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Chapter 2

When Whales Powered the World

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Whaling was a booming business that kept modern life running smoothly from the 1700s up to the 1900s.

Whale oil powered the lamps that allowed cities and factories to operate after dark. Whalebone gave structure to women’s undergarments and eyeglass frames. And whale by-products lubricated modern machinery. Whale products were as important as plastic is today, and the urban centers that specialized in producing them were flush with cash.

19th Century Whale Economy

By day, whale blubber and bones were processed into popular household products. But at night, the transformative value of the whale was realized as whale oil for streetlights, lighthouses and house lamps.

As an island nation with limited farmland, Japan has always relied on the sea as a source for food.

Japan has kept its whaling operations running for hundreds of years, from early coastal whaling efforts in the 16th century to the industrial whaling operation that developed after World War II, all the way through to today. For the Japanese, whaling is more than a business. It’s a birthright and a necessity – a practice that reaps valuable rewards and honors the country’s heritage.

Global Whaling Wanes
As technology advanced and new sources of fuel were discovered, the global market for whale products diminished. Nonetheless, whaling was taking its toll on the dwindling global whale population. If dramatic conservation measures weren’t put in place, whales would disappear forever, creating a dangerous domino effect in the planet’s precarious ecosystem.
The world already knew exactly how much it could earn from a dead whale. The question quickly became: was a whale worth more alive than dead?

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