is a self-contained and isolated unit, as Tikopia Island and Tokugawa Japan used to be. We need to realize, as did the Tikopians and Japanese, that there is no other island / other planet to which we can turn for help, or to which we can export our problems. Instead, we need to learn, as they did, to live within our means.

It is notable that Easterbrook's silly review in the NYT invokes just exactly that "Star Trek Solution", suggesting that all our problems will be solved if we can just get into space (and pillage other planets and solar systems for resources, or perhaps emigrate en masse?) Given that our most threatening shortfalls are biotic (potable water, topsoil, species diversity, forest cover) not mineral, the likelihood of remedying those shortfalls by insanely expensive ventures into space seems to me to approximate zero. But the fantasy of simply discovering vast new supplies of -- e.g. -- whales seems perennial, and the vested interests of the whaling lobby can always make a convincing attempt to control the government and muzzle the academy.

These few brief excerpts hardly do justice to the scope and sweep of Diamond's book -- which ranges comfortably from the South Pacific to Greenland, lingering in present-day Montana, taking a tour of Rwanda and China, visiting Australia, and everywhere studying how societies make the right, or the wrong, decisions about their long-term survival. His most detailed surveys are of the failed Norse colonies on Greenland and the present-day economy of the State of Montana. He discusses the extractive industries -- with first-hand experience -- and whether (and how) they may become better global citizens. His message is essentially one of cautious hope: most of our most pressing and dire problems are self-inflicted, therefore we could solve them if we wanted to (and if we could get past the "march of folly" mindset that tends to infect human elites). He cautions us that for most "high cultures" that collapsed in the past, the collapse came within a decade or two of the peak of the society's power, wealth, sophistication and population; the pattern of human life is a brief prime and a long senescence, but the pattern of our failed complex cultures is a showy resource-intensive flowering followed by an extremely rapid decay. Food for thought (as I look around me at the undeniably showy flowering of late industrial capitalism).

Posted by: DeAnander | Feb 6 2005 4:31 utc | 6

From the>Independent/UK:

I am willing to bet there were few in the room who did not sense their children or grandchildren standing invisibly at their shoulders. The conference formally concluded that climate change was "already occurring" and that "in many cases the risks are more serious than previously thought". But the cautious scientific language scarcely does justice to the sense of the meeting.

We learned that glaciers are shrinking around the world. Arctic sea ice has lost almost half its thickness in recent decades. Natural disasters are increasing rapidly around the world. Those caused by the weather - such as droughts, storms, and floods - are rising three times faster than those - such as earthquakes - that are not.

We learned that bird populations in the North Sea collapsed last year, after the sand eels on which they feed left its warmer waters - and how the number of scientific papers recording changes in ecosystems due to global warming has escalated from 14 to more than a thousand in five years.

Worse, leading scientists warned of catastrophic changes that once they had dismissed as "improbable". The meeting was particularly alarmed by powerful evidence, first reported in The Independent on Sunday last July, that the oceans are slowly turning acid, threatening all marine life.

Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, presented new evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheet is beginning to melt, threatening eventually to raise sea levels by 15ft: 90 per cent of the world's people live near current sea levels. Recalling that the IPCC's last report had called Antarctica "a slumbering giant", he said: "I would say that this is now an awakened giant."

Professor Mike Schlesinger, of the University of Illinois, reported that the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, once seen as a "low probability event", was now 45 per cent likely this century, and 70 per cent probable by 2200. If it comes sooner rather than later it will be catastrophic for Britain and northern Europe, giving us a climate like Labrador (which shares our latitude) even as the rest of the world heats up: if it comes later it could be beneficial, moderating the worst of the warming.

The experts at Exeter were virtually unanimous about the danger, mirroring the attitude of the climate science community as a whole: humanity is to blame. There were a few skeptics at Exeter, including Andrei Illarionov, an adviser to Russia's President Putin, who last year called the Kyoto Protocol "an interstate Auschwitz". But in truth it is much easier to find skeptics among media pundits in London or neo-cons in Washington than among climate scientists. Even the few contrarian climatalogists publish little research to support their views, concentrating on questioning the work of others.

So tell me, y'all, what did the Easter Islander say as he cut down the last palm tree? "I refuse to believe in some overhyped, government-approved scare story?"

Posted by: DeAnander | Feb 6 2005 20:09 utc | 7

Parody (and other parodies in the left column)

Posted by: MarcinGomulka | Feb 6 2005 20:27 utc | 8


I've got no barrow to push (except a belief in economic progress and a decent standard of living for everyone).

If anyone is interested in listening to the heretics, by googling Andrei Illarionov I found one interesting on-line resource which may be a useful starting point.

Posted by: DM | Feb 6 2005 23:13 utc | 9

Re the above link. It does look like that site is (ultimately) sponsored by the likes of Monsanto. But there are all sorts of shades of gray. It would be nice if life was as simple as choosing sides.

Posted by: DM | Feb 6 2005 23:33 utc | 10

if you don't choose, the choice has already been made for you

Posted by: b real | Feb 7 2005 0:04 utc | 11

ah well, we've had this "nuance" Vs Black hat/White hat debate before. Best I can figure is that there is BS from all directions :)

Posted by: DM | Feb 7 2005 1:21 utc | 12

I looked at that site. To me it looks like they are putting up strawman after strawman to pull down. But then as you said it is ultimately sponsored by some shady types.

If what has been presented here (or at some other threas) is not enough for you I recommend studying meterology.

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Feb 7 2005 1:38 utc | 13

more on global warming, a.k.a. climate change, at

Posted by: mistah charley | Feb 7 2005 17:46 utc | 14

@mistah charley, yes, Tom's article is a good survey of the evidence, and a good ponder of the reasons for stonewalling and denial. I think he is too kind however when he writes Denial is a bizarre thing. The mechanisms by which we look and yet don't look, know and yet refuse to know, by which the melting north and the SUV go together without contradiction, by which a full presidential campaign unfolds without even a discussion of global warming and no one of any import considers that out of the ordinary or worth commenting on are -- at least to me -- reasonably mysterious. And yet, even though our demobilized media has done a dreadful job of connecting the dots on global warming (as on so much else), you can't primarily blame the media for this.

I think he underestimates the ways in which the corporate-controlled media have not merely failed to connect the dots, but deliberately drawn lines leading away from the dots, denied that the dots are there at all, cast aspersions and mud at anyone who attempts to connect the dots, etc. Crichton imho, whose silly book and irritating public appearances launched this long-running wrangle, is just one in a long series of professional deniers -- whether ideologically or more pragmatically, financially motivated -- whose sole purpose is, as the old Mime Troupe song has it, to "Deny, Delay, Dupe, Dump and Divide."

All they have to do is keep enough doubt and confusion in the public mind to induce paralysis; then those who profit from the overconsumption bubble -- and those who plan to profit far more from an impending crisis than they could from a controlled and moderated downshift, and those who consider catastrophe a nice "impartial," unaccountable way to get rid of millions of pesky dusky poor people -- win. Delay is all they need in order to keep profiteering like mad. Every year during which no change happens is a year of billions of dollars of revenue.

That revenue goes partially into acquiring real resources that will be desperately needed when the crisis officially begins -- why the heck do we think so many transnationals are trying to buy up water rights all over the world, trying to privatise municipal water systems built and maintained for decades with public revenues? they know damn well, no matter how they officially deny it, that water is likely to become a scarce resource after a climate catastrophe starts to bite -- and they plan to be holding the exclusive rights to freshwater supplies and to charge as much as they can extort from desperate governments.

The same corporadoes who are singing us soothing songs of denial and Everything's Fine are at the same time making their plans to fleece us ruthlessly when we finally wake up and realise that we're short of water, that our agricultural capacity has been crippled, that we have serious problems. They'd make a lot less money off the deal if we actually prepared, planned, tried to mitigate the impact. Ambulance chasers is what they are: slavering as they chase the sound of sirens, hoping for a really bloody, messy crash.

Posted by: DeAnander | Feb 7 2005 18:55 utc | 15

The same corporadoes who are singing us soothing songs of denial and Everything's Fine are at the same time making their plans to fleece us ruthlessly

you realize, of course, that this is a conspiracy theory? ;)

but seriously - yes, i'm quite sure this is going on

Posted by: mistah charley | Feb 7 2005 20:57 utc | 16

I only believe in the same conspiracies that Adam Smith believed in :-)

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Wealth of Nations ch 10 pt 2

Posted by: DeAnander | Feb 7 2005 21:06 utc | 17

DeA - thanks for the quotes. I've noted the book (by Diamond) as one to read (if I ever have the time again to actually open a book)...

Give Crichton credit for one thing - he is very good at creating the maximum of noise on topics dans l'air du temps and it may actually be a good thing that the subject of global warming be discussed publicly and raised to the public's conscience. This has typically been his modus operandi - take a cause célèbre, make a contrarian stand, and let the polemic start. He may actually do a service to the cause...
(Plus i've found all of his books highly entertaining and I will certainly read this one as well, duly forewarned by you on its scientific content...)

Posted by: Jérôme | Feb 7 2005 21:15 utc | 18

There was a lot of "scientific content" in Jurassic Park too :-) The silliness of JP doesn't invalidate the genuinely exciting field of paleontology -- just dumbs it down. Nanotech doesn't have to create insta-lethal Grey Goo to cause serious trouble, and we aren't likely to think seriously about its implications if our only popular definition of the risk is "Eeek, Nano Oobleck". And so forth.

Crichton's most recent potboiler imho does more harm than good by lending a spurious respectability to the Cornucopian Cult of Denial, just as silly films like DayAfTom do more harm than good by splicing stupid timelines, bad physics and lousy acting onto very serious issues.

Any sci-fi that isn't all swords and sorcery embodies and embellishes some take on some cherrypicked sub-area of science -- that's why it dates so very badly, as the scientific consensus and technology move away from the future that the sci fi authors were predicting at the time. It's a big field, with lots of material for jackals to scavenge and line their nests with.

I can pick some bones with Diamond in his last chapters... might write a review over at LS if I can clear several other obligations and deadlines... they are small bones though which don't detract from my admiration for this tour de force -- he is writing at the top of his form here: lucid, substantial, historically detached and yet at the same time passionately engaged. I found it compelling as any good detective novel, with the added spice that the detective story was real and true.

Posted by: DeAnander | Feb 7 2005 21:44 utc | 19

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