Gazing Into the Abyss
Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
An insightful article in today’s The New York Times "Week in Review" by Randy Kennedy draws an analogy between the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Captain Ahab’s ill-fated pursuit of the white whale in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Kennedy reminds us of the high price commanded by whale oil in the early 19th century—an increasingly rare commodity that was then used for machine lubricant and smokeless lamp oil. With whale populations along the Atlantic coast nearly wiped out, it would take Edwin Drake’s drilling of the first U.S. oil well in 1859 to shift the focus toward a new energy resource.
The lessons in Melville’s story certainly resonate today. According to Andrew Delbanco, director of Columbia University’s American Studies Program, Moby-Dick is “a cautionary tale about the terrible cost of exploiting nature for human wants.... It’s a story about self-destruction visited upon the destroyer—and the apocalyptic vision at the end seems eerily pertinent to today.”
Although we blame Captain Ahab and BP for pushing technology to the point of failure in the exploitation of natural resources, modern society is also complicit in this pursuit. Delbanco states:“We want our comforts but we don’t want to know too much about where they come from or what makes them possible ... The oil spill in the gulf is a horror, but how many Americans are ready to pay more for oil or for making the public investment required to develop alternative energy? I suspect it’s a question that Melville would be asking of us now.”