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There was a story that circulated a few years ago, and was picked up by the popular press, to the effect that the “oil industry saved the whales.” The idea was that the greatest threat ever faced by large whales was the rising world demand for illumination. Whale oil had displaced wax and other forms of vegetable oils for lamps, because it was abundant, efficient and made a good light. One whale could produce tons of oil, and that oil commanded a good (but not prohibitive) price. Hence, wooden ships set out crisscrossing the sea with harpoons and murderous intent.

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