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20 Jan 2009

Where Does Obama Stand On Rotting Whales? (hopefully not on the mushy bits…)

Every Christmas one of my children gets a copy of the Guiness Book of Records, which offers a fascinating insight into the more demented and extreme aspects of 21st century life.  Today of course is the day when Barack Obama is inaugurated as President Obama, the something-or-other-th President of the USA.  I think the question the world should be asking though, on this historic day, is how would President Obama deal with a 7 tonne rotten whale?

My question is prompted by reading possibly the oddest record in the book, which reads as follows;

Largest Mammal Exploded.

The largest mammal ever-exploded was the 7.25-tonne 13.7m long carcass of a sperm whale that washed up south of Florence, Oregon.  On 12 November 1970, the Oregon State Highway Division placed half a tonne of dynamite around the decomposing, foul smelling whale and detonated it.  The dynamite was far more powerful than required and huge chunks of whale meat rained down on spectators.  One 3 by 5ft lump of whale crushed the roof of a Buick car 1/4 mile away.

Now, the former-President Bush (ah, such a sweet symmetry of words) was definely a ‘blow-the-whale-to-pieces’ kind of President.  Any problem that arose, in true neo-Con fashion, could almost certainly be solved by the application of large amounts of dynamite (or, when it came to the banks, the firing of vast amounts of money).  No mouldy whale could withstand the impact of a cruise missile, it could be vapourised, problem eliminated, merely by typing its postcode into the missile’s settings.  Nowadays you could probably do the whole thing by text message.

Here is how (with thanks to Phil Randal) is how it was reported on the news at the time;

Astonishing things about this story are firstly the fact that there were ‘spectators’.  “Hey kids, let’s head down to the beach, I hear they’re blowing up a 7 ton rancid whale…”.  “Cool!”  Also, it is frightening to think that one could so overestimate the amount of dynamite that removing a vast malodorous dead mammal requires that chunks of flying whale can cause a danger to life, limb and cars a quarter of a mile away.  That takes quite some overestimating.  It is the leviathan-exploding equivalent of the War on Terror.  How to take a problem which is a certain size, and in trying to get rid of it, create another problem 100 times the size.  It’s a skill, of sorts.  Just one we don’t really need anymore (and never really did in the first place).

Will Obama be a ‘let’s attempt mouth to mouth resusciation first’ kind of President?  Or perhaps a ‘hey, if we can get the carbon/nitrogen ratio right we could make some great compost out of this’ kind?  Perhaps he might try and press oil out of it, or perhaps suggest that the nearby coastal communities might turn it into trinkets and baubles in order to stimulate their flagging economy.  We must all hope he will be a “let’s pull up our chairs, crack open a few beers, and brainstorm 100 uses for a dead whale” type President.

It would be nice to think that actually he wouldn’t let it get into such an appalling state in the first place, that he would have spotted it earlier and acted decisively early enough that the list of possible uses was longer than just ‘blow it up’. When you apply the genius of those who live close to such a vast putrescent hulk, I’m sure there are many many great ideas there waiting for an outlet.

To blow it to pieces would be to deny that genius the chance to flourish, it would stifle that creativity, that brilliance.  Rather than raining hunks of dead whale across the surrounding countryside, my hope is that an Obama presidency is about applying ‘the problem is the solution’ thinking, and seeing that, for example, within that whale are bones sufficient to form the frames of houses for several local families.

We can no longer have that Bush style thinking.  The world has had enough dynamite.  It needs Presidents who are not afraid to get their feet wet, who aren’t thrown by the smell of decomposing whales, and who can think laterally rather than in a linear fashion.  As the world economy turns increasingly smelly over coming years (wow, anyone see what happened to RBS yesterday?), we need creative thinking, and the ability, at a Presidential level, to recognise a dead whale when he sees one.  Certainly over the coming months, the smell of a rotten economy is going to require a new and innovative approach.  Our future will depend on his being sufficiently innovative and able to occupy the mental space which is decisively ‘non-Bush’, and to apply ‘the problem is the solution’ thinking across the board.

Categories: Economics, General, Politics

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David Eggleton
20 Jan 4:23pm

A wonderful point-of-departure, Rob. The whale story is reminiscent of some of Amory Lovins’ analogies (“using a reactor to boil water is like using a cannon to ring a doorbell.”)

Unfortunately, change is one thing and sustainability is another. It will be easy to be non-Bush, but very difficult to choreograph and direct a national paradigm shift. There will be heavy pressure to restore what (recently) was, not our true life support systems.

I hope to be pleasantly surprised!

Graham Burnett
20 Jan 6:46pm

Well I just sat through his inaugural speech and he didn’t mention the rotting whale question once…

Albert Bates
21 Jan 1:04am

What kind of biochar can you make from rotting whale? I imagine it would have a good amount of nitrogen already embedded. Perhaps Dr. Chu is already on this.

Duncan Law
21 Jan 10:15am

Everything in his speech has been commented on except this which shows that in some ways he stands for the old thinking:

….lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

I see no sign of education even having heard of the Peak Oil Age. And I worry that fueling our cars is so important and is going to be done by sun and soil. This is not just a food issue but an eco-systems issue. We are trashing our life-support system. It is teetering now. Will Obama speed us on the short cut to the edge of the climate change cliff.

For excellent background and an open letter to Obama from ETC group see

21 Jan 10:23am

Yes, I spotted that bit. We watched it and said ‘hold on a minute’ and had to rewind it and check we had heard right. ‘Restore science it its rightful place’ has an ominous ring to it. Sounds like an open door to GM for me. How can anything be said to have a ‘rightful’ place? Springboard for a GM biofuels revolution anyone?

Graham Burnett
21 Jan 12:04pm

“and the soil to fuel our cars”

I interpreted this as a pro-biofuels statement

David Eggleton
22 Jan 4:38am

I winced when I heard “soil”, too.

The expectation that the oil party can be simulated well into the future is a strong one!

Jennifer Lauruol
22 Jan 8:48pm

I’m also concerned about the ‘growth’ word, and no reference, in all the agenda items I’ve searched, to protecting and enhancing biodiversity. Nor to food security. So I’ve started emailing him via the White House interactive website, asking him to put these on the agenda. Can we get our US Transition friends to send masses of communications to him re biodiversity and re-localising food (among other things)? If you need a zip code, use my childhood one–it’s 90028 (Hollywood, California). I’m idealistic enough (I voted for him from the UK) to believe he might even take our messages on board.

22 Jan 10:40pm

I thought the “restoring science to it’s rightful place” comment might be about climate science with reference to the Bush camp’s climate change denial stance.
Maybe I’m just a hopeless optimist.

22 Jan 10:57pm

I think maybe I overreacted a bit to that… it may well also refer to Creationism in schools, and hopefully to a realistic appraisal of the US’s energy security … but I do nervously see the shadows of the GM industry flitting behind the scenes when that statement is used…