US Ambassador Urges Industry to Adapt or Perish

Liam Quinn/CC BY-SA 2.0

James Murray—whose impassioned plea for a New Environmentalism I raved about recently—has an interesting post on one of the best green economy speeches he ever heard.

It came from Bruce J. Oreck, US Ambassador to Finland, 3 years ago during a panel discussion in which the usual cautious voices were urging for only incremental action:

"Do you know what the largest employer on the eastern seaboard of America was in 1850?" he asked the room, to be greeted by the inevitable silence. "It was whaling."

He went on to explain how New Bedford was once the world's biggest boom town, how whaling was one of America's largest industries, and how tens of thousands of people made their fortunes from the whale oils, blubber, and bones they bought ashore. And then, how within 20 years, it was all virtually gone. [...] As if the parallels with today's carbon intensive industries weren't already explicit enough, Oreck spelt them out. "If you don't adapt, your business is going to die," he told the hapless man from the paper sector, or words to that effect. "You don't have a choice."

From Seth Godin's thoughts on whale oil to a peak oil infographic, the analogies between 19th Century whaling and the dominance of fossil fuels today is nothing new. (The photo above is of an abandoned whale oil storage facility.) But it is telling that a sitting US Ambassador felt compelled to stand up and make the analogy to a senior Industry figure.

The main point of the story is not the specific similarities between whale oil and fossil fuels, but rather the fundamental truth that things change. And that it is hard to imagine those changes in advance, even if they are well underway. Most of us struggle to picture a cultural and economic paradigm that operates differently to the one we are currently engaged in—and even if we picture it, it tends to feel like science fiction. (As a teenager, I remember being skeptical of such simple things as on demand video or virtual conferencing.)

When I wrote about scientists urging a moratorium on fossil fuel infrastructure, I suggested we should be cautious of voices urging us to "be realistic". Real progress has always been marked by people who are not just able to see beyond the blinkers imposed by our current technological or economic paradigm, but actually make it happen.

It's nice to hear that a prominent US Ambassador is among those trying to remove the blinkers.

Tags: Economics | Global Climate Change | Oil | Renewable Energy | Whales