In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which is now banned in all but a few countries. This might never have happened if the importance of commercial whaling hadn’t diminished enormously since the late nineteenth century.
Whales – and sperm whales especially – used to be an important source of energy: Whale oil was extracted from dead animals, and was used especially as fuel for lamps, but could also be found in heating, soap, paint and other products. Countless numbers of whales were killed for this reason.
Enter Abraham Gesner, a Canadian physician and geologist. In 1849, Gesner developed kerosene, a liquid made from coal, bitumen (a form of petrol) and oil shale. Unlike whale oil, kerosene was not smelly or dirty, it did not spoil, and, most importantly, it was cheaper to produce than whale oil.
As kerosene distilleries popped up everywhere and kerosene was commercialized, the demand for whale oil tanked. The whaling industry could get by for a while on the sales of whalebone, which was used for corsets and other garments. However, whalebone was soon replaced by other materials, and, in the end, whaling just wasn’t interesting anymore.
Abraham Gesner obviously hadn’t been trying to ban whaling. As far as we know, there were no moral factors in play for him. Yet, the result was there: the last American whaler left port in 1924 and grounded the next day.
The fact that whale oil was no longer a good source of energy obviously made it much easier to install the ban on commercial whaling in 1986. When the environmental movement is successful in ending whaling in the last remaining countries, it will not just be because of moral arguments, but because the relevance of whaling has diminished, thanks to good alternatives.
Moral advocacy is important, but it’s not enough. Meat alternatives, including clean meat, will be as important for the end of animal agriculture as kerosene was for the end of commercial whaling.