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Freakonomics Radio

551. What Can Whales Teach Us About Clean Energy, Workplace Harmony, and Living the Good Life?

Thu Jul 27 2023
Moby DickWhalesWhaling industryDiversityProductivityEnvironmental impact


This episode explores the relevance of Moby Dick, the threats to whales and their environmental impact, diversity and productivity on whaling ships, details of whaling ships and sailors' lives, diversity on whaling ships and its connection to Moby Dick, and themes in Moby Dick. The episode concludes with a discussion on literature's role in shaping the world and a preview of future episodes.


Whale deaths and environmental impact

Whales face various threats such as plastic pollution, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and hunting. Their decline affects ocean productivity and carbon absorption.

Diversity on whaling ships

Whaling ships in the 19th century had diverse crews, including black American sailors, foreign crew members, and Native American whalers. Racial diversity had both positive and negative effects on productivity.

Productivity and diversity

Productivity on whaling ships increased with a diverse crew, but shorter voyages showed negative effects. Financial incentives and adaptation over time also influenced productivity.

Details of whaling ships

The Charles W. Morgan, an average-sized whale ship, played a significant role in whaling history. The ship's crew size, composition, and daily life on board are explored.

Diversity in Moby Dick

Moby Dick features a diverse crew, including characters from different racial backgrounds. The book's themes and the representation of diversity are discussed.

Themes in Moby Dick

Moby Dick invites readers to reflect on the world's complexity and their role in shaping it. The cathedral metaphor and the personal journey of finding one's purpose are highlighted.


  1. Moby Dick and its Relevance
  2. Threats to Whales and Environmental Impact
  3. Diversity and Productivity on Whaling Ships
  4. Impact of Diversity and Whale Ship Details
  5. Details of Whaling Ships and Sailors' Lives
  6. Diversity on Whaling Ships and Moby Dick
  7. Themes in Moby Dick and Conclusion

Moby Dick and its Relevance

00:04 - 08:09

  • Moby Dick is a central part of the professor's life, with a tattoo of a historic harpoon on her arm.
  • Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, had worked as a school teacher and in a bank before going to sea.
  • Moby Dick is not just about whaling; it is funny, silly, weird, and relevant to various world events.
  • Whales have transitioned from utilitarian energy sources to iconic emblems of the natural world.
  • The podcast explores if whaling can answer questions about environmental improvements and workplace dynamics.
  • Whale deaths are caused by plastic pollution, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and hunting.
  • Only about a thousand whales are killed globally every year by hunting.

Threats to Whales and Environmental Impact

07:43 - 15:56

  • Citations die each year due to entanglement and fishing gear.
  • Noise pollution from international shipping channels is a major culprit in the decline of killer whale populations in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Shipping noise causes a rise in whale mortality and a drop in whale fertility.
  • There are concerns about seismic testing and pile driving related to wind farms.
  • Whale poop, or fecal plumes, contribute to ocean productivity because they contain nitrogen.
  • Whales create a positive feedback loop by releasing nutrients into the ecosystem through their fecal plumes, which promotes the growth of phytoplankton and helps absorb carbon emissions.
  • The comeback of whales has led to new patterns such as large super pods of feeding whales and killer whales feeding on humpback calves or blue whale calves.
  • Offshore wind farms can generate cleaner electricity but need careful placement to avoid disrupting whale habitats.
  • Extraction of fossil fuels can be dangerous for whales directly and indirectly through climate change impacts.
  • The Deepwater Horizon spill caused significant harm to Gulf of Mexico whales, but there is hope for redemption as we transition away from oil extraction in the future.

Diversity and Productivity on Whaling Ships

15:30 - 23:22

  • Whaling ships in the 19th century were incredibly diverse workplaces, with black American sailors making up 25 to 40% of the crew.
  • The whaling industry provided opportunities for mobility and freedom for black Americans at that time.
  • There was also a great variety of foreign crew members and Native American whalers on these ships.
  • The randomness in hiring crew members allowed for a natural experiment to study the economic effects of diversity.
  • Racial diversity on whaling ships led to more conflicts and negative events such as desertions and deaths.
  • However, there was a U-shaped relationship between racial diversity and productivity, with very homogeneous teams performing well, then declining as diversity increased, but eventually increasing again at higher levels of diversity.

Impact of Diversity and Whale Ship Details

23:09 - 30:25

  • Productivity on whaling ships increases with a diverse crew.
  • Voyages lasting less than a year show negative effects of diversity, while longer voyages show positive effects.
  • Financial incentives and the prospect of future advancement also affect productivity.
  • Tension among crew members from different backgrounds can lower productivity.
  • The impact of diversity in labor markets depends on the industry and production process.
  • Adaptation to diversity over time can reduce conflicts and costs associated with diversity.
  • Mystic Seaport in Connecticut preserves the history of whaling through artifacts and the Charles W. Morgan ship.
  • The Charles W. Morgan is the oldest American commercial ship still afloat, with a history of whaling voyages.
  • A scholar sailed on the Morgan to interpret America's maritime history.

Details of Whaling Ships and Sailors' Lives

30:07 - 37:33

  • The Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving whale ship in the world, is an average-sized ship used for whaling.
  • The ship is 113 feet long on deck and weighs about 315 registered tons.
  • The triworx in the middle of the ship was where workers melted whale blubber to extract valuable oil.
  • Whale blubber rendering was a dirty and hot process that required constant labor and cleaning of the ship.
  • On average, the crew size of voyages on the Charles W. Morgan was 33 people.
  • 66% of the crew members were white, while there were also black women (30%) and Native Americans (2%) on board.
  • Some captains' wives accompanied their husbands on voyages, which could be disruptive to sailors who were less devout.
  • Sailors on whale ships entertained themselves by telling stories, reading, making repairs to clothing, and carving souvenirs out of whale bone.
  • English was the lingua franca among sailors in the American whaling industry.

Diversity on Whaling Ships and Moby Dick

37:05 - 44:39

  • The sailors had a lingua franca which centered on English and Spanish and Portuguese.
  • Whale ships in the American whaling industry are so concentrated out of New England that English tended to be the lingua franca, although there were many Cape Verdean sailors who would largely be speaking Portuguese.
  • The crew of Moby Dick is more diverse probably than any historic whale ship was.
  • We have Tashtego, who is a gay head Indian from Nantucket, an indigenous Nantucketer, Daegu, who is represented as the African standing in Fork continent, and Quequeg and the Polynesian sailor, all three of whom are the harpooners or the boat-steers.
  • Mill made a very specific choice to make the harpooners these three racial archetypes.
  • The Pequod's crew is idealized and represents 30 different countries.
  • The crew gets tighter in opposition to the captain or maybe it's the whales who are the common enemy.
  • Moby Dick Twitter is filled with memes and jokes based on lines from Moby Dick.
  • Moby Dick contains dick jokes because 'dick' meant the same thing in 1851 as it does today.
  • Moby Dick invites readers into a process of trying to figure out why greatness or transcendence is not achievable or designed.

Themes in Moby Dick and Conclusion

44:13 - 47:41

  • Literature shows the world as it is, without despairing of its messiness.
  • Melville's works invite readers to be part of refining the shape of the world.
  • The cathedral or unfinished building represents the work we all have to do.
  • Finding your own cathedral is a personal journey.
  • A current day whale hunter will be interviewed in a separate episode.
  • The next episode will not be about whaling.
  • Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio.