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Whaling, Quakers, and Alternative Energies

If you are concerned about the climate, it is important to be able to talk about the economy. The folks who struggle the most to accept the challenges of our climate crisis most often say they are more worried about how climate action will affect the economy. This is a valid concern and one worth addressing. A complete alteration of our energy system and supply will no doubt affect specific industries–namely fossil fuel companies and employees.

7-25-11 027This is not our first rodeo. We have made major changes in the energy we use over the past 300 years. Whale oil and the whaling industry loomed large in the 18th Century into the 19th Century. Fortunes were made through the hunting and killing of whales in order to manufacture profitable products, particularly whale oil that was used for lamps, soaps, machine lubricants, and margarine. In colonial New England the whaling industry was dominated by Quakers. According to the site Quakers in the World:

So lucrative was the trade in sperm whale oil that by 1790 Nantucket Quakers reported to Yearly Meeting that ‘there were no poor people on the island’. By the 1830’s the value of whale products on Nantucket alone exceeded $1 million and this was well below that of New Bedford.

A number of factors (including in-fighting among Friends) interfered with the seemingly limitless prosperity of the Quaker whalers.

During the 1840s Nantucket began to lose its place at the forefront of whaling. A disastrous fire in 1846, coupled with disputes between various Quaker factions on the island, led to the demise of the industry there. By 1850 Nantucket whaling was no more. The arrival of the railroad in New Bedford had driven the last nail in the coffin of Nantucket as a centre for whaling and New Bedford became the ‘city that lit the world’ with its whale oil.

But the golden age of whaling was past. The opening of the Pennsylvania oilfields in the late 1850s sounded the death knell for the whaling industry. The last whaling ship left Nantucket in 1869 never to return. By the 1880s whaling in New Bedford had also ceased.

The whale industry floundered and diminished. According to Wikipedia:

The use of whale oil saw a steady decline starting in the late 19th century due to the development of superior alternatives and, later, the passing of environmental laws.

renewable energy crossword

renewable energy crossword

Superior alternatives were developed and mined–namely fossil fuels, one of the first alternative energy sources.

Today we must replace those alternatives of old with new ones that do not pollute and compromise our atmosphere and climate. Just like we replaced the inhumane practice of whale hunting with the extraction of fossil fuels, we now have the opportunity to develop less harmful sources of energy. Some industries will lose out–coal and petroleum in particular–but that is the nature of a market-driven economy. Trains get replaced by cars which get replaced by planes which get replaced by magic carpet. Well, who knows what is next.

So for those of us interested in communicating with friends, neighbors, and co-workers about climate change, it is important to know how to speak about the economy. And to help with that here is an excerpt from the Climate Stew Show where I talk about the economy and how even Conservative economists have begun to advocate for climate action. The risks of doing nothing threaten our economy. The costs of inaction is too great and will disrupt stability. The rewards of acting are manifold. (transcript below)


Our Climate News story today is about the economy. Wait, what? Yeah, turns out it’s not only scientists and lawmakers tracking the effects of global warming, but economists have begun to raise concerns about the possible financial consequences of a changing climate and the added costs of delaying action. They also are offering some possible economic models to address the situation.

Henry Paulson, who served as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, knows a thing or two about inflated bubbles that burst in our faces. He played a key role during the global financial meltdown of 2008 and compares the housing bubble that laid low economies worldwide to what he is seeing as a growing global warming bubble.

During a panel presentation at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, Paulson framed the climate crisis in economic terms, “I am looking at this through the lens of risk – climate change is not only a risk to the environment but it is the single biggest risk that exists to the economy today,” He predicts that as governments and businesses partner to take on climate change and the necessary transition from dirty to clean energy, it will result in economic growth. Earlier in the year he specifically proposed a carbon tax as a way of curbing emissions and jumpstarting a market-driven energy revolution.

And if we know anything about how the world works, nothing motivates action faster than the fear of losing money and the promise of a get rich quick scheme. But the question is can the high and mighty business leaders and policy makers who harness capitalism to address our climate crisis do it with an eye towards justice? Likely input from the people on the ground is needed.


Author: Peterson Toscano

Peterson Toscano is a quirky queer Quaker concerned about Climate Change. His website is

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