We did it to make margarine

In the 20th century, we hunted whales nearly to extinction. What possessed us?

Sperm whales, mother and baby

Nobody remembers why we killed the whales.

We remember that we saved them. In 1975, a splinter group from the anti-nuclear organization Greenpeace set out on dinghies to chase the Soviet whaling ship Vlastny, positioning itself between its harpoon and a pod of eight sperm whales. The activists intended to serve as shields, betting that the Soviet harpooner would not fire with humans at risk.

They were wrong. After an animated discussion amongst the Vlastny crew, the harpooner fired over the heads of the activists and into a female sperm whale. She screamed in agony. The bull whale accompanying her did what bulls always do, charging the Soviet ship in response. The harpooner fired a second shot into him, and he screamed too.

The water filled with blood; the whales were dragged in to be butchered and reduced to oil. The activists’ immediate mission ended in failure, but saving these particular whales was never the point. Photos and footage of the carnage were soon broadcast by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, causing a public firestorm. When Greenpeace returned to confront the same ship the following year, the harpoons did not fire. And within another decade, commercial whaling would cease entirely, driven back by a never-ending barrage of Save the Whales bumper stickers and the highest level of international diplomacy.

But in all honesty, whaling mostly ended because we ran out of whales.

Over the course of the 20th century hunting claimed almost 3 million whales, reducing the population over 80%. More than half the ocean’s blue whales were killed in the 1930s alone. The whaling industry itself declared a moratorium on the hunting of humpback whales in 1966, to protect them from extinction. We slaughtered the whales so fast, and so thoroughly, the killing undermined the industry that depended on it.

Surely we must have done this for a reason. Governments argued that national security, jobs, and their very culture depended on it. Whaling was not just another industry — it was a source of national pride.

So what does it say about us that, just a few decades later, we can’t remember almost any of the specifics?  

And what does it say that we hear the exact same claims being made today to defend an even greater danger to the environment — fossil fuels?


Blue whale populations fell by over 99% during the 20th century.  Graph and projections from Tulloch et al, “Ecosystem modelling to quantify the impact of historical whaling on Southern Hemisphere baleen whales”, 2017.  Blue bars are historical catches (right axis); red and black lines are population history/projections based on modeling (left axis).  The projections do take into global warming.


By all rights, Abraham Gesner should have saved the whales.

Humans have been hunting whales for centuries, though unlike other hunters, whalers had little interest in eating their kill. Whale blubber, boiled down, yields an oil which burns brightly with little stench or smoke. In the 1800s, the hunt claimed about 300,000 whales, most of them sperm whales – the species with the highest quality oil for lighting. And we used that oil to illuminate our city streets, lighthouses, and (for the well-to-do) our homes.

Gesner, a Canadian doctor and amateur geologist, discovered in 1846 that the distilled “essence of coal” burned as a high quality flame, and began a quiet but profound revolution — the move towards liquid fossil fuels. Gesner founded the Kerosene Company (a name of his own invention, combining the Greek words for wax and oil), and by 1857 the Kerosene brand of coal oil was being offered as an illuminant and lubricant throughout the United States. Up to that time, the poor burned cheap concoctions such as camphene, a mixture of camphor, turpentine, and ethyl alcohol that produced a dim, smoky light, and had an unfortunate propensity to explode without warning. Safer, brighter Kerosene took over that market, and briefly provided Gesner a comfortable life in Brooklyn.

Within a couple of years, however, free-flowing oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. And newly-derived petroleum kerosene married the quality of the best whale oil with a cost lower than Gesner’s coal oil, and so put both out of business.

The whales should have been able to rest.

Of course, they weren’t. Over the next 70 years the hunt would push nearly all whales to the brink of extinction. We hunted nearly every species: sperm and grey and blue and humpback and fin and more. We hunted in both hemispheres. There was no escape; whales were without exception killed and rendered for their oil, the meat thrown back to the sea or ground up for animal feed.

By 1900, petroleum kerosene was so cheap and plentiful that the whaling fleet should have been run ashore, and sold for scrap. But newer, diesel-powered ships also made whaling cheap. And so whaling companies considered a very simple question: If they could reduce the price of the hunt, what beyond lighting could a whale be good for?


Processed whale oil.  (Left) for margarine, and (right) for soap.

Lighting was the major market for whale oil in the 1800s, but not the only one. Whale oil literally lubricated the industrial revolution in the US, keeping cotton spindles and other equipment in operation. Baleen – a bone-like structure used by whales to filter seawater – was in demand to architect women’s corsets, thanks to the material’s unique strength and flexibility.

But petrochemicals and steel soon proved superior in these tasks, and these markets for whale also collapsed. In 1857, Cincinnati’s William Fee invented a huller to split the tough seed of cotton, enabling inexpensive extraction of this vegetable oil for lubrication, and use in candles and soap. By the end of the 19th century, the American whaling fleet – once the greatest in the world – barely existed. It had no reason to.

Yet the Norwegians, without access to fats from vast fields of cotton or sprawling prairies of lard-rich cows, still prized oil from whales. They brought the cost of whaling down by introducing steam-powered ships and explosive harpoons. Rudolf Diesel’s new, efficient petroleum engines soon powered Norway’s hunt to breeding grounds in Antarctica. Massive, fast whales would have torn apart previous ships or evaded capture entirely, yet by the turn of the century even a 30 meter blue whale could be hunted and trapped with diesel and steel. 1903 saw the production of the first large-scale factory ships which could process whales into oil right on the Antarctic ice; to save room, the crews threw the worthless meat and bones overboard.

And just as technology enabled the harvesting of nature’s vast reserves of blubber, two new fads spiked demand in Europe — enough to make the whaler’s adventures pay.

First came soap: In the late 1800s the germ theory of disease and the popularization of hygiene ended the European aversion to washing, and soapmakers were suddenly faced with the task of disinfecting 400 million commoners. Soapmakers needed abundant, cheap fats, and whaling rose to the challenge.

And then came margarine.

In 1867, with rising European population and wealth driving up the price of traditional fats, Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could create a low-cost butter substitute for his army. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès rose to the challenge, delivering an inexpensive formulation of beef fat and skim milk. He sold his formulation to the Dutch company Jurgens, who in turn improved the process and scaled it. Buoyed by Jurgen’s successes, competitors moved in to develop their own spreadable fats, and in 1911 Procter & Gamble created the first hydrogenated vegetable oil, Crisco, marketed as a replacement for lard and butter, and every kitchen baker’s best friend.

Within a few years, hydrogenated margarine would become the whale’s greatest enemy.

At first too fishy for human consumption, whale oil was made stiff and palatable in 1929 by research scientists working for the Lever Brothers and the Margarine Union (which included Jurgens). The collaborators merged in 1930 to form the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, and from that point forward margarine surpassed soap as the decisive market for whales. Unilever integrated vertically to ensure its supply, effectively becoming the sole buyer for Norwegian whale oil, and the dominant seller to European markets. The formulation was a success, and word spread: in just one year – 1931 – the whale harvest more than tripled. And while this torrid growth could not be sustained, whalers never looked back, and never found a stronger market.

It was margarine that built the modern whaling fleet. It was margarine that pushed nearly all of the world’s whales to extinction. In the 1950s and 1960s, some whales were harvested for meat by the Japanese. More fell to the Soviets, who under Stalin would extinguish over half a million animals with almost no thought to their value, in support of yet another five year plan.

But mostly, the whales were spread on toast.


Today, every environmental story feels like the history of the whales. Yet in this, the end of whaling offers hope.

The International Energy Agency is insistent that the world’s transition away from fossil fuels will be slow, requiring the entire century to complete. Careful, deliberate movement is needed to preserve our economy and our jobs. Wind and solar energy has fallen dramatically in price, but in all but the sunniest areas of the globe coal remains cheaper. The internal combustion engine adds carbon dioxide to the skies and soot to our lungs, yet battery-powered transport looms frustratingly out of reach. Cost, not capability, lingers as the planet’s greatest enemy.

Yet starting in the 1960s, the global economy transitioned away from cheap whale oils to replacements. And no one noticed.

At its peak in the 1840s, the US whaling industry employed roughly 0.2% of the US population (the equivalent of 650,000 people today), and was America’s fifth largest industry. By the 1860s, its total economic output had fallen by half; by the 1870s it had fallen by half again. The United States moved to iron and steel.

American whalers were supplanted by Norwegians, who not only undercut US wages, but out-innovated them as well. Norway remained the dominant whaling nation for a century, and was an opponent of the quotas set by the International Whaling Commission from its inauguration in 1949, a year when Norway alone accounted for over half of global whale oil production.

But in the 1950s the Norwegian government recognized whaling as an industry in decline, due to both increased competition from vegetable oils and the global slump of whale stocks. By 1960, when Japan took over as the world’s premier whaling nation, Norway had already idled thousands of sailors, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Norway’s whaling capital of Vestfold County should have, by all accounts, seen a huge rise in unemployment. But it did not, because the country had prepared. Sailors were laid off slowly, and found work in shipping and transport; suppliers of specialized whaling equipment retooled, and moved into new markets. The Scotland-based Salvesen Company diversified from whaling into cold storage, and began a profitable business transporting frozen food from Norway to the rest of Europe.

Norway’s century-long dominance of whaling unwound in just a decade. The economy, even in Vestfold, did not pause.

And all nations finally stood down in 1986, thanks to continued pressure from groups like Greenpeace. Whaling ships idled. Whalers found new jobs. The world turned its attention to the stock market and the space shuttle and the ominous threat to national cultures from heavy metal music.

And finally, slowly, the whales began to return.


Oil and gas employment is, proportionately, about as large today in the US as whaling was in the 1850s. Or as whaling in Norway was in the 1950s. There is talk of petrochemical jobs, and economics, and of course global security — all of which are true. But they were all true for whaling.

Thirty years after we relinquished our floating factories, we have forgotten even why we hunted.

We will say the same about carbon. We have the opportunity – the moral freedom – to choose whether to chase the climate to exhaustion as we once chased the whales. We can declare the end of fossil fuels before they are gone, just as we declared the end of whaling before the last whales went extinct. We can change.

And we can make this transition without the economic devastation predicted by those who make their money off of oil today.

For those who talk about the unique importance of coal and gas oil, and the value they bring, I ask: Why did we kill the whales? We slaughtered millions of nature’s largest creatures for the most pedestrian of reasons. And on the very brink of losing them forever, we learned we did not really need to consume them at all. Whaling could have ended in the 1950s or 1930s or even 1850s without history batting an eye.

We did it to make margarine.

So please, remind me again: Why do we still burn fossil fuels?

3 thoughts on “We did it to make margarine

  1. Brilliant essay, Seth! I’m old enough to remember the Greenpeace campaign but I never asked ‘why kill whales?’ The discussion on the impact on jobs in whaling industry and your insightful analogy with the coal jobs/global warming debate left me encouraged. Let’s hope the transition away from fossil fuels indeed follows the path of whale oil. Soon.

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