I’ve spent the last week reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. More accurately, rereading it. As a staple of literature curriculums, I had been forced through it during a ten week American novel binge at college. I remember not liking it at the time, but thoroughly enjoyed it this time. And like all great literature, what you see in it reflects who you are when you read it.
Twenty five years after college, I’m much more concerned with the world and my impact on it than I was as a college student. It wasn’t hard for me to see in Moby Dick a cautionary tale about sustainability. During much of the 19th century whaling was the source of many raw materials, including oil for lamps and lubrication. It was the great fuel source, before the world discovered and began to exploit petroleum.
In the novel, the narrator, Ismael, defends the whaling industry by essentially saying “there are so many whales in the ocean, we couldn’t possibly hunt them to extinction.” So sperm whale hunting goes unchecked throughout the novel, despite the sailors only retaining a small part of each whale they capture and kill. And it turns out that Ismael would have been wrong. Sperm whales were hunted almost to extinction by whaling practices. What saved the whales was the discovery of “black gold” in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859.
We all know the story from here. Petroleum became the dominant global fuel source and has been ever since. But the story of Moby Dick got me wondering what’s next? Because the argument to continue drilling sounds to me a bit like the justification of Ismael. We couldn’t possibly run out. There must be more in the ground. Discovery and technology will keep it flowing.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid there isn’t going to be a single, saving, universal energy source to replace petroleum. But we must get serious about replacing, as well as conserving, all energy sources, particularly petroleum. Or our story may not end any more positively than that of the sailors on the Pequod.