Beyond 'Moby Dick'

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: It wasn't just stocks that lost ground in New York today. Crude oil dropped more than a dollar. Here's the best part: Analysts said there was no one thing that did it. That that just happens every now and then. We're in a petroleum economy, of course. But before crude it was a different kind of oil that kept things going. Whale oil. Eric Jay Dolin's new book about the American whaling industry is called "Leviathan." Nice to speak with you.

Eric Jay Dolin: Good to talk to you.

Ryssdal: Would I be wrong in saying that for most Americans our knowledge of the whaling industry probably starts and ends with "Moby Dick," right?

Dolin: No, you'd be absolutely right. "Moby Dick" is sort of like the communitywide book event. It's the one book that probably more people in the United States either had to read in high school or chose to read at a later point.

Ryssdal: Let's talk about it, though, as an industry. As a sort of a production process that got things going. It was, basically, the first real international industry that this country ever had.

Dolin: That's true. And prior to the American Revolution the whaling industry was very large in the colonies. There were 360 whale ships leaving from American ports just prior to the American Revolution. And the products from those whale ships — the whale oil and the baleen not only filtered throughout the colonies, but also went overseas to England, France and other European countries.

Ryssdal: You have a great line someplace in this book. You point out that, basically, to the people who were doing the whaling — both the captains of the ships and the people who owned the ships and the factories that processed the whales — these animals out there were basically swimming profit centers.

Dolin: Absolutely. The whaling industry began, rose and then declined well before the conservation movement became a movement in the United States. The only reason that the whalemen wanted to conserve whales was because they had concern for their ability to carry on their industry. If there were no whales left, they couldn't kill them and process them for oil and baleen. The concern had nothing to do with the inherent rights of the whale as another species.

Ryssdal: Were they too successful? Did they hunt themselves out of a living. Or was it something else that killed off the whaling industry?

Dolin: No, they didn't hunt themselves out of a living. What it was, was competition.In the middle of the 1800s, whale oil was getting a run for its money. There were other forms of lighting, illuminance. There was camphene, which is a distillate of turpentine and alcohol. There was kerosene from coal. And there was even lard oil from hogs, which were appropriately enough called prairie whales. Now, a lot of whalemen said, "Well, that's not really going to knock us out of the box. We still have the best product." But, slowly, the competition ate into the profits of the whalemen. And then the bottom fell out of the whale-oil market in about 1859, when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania.

Ryssdal: What we have here, really — the thread that runs through this entire story that you tell — is an energy story. That's what it is.

Dolin: Oh, absolutely. There are parallels. You know, today we're in a petroleum economy. And there are many other competitors who are trying feverishly to take over marketshare. Back in the 1850s it was a whale-oil economy with respect to lighting, and there were many other competitors. The owners of whale ships and the merchants, the whaling merchants, thought that they were in a secure position — that they would never be pushed aside by these upstart competitors. And they even would comment on how "They just don't have a chance of taking over our marekts. We have a superior product." So there is a strong parallel between what happened in the middle of the 19th century to the whale-oil industry, and what may happen to the petroleum-based industry in the years to come.

Ryssdal: The latest book by Eric Jay Dolin is called "Leviathan." It's a history of whaling in America. Mr. Dolin, thanks a lot for your time.

Dolin: Thank you for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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