A reader writes:
Whatever other economic lessons might be learned from the history of the whaling industry, surely the number one lesson is that if you exploit a biological resource at a rate faster than it is renewed, you eventually run out. This is what has led to the collapse of whale fisheries. The 19th century whaling industry's premier object was the right whale (so called because it was the 'right' whale to catch), which, in the Northern hemisphere, even after decades of protection, still numbers only a few hundred. Ugo Bardi, in a post about oil, used whales as an example of a non-renewable resource, so remorseless was the hunt relative to the whales' powers of reproduction.
The whaling industry moved on to less prized whales, and more distant and difficult whaling grounds, but populations of these whales also collapsed in their turn. There are lessons to be learned here, but they will not be mostly about technological innovation and wages.
The whaling industry fascinates me. I recommend watching the American Experience documentary by Ric Burns, "Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World." On Moby Dick's endless canvass for allegory, the quest for oil fits perfectly. I wonder what would have happened had industrialists not discovered a perfect replacement for whale oil in petroleum, which seemed almost like a deus ex machina for appearing at just the right time to solve the crisis of depleting whale stocks. The discovery of petroleum erased all worries about what would happen when the whale oil ran out. What happens if we exhaust all the oil without a panacea waiting for us in the wings?
(Greenpeace anti-whaling ad via Copyranter)