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Whale Oil to Fuel Whaling Ships is a Gruesome and Surreal Proposition

Icelandic whaler Kristján Loftsson's perverse concept has a long pedigree and a remarkable resonance with Moby-Dick

By Philip Hoare

It is a fantastically surreal proposition. An Icelandic whaler, Kristján Loftsson, is powering his whaling ships using "biofuel" composed of 80 percent diesel – and 20 percent whale oil. Loftsson claims the oil is additionally friendly to the environment as it is rendered out of whale blubber using heat from Iceland's volcanic vents.

photonamePhoto by Library Company of PhiladelphiaThis is not the first time animal fat has been used to feed the whale hunt.

The story might seem a bizarre development even in the Alice in Wonderland world of modern whaling, where Japanese whaling fleets claim to be conducting "scientific research" and the US, while striking a vehemently anti-whaling stance, nonetheless supports aboriginal hunting of bowhead whales that might otherwise live as long as 200 years.

Yet Loftsson's scheme has a remarkable resonance with the urtext of whaling: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, written in 1851. Chapter 96, The Try-Works, includes a darkly poetic riff on the industrial process of rendering whale blubber on board ship. There's a gruesome description of the relentless operation of vast iron vats, known as trypots, set on brick kilns, and stoked by the whalemen using scraps of whale fat as tinder. Melville finds a fearful elegance in the process:

"Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body."

(You can listen to a clip of it here.)

Melville goes on, in a passage that has since been used to heighten the echoes between the whale-oil industry of his age and our own desperate thirst for mineral oil: "

The rushing Pequod, freighted with savages and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging in that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul."

(In his nicely argued The Ahab Parallax, Randy Kennedy pointed out further politico-economic comparisons between Ahab's mad pursuit and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that also killed countless cetaceans).

It's not the first time animal fat has been used to feed the whale hunt: 20th-century whaling operations in the Southern Ocean made similar use of penguins, throwing the oil-rich animals on fires as living kindling.

How ironic that Loftsson should find satisfaction in his claims to environmental efficiency, blithely ignorant of the deeper paradoxes. It's a dying industry even for Japan, if another recent report, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is to be believed: the country's whaling fleet is subsidized by government funds, like those scraps under the trypots — a total of $205m since 1987 — and cannot ultimately sustain itself.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the international charity devoted to monitoring the changing fortunes of cetaceans, has already weighed in. Chief executive Chris Butler-Stroud called Loftsson's gambit "a completely absurd, perverse and unethical move by an industry that is already steeped in the blood of whales, and which is now prepared to use the remains of dead whales to keep its own vessels afloat".

But the entirely rational might see the proposition as elegantly, if horrifically, efficient. Loftsson's is nothing less than the ultimate greenwash.

Meanwhile, the cynical might look to a further century before Melville, to another literary solution to these and other pressing problems: Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, in which he addresses the problem of burdensome children in poverty-stricken Ireland by suggesting their parents cook and eat them.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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