Monday, December 11, 2017

Finity

I write this post from our family's "Whaling House" near the historic whaling port of New Bedford, where we are members of the Whaling Museum. I am also an active member Whaling City Rowing and the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society, where I have learned how to row whaleboats. We even have a harpoon leaning in the corner. 

Like many others in the area, I enjoy the stories of Moby-Dick and the Essex, and learning about the lives of those who worked in this most gruesome of trades for more than a century. I have learned that I need to be careful, as my enthusiasm has occasionally given students the impression that I actually hunt whales myself. That became clear when I showed a class this image of spermaceti oil that was recovered from a beached sperm whale on Nantucket.  
Pure spermaceti oil at the Whaling Museum of Nantucket; for a brief time,  this snapshot I took was the official WikiMedia image of the historic material. 
I had to assure the class that I had not hunted the whale from which these samples were collected, and that I fully support the end of whale-hunting. Indeed, the institutions I mention above all support the protection of whales, though some whaling nations continue to block protection measures.

All of this is prelude to two important stories that I heard on the radio yesterday that I see as related to each other, and to the problem of the finity of natural resources. Both stories were reported by the talented science journalists Dr. Heather Goldstone and Elsa Parton on Living Lab Radio.

I recommend taking the time to listen to each story carefully, and to contemplate what they teach us about the interactions among perpetual, renewable, and finite resources. (Vocabulary note: Some geographers, including this one, consider "renewable" the appropriate term for biological resources that can be renewed but whose overuse can lead to their decline. More common usage also applies the term "renewable" to resources we would call "perpetual," such as wind and solar power.)

The first story is an interview with Frank O'Sullivan, who has co-authored important studies on the futures of natural gas and of solar energy. In Can We Skip?, he and Heather Goldstone spend 15 minutes carefully comparing the two and addressing whether one can be viewed as a bridge to the other. The reasons that natural gas is environmentally better than coal are explained, as are recent and expected trends in its use, particularly in New England. The conversation also details why natural gas is neither a permanent solution nor something we can easily abandon right now.
Image: Smithsonian Ocean Portal
From this story about 21st-century energy resources, the program moved to the latest of several it has aired on the plight of the right whale, whose demise was part of the story of energy a century ago. The name of this whale (actually three related species of baleen whale) reveals something about its plight. 

A source of both baleen (the plastic of pre-petroleum days) and lamp oil, whalers referred to these species as the "right" ones to hunt. A vast, renewable, and seemingly infinite resource was thus hunted to a small fraction of its prior population.  The official marine mammal of Massachusetts now numbers only 450 individuals, which are dying at a steady rate because of collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, especially lobster pots. A conversation with Woods Hole expert Mark Baumgartner explains what has made this great whale so vulnerable, and promising technology to help save it from extinction.

I was interested to hear these two stories together, because of two earlier posts on this blog that connect fossil fuels and whaling -- Peak Whale (2011) and Plank to the Future (2013).

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