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Energy's checkered past and elusive future

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Chris Bangs/Guam Variety News/AP

(Read caption) A sperm whale calf only hours old swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales off the coast of Guam. Until the 20th century, whales were hunted for their oil to light lanterns and lubricate the machinery of the pre-petroleum age.

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New Bedford, Mass., was once like Houston, Texas, and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Known in its heyday as “the city that lit the world,” New Bedford was one of the richest cities on earth.

Of all the energy sources we have employed over the millenniums – dung, wood, water, wind, coal, crude, uranium – the whale oil that New Bedford’s refineries extracted was by far the most unsettling.

Even when there were no better alternatives to it, the great chronicler of whaling (and of the latent power of nature and the depths of human obsession), Herman Melville, felt queasy about the slaughter of cetaceans for their oil. To whalers, it was a dangerous but necessary way to make a living. But familiarity bred admiration. Encountering a leviathan in the middle of solitary seas, Melville wrote, you sometimes “find him unbent from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a hearth.” If you have ever encountered a playful pod during a whale-watching trip, you know how captivating that can be. Most consumers of whale oil, however, were oblivious to the source of light for their lamps and lubrication for their gears.

The discovery of petroleum in 1859 eventually saved the whales. But then came roads and cars, urban sprawl, smog, and environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and the runaway BP well. Most days we ignore the trade-offs of the oil age, but every energy source is a Faustian bargain, comfort and convenience exchanged for deforestation, soot, carbon buildup, radioactive waste. Wind farms are noisy, dangerous to birds, and not exactly easy on the eyes. Even solar, which seems benign, will mean vast arrays of backyard collectors intercepting sunlight before it hits the plants.

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