Peak – Sylphium? Tree? Whale? Oil?

A fellow environmental historian noted the other day that no-one really talks about “peak resource” anymore as part of their arguments for conservation and moderating use of natural resources. That was a big thing in the mid to late Twentieth Century – the world would run out of iron, or oil, or aluminum, or copper, or coal, farmland, or other things. Thinking about it, I’ve not heard that argument used for at least a decade, I think since global warming/anthropogenic climate change became the greater concern. As is my wont the idea sent me down a bit of a research rabbit-trail. Have we humans, globally, ever run out of a resource completely? Not local shortages or failures, but the entire world?

The Roman plant called sylphium (or silphium) might be one of the few resources that westerners used to extinction. And that’s a maybe because a Turkish botanist thinks that the plant might have survived in Anatolia. (Not the genus, but the specific plant). The plant contained chemicals in its resin and sap that affected female hormones, causing abortions or temporary infertility depending on the woman’s condition when she took it. Given what Roman patriarchs did with unwanted children (ordering them exposed after birth) and the risks of pregnancy and maternal death, it’s easy to see why the plant – per tradition – got used up and vanished.

When I came through school the first time, I was taught that the reason for the Industrial Revolution and the switch to coal was because England (and the rest of Europe) ran out of trees. They’d reached peak wood, forcing the shift, which led to the first Industrial Revolution. Or, they ran out of big trees for building and looted North American forests, then ran out of fuel wood, and so on. Well, it turns out that the first one wasn’t true, and the second one was partly true. Managed woodlands in England and Wales provided wood for iron smelting and other uses well into the 20th Century, as it turns out. Cost had more to do with it, both the cost per ton of hardwood charcoal vs coal, and the cost of transportation. Coal measures and seams near water were far cheaper, and provided a steadier, more intense heat, and could be worked more quickly than waiting for wood to grow, season, and then be converted into various fuels. The English had been using coal since at least the Tudor days (1400s), to the point that London passed rules about burning coal in order to preserve air quality. Ship timbers were a slightly different story, because the Royal Navy wanted live-oak and other timbers that had grown in the proper shapes and didn’t need to be pieced, carved, or spliced. England and Ireland were running out of those, and with the mess in the Baltic [thanks Sweden and Russia!] that supply of mast timbers had gotten both expensive and somewhat precarious. So off to North America they went. If the government owns it, you don’t have to pay for it, if you’re part of the government, na ja? And in theory, there was no competition or risk of wood theft.

Whale oil was another resource that almost disappeared. Whale oil and oil lamps were better and cheaper than candles, were more reliable than olive oil lamps, and whale oil could be used for mechanical things that required a very light oil that wouldn’t go rancid as quickly as walnut, olive, and other plant-based oils. It was lighter and less viscous than olive oil, so it could be used in much colder temperatures. Whale oil had a distinct scent (bad) and the odd knack of bleaching fabric that it got on – sort of the opposite of used engine oil. [Or so I’ve been told. Really.] Baleen whales had a different chemical composition to the fat in their blubber, making it much better for most purposes than the blubber of toothed whales. This led to the hunting-out of many whales, to the point of near extinction. However, the search was already on for a replacement for whale oil, preferable something as good as the oil but without the stink-and-stain properties. Rapeseed (canola) oil, petroleum oil, and other things also came into use, and peak whale became less of a worry for everyone except corset makers. They needed the baleen, the ling, flexible filters baleen whales used to separate krill and larger fish from seawater. Then cheap, thin steel appeared on the market, and corsets also switched from baleen to metal for stays.

Then it became peak petroleum, and peak aluminum, and . . . Humans keep finding replacements, or work-arounds, or new sources, or what have you. I suspect that’s partly why we don’t hear about “peak resource” anymore. It doesn’t sell what the environmental activists are trying to do. I firmly believe in recycling what can be recycled, and not wasting things. But I also believe that people will find a solution.


10 thoughts on “Peak – Sylphium? Tree? Whale? Oil?

  1. Whale oil was used as late as WWII, I believe, for the US Army M209 cipher machine. If you can get your hand on a copy of David Khan’s =The Codebreakers= you’ll find a detailed section on this little mechanical gem. It wasn’t super secure, but a decrypt would be useless after a few hours anyway.

    A briefer description is found here: .

    A friend-of-a-friend found one of these for sale somewhere and bought it. It included a small tube of oil, supposed to be whale oil. The oil’s resistance to thinning or congealing in extreme temperatures made it the best choice.

  2. Humans do seem to have a tendency to solve Problem 1, find that the solution to Problem 1 causes Problem 2, solve Problem 2, find that the solution to Problem 2 causes Problem 3, solve Problem 3, and so on ad infinitum.

    But whether or not a problem is solved seems to depend on perceived need. To link into a previous comment, in the 1930s it was the Poles who first cracked Enigma; the French (who had supplied the Poles with everything that they had needed to do this) and the British weren’t able to do so until the Poles told them how. The reason: the Poles knew that they needed to crack Enigma to have any chance should the Germans invade; the British and French still thought that they had the advantage on the battlefield.

  3. On sylphium, there’s also the theory that it was a hybrid– and that’s why they couldn’t cultivate it. Either the seeds were sterile, or the plant that came up was (obviously) not a match to the parent-plant.

  4. Whale oil is an oleic acid (18 C chain, mono-unsaturated) based ester. Very stable, and less prone to waxing at cold conditions than the corresponding paraffin.

    On a related note, it’s always fun to watch a rabid environmentalist freak when reminded that John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil did “Save The Whales”, by the great shift to kerosene for lanterns.

  5. I’ve noticed that now that Global Warming, or whatever the current name for it is, that pretty much all other environmental causes have dropped off the radar at a national or international level.
    I find myself wondering how much good we could do to clean up actual pollution with all the money being spent on a fake crisis…

    • “I find myself wondering how much good we could do to clean up actual pollution with all the money being spent on a fake crisis…”

      How dare you challenge their crusade with practicality! Oh, the horror…

  6. Ah yes, pesky facts again, and the ‘real’ reasons for advancement/change in various methods of doing things. Quelle surprise!

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