The Peak Whale Theory

After reading this article on the earth running out of resources,  I discovered another article from the archives of the Coyote Broadsheet, a predecessor of this blog written by one of my distant relatives, dated April 17, 1870:

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.  250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world's whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

Too bad Julian Simon wasn't around to make a bet on whale oil prices.


  1. BobH:

    I read a similar piece a number of years ago that took the increase in the number of horses in New York City from 1770 to 1870 and projected it out over another century and concluded that Manhattan would be buried under several hundred feet of horsestuff (which some would consider an improvement).

    Straight-line projections can be a lot of fun.

  2. Charlie (Colorado):

    Absolutely freakin' brilliant.

  3. honestpartisan:

    Good point! I'm so glad we don't have to worry about anything.

  4. JRH:

    Gold costs alot because it's finite. The price of oil rises because it's getting scarcer. The price will not fall until an alternative way to run cars is established.

    It is understandable why companies that make their profits selling oil want to keep those alternatives from development until the point where it's profitable to develop those alternatives.

    Perhaps the supply of oil is infinite, but if the perception is that oil is finite, then investors will want to invest in more of it, just like people invest in gold, thereby driving the price of the commodity higher.

    I haven't heard the term "peak oil" in months.

  5. myshele:

    This is obviously a spoof on the idea of peak oil. The writing style is not like typical 1870s writing at all, and the idea of an 'environmental' problem (described using that word) didn't exist until much later. Plus, the arguments don't make sense historically. There were many sources of illumination besides whale oil (including electricity), and the idea of 'horses per family' did not exist.

    But, it's a cute spoof at any rate :-)

    (note to moderator - please don't post a simple mailto: link of my e-mail address - thanks!)

  6. BridgetB:

    FYI: Oil is a renewable resource in the sense that one can produce deisel fuel from any organic matter. I have done business with a company that produces fuel and other useful products from pig waste -- not just the skin and fat from slaughter but the pig's excrement. In time the plant will be totally self-sufficient in that it will produce enough fuel to run the plant and produce large quantities of fuel for sale (millions of barrels a month or more) -- from pig shit.

    Now if that aint renewable and dammed near infinite I dont know what is.

    This is not a particularly new idea. In fact the motivation behind the invention of the Deisel engine was to be able to run it on pretty much anything.

  7. markm:

    "The price of oil rises because it's getting scarcer. The price will not fall until an alternative way to run cars is established." Several alternative ways to run cars are known. Except for turning waste fryer oil into biodiesel (which is obviously only good for limited quantities), they are all probably more costly than burning petroleum, even now. When the price rises high enough, you'll see competition from the biodigesters Bridget mentioned, oil shales, oil sands, alcohol, electric cars, etc.

    Oil shales and sands probably could produce much more energy than all the petroleum ever pumped, but it's expected that oil extracted from them will be more costly than even the current price of oil. Besides that, it will take five years of expensive development before the first oil flows, and investors have been burned by sagging oil prices before. So it's going to take oil prices shooting up even more and staying there to get the development going. The other choices are mostly limited in how much oil they can replace, but could kick in pretty fast.

    Finally, at present American gasoline prices have less to do with the cost of crude oil than with limited refinery capacity. Thanks to decades of environmental objections to refinery construction, they could have free crude in limitless quantity waiting for processing, and still be unable to meet the demand this coming summer - except by raising the price until people drive less.