American Sociological Association

Why Petroleum Did Not Save the Whales

Ironically, even though fossil fuels provided substitutes for the main uses of whale oil, the rise of fossil fuel use in the nineteenth century served to increase the intensity of whaling. The connections between fossil fuels and whaling are an example of the unanticipated consequences that frequently come with technological change. I draw on political-economic theory to explain why fossil fuels served to escalate rather than eliminate whaling. The case of whaling highlights the limited potential for technological developments to help overcome environmental problems without concurrent political, economic, and social change that supports conservation.


Richard York