Source: Inspired by a comment from Climate Reality Presenter Dr. Peter Joseph, MD. See also: Earth The Operator's Manual by Dr. Richard Alley, 2011, pages 30 to 36.
We use petroleum oil as our primary energy source today in the 21st century. In the 1800s, whale oil was the primary source of fuel for lanterns. According to Dr. Alley (p. 32), "Whale oil was expensive, but the best whale oils gave a good, clear light with little smoke, little smell, and little danger of explosion."
Unfortunately, in 1871, 33 ships were crushed in the ice off the coast of Alaska, and 12 more were lost in 1876. The whalers shifted from Cape Cod to the Arctic because "just as in 2010 the oil-well drillers were in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico rather than up on shore, the easy-to-get resource had been exhausted." (Alley, p. 34)
By the late 1800s, the ocean was not producing enough whales to meet demand. In addition, beginning with the first modern oil well drilled in 1859 in Titusville, Pennslyvania, petroleum oil became easier to obtain than whale oil. As the U.S. whaling fleet slowly faded away, U.S. capitalists took their investments elsewhere.
We could make that same decision today to switch from burning heavy polluting fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, to cleaner energy sources, like solar & wind. As Dr. Peter Joseph points out,
"Yes, there are over 80,000 miners currently working within the coal industry. However, with an investment in retraining in equal paying jobs above ground installing solar panels and maintaining wind turbines, I bet they would be very happy to be out of the dark mines."
Update 5-14-12, TS: Whales were among the major beneficiaries of oil's discovery. Check out the second graphic, a cartoon that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1861, "Grand Ball Given by the Whales in Honor of the Discovery of Oil in Pennsylvania."
The whales celebrate with champagne in front of banners that read, "We Wail No More for our Blubber," "Oil's Well that Ends Well," and "The Oil Wells of Our Native Land, May They Never Secede," and "Oily Gammon." (Gammon can refer to a ham soup, or a quick victory in backgammon)
Source: Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, http://www.sagharborwhalingmuseum.org/oil-exhibit-2008/current_exhibit3.html Also reprinted in Alley p. 35.