World Wide Whale: Cetaceans and Eco-politics (Undergraduate GEOG/ENV Studies)

Course Designer:  Max Ritts

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Course Description: 

This upper-level undergraduate course figures whales to engage key issues in twentieth and twenty-first century environmental politics. For such a broad mission, the whale may seem like an overly niche actor, but as we shall see in this course, this taxon traverses many of the currents that have defined eco-politics over this period, from the American whale oil that once lit the world (and lubricated the tools and machines that drove the Industrial Revolution), to key moments in animal conservation, eco-aesthetics, international resource conflicts, Indigenous marine stewardship, and the digitalization of nature. Understood as an “assemblage” of ideas, agencies, and material artefacts, whales provide compelling viewpoints into the interrelations of power, nature, place, and identity; along with mysteries that environmental mangers, activists, and human bystanders are still very much puzzling over. As we consider different sites of whales and environmental politics, we will also consider theoretical debates from animal geographies, political ecology, eco-aesthetics, and critical Indigenous studies. Intermixed are views from popular media, cultural commentary, viewings and conversations with live whale researchers (and maybe even some live whales in the background!). 

One aim of this course is to equip human geographers and environmental studies scholars with greater facility in textual literacies. Reading and debating eco-theory, environmental policy, marine law, and animal science texts will provide students with a basis of analytical comparison across cultural forms as well as material for better understanding how environmental politics are waged. We also learn some things about these fascinating creatures themselves, including whales’ incredible species-specific capacities for listening and sounding out space.  A second aim, then, is to consider how the material and discursive differences surrounding different animal species (and natures, generally) come to matter in what gets counted in, or defined as, eco-politics. Finally, this course aims to give you a better understanding of animal kin co- produce some of the key cultural, scientific and political perspectives humans hold around the management and meaning of nature. By the end of the course, each student will be familiar with dominant themes of environmental politics, noted theories and methods, and each student will have produced a piece of original research in this tradition. 

Section I: Introduction: Situating the Global Whale in (Global) Environmental Politics 

1.1 Common Spaces and The Anthropocene: Where the Whale Swims

1. G. Dauvergene and B. Clapp (2015) “Welcome to the Anthropocene” in Researching Global Environmental Politics in the 21st Century.    

2.  G. Hardin (1968). “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162:1243-1248. 

3. E. Ostrom (1999) “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges,” Science 284:278-282. 

1.2 Eco-Politics 101 (or 1.2) 

1. C. Epstein (2006). “The Making of Global Environmental Norms: Endangered Species Protection.” Global Environmental Politics, 6(2), 32-54.

2. B. Braun (2006). “Environmental Issues: Global Natures in the space of assemblage.” Progress in Human Geography, 30 (5), 644-654.

3. T. Weiss and R. Wilkinson (2014). “Rethinking global governance? Complexity, authority, power, change.” International Studies Quarterly 58.1 (2014): 207-215. 

Section II: Cetology, Hunting Folk, and Moby Dick: Some Historical Antecedents 

2.1 “Cetology,” or Why We Still Need Melville 

1. DG Burnett. (2009). “Introduction” and “Into the Belly of the Beast.” The Sounding of the Whale. Chicago UP.

2. R. York. (2017). “Why Petroleum Did Not Save the Whales.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World  

2.1 We Love Them: The Mystical Mysticete.    

A/V: R. Payne and K. Payne. 1970. ‘Songs of Humpback Whales.’  

1. S. Hall (1980). “Encoding, Decoding.” Social Theory: Power and identity in the global era, 2, 569. 

2. F. Zelko (2012). “From Blubber and Baleen to Buddha of the Deep: The Rise of the Metaphysical Whale.” Society and Animals 20(1):91–108.

3. C. Philo (2011). Discursive life. In: Del Casino, V.J., Thomas, M., Cloke, P. and Panelli, R. (eds.) A Companion to Social Geography. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 362-384. 

2.2 We Eat Them: Evaluating the Politics of Animal Consumption.  

A/V: S. Osawa. 2000. ‘“Usual and Accustomed Places”   

1. L. Beldo (2019). “We Eat Them.” Contesting Leviathan: Activist, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict. Chicago UP.   

2. R-C. Collard (2020). “An Act of Cutting” from Animal Traffic. Duke University Press. 

3. A. Brierley and P. Clapham (2016). “Japan’s Whaling Is Unscientific.” Nature 529:283.

4. S. Longo, R. Clausen, and B. Clark (2015(. The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.  

Section III:  Music, Noise and Communication: Whales and Environmental Culture

4.1 Acoustic Cetology: Or, how does Medium Matter?

1. John Ford. 1987. ” A catalogue of underwater calls produced by killer whales (Orcinus orca) in British Columbia.” Canadian Data Report on Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

2. G. Bateson 1974. “Problems in Cetacean and Other Mammalian Communication.” Steps to An Ecology of Mind. Chicago.

3. JD. Peters. 2015. “Of Ships and Cetaceans.” The Marvelous Clouds. Chicago.

4.2 Signal Traffic: Humpback Whales and Noise  

A/V: Sonic Sea. 2018. National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Link provided.

1. M. Jasny (1999). “Sounding the Depths: The Hidden Costs

2. M. Ritts (2017). “Amplifying Environmental Politics: Ocean Noise.” Antipode 54 (3). 

3. M. Axtell (2009). ” “Bioacoustical Warfare: Winter v. NRDC and False Choices Between Wildlife and Technology in U.S. Waters,” 72/3 The Minnesota Review 205-218 

4.3 Tourism and Whales: Making Maritime Commodities.   

A/V: ‘Free Willy’ (1993) 

1. S. Davis. 1997. “Another World: Theme Parks and Nature” in Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience. University of California Press. 

3 R. Hawkins and J. Silver. 2016. “From selfie to #sealfie: Nature 2.0 and the digital cultural politics of an internationally contested resource.”

3. M. Goodman. 2013. Celebritus Politicus, Neo-liberal Sustainabilities and the Terrains of Care. Contemporary Icons: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberal Capitalism. U of T Press.  

Section IV: Protest, Conservation, and Difference 

4.1 Conservation I: Unseen Impacts  

1. N. Castree, N. & G. Henderson. 2014. “The capitalist mode of conservation, neoliberalism and the ecology of value.” New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, 7 (1), 16-37.

2.  J. Lehman (2020). “The Technopolitics of Ocean Sensing” in Blue Legalities. Duke University Press.

3.  Z. Korosy (2020). “Whales and the Colonization of the Pacific Ocean.” in Blue Legalities. Duke University Press.

4.2 Melting Arctic Ice: Bowheads as Sentries?

A/V: “Listening On Ice: Bowhead Whales and Clark’s Redoubt.” Sensate 

1. J. Burns et al. (1981) “Ice as Marine Mammal Habitat in the Bearing Sea” The Eastern Bearing Sea Shelf: Oceanography and Resources Volume 2.

2. M. Druckenmiller et al. (2018). Trends in sea-ice cover within bowhead whale habitats in the Pacific Arctic. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography

3. L. Johnson (2010). The fearful symmetry of Arctic climate change: accumulation by degradation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 (5), 828-847, 

4.3 Conservation II: Triage Spaces

1. R. Williams et al. (2015) ” Quiet(er) marine protected areas”

2. R. Collard (2018) Disaster Capitalism and the Quick, Quick, Slow Unravelling of Animal Life.” Antipode 52/

3. S. Sullivan (2018) “On possibilities for salvaged polyphonic ecologies in a ruined world” Dialogues in Human Geography 8 (1), 69-72

4.4 Whales and Indigenous Marine Stewardship I – Humpbacks in Hawai’i

A/V: Sonic Sea (2018). National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Link provided.

1. M. Ritts and S. Wiebe (2020) “The story of Wānanalua: Stranded whales and contested marine sovereignties in Hawai‘i” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space

2. L. Beldo (2019). “Stock morality: Whalers, activists, and the power of the state in the Makah whaling conflict” American Ethnologist, 

3.  L. Pulido (2004). The Sacredness of “Mother Earth”: Spirituality, Activism, and Social Justice. Dialogues in Human Geography

4.5 Whales and Indigenous Marine Stewardship II – Humpbacks in the Tsimshean Sea

Zoom: Live Presentation/Conservation with Gitga’at Marine Whale Researcher

No readings today: Come prepared with five questions to ask (as per assignment page). And be prepared to listen! 

Section V: Whales and Environmental Futurities

5.1 ‘Pipeline Killer Whales? Cetaceans and Protest Movements 

1. J. Carr J; T. Milstein (2018).  ‘Keep Burning Coal or the Manatee Gets It: Rendering the Carbon Economy Invisible through Endangered Species Protection’, Antipode, vol. 50, pp. 82 – 100,

2. S. Sullivan (2016). Beyond the money shot; or how framing nature matters? Locating Green at Wildscreen. Journal of Environmental Communications 10(6): 749-762, Special issue entitled ‘Spectacular Environmentalisms/Environments’. 

3.  R. Lacy et al. (2016). Report on Population Viability Analysis model investigations of threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whale population from Trans Mountain Expansion Project . Prepared for the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings reviewing Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Expansion project 

5.2 Conservation by Algorithm? How Big Data and animals compute..

A/V: Google’s Pattern Radio (  

1. W. Adams (2018). Geographies of conservation II: Technology, surveillance and conservation by algorithm. Progress in Human Geography

2. J. Gabrys (2019). Sensors and Sensing Practices: Reworking Experience across Entities, Environments, and Technologies  

3. M. Thums et al. (2018). How Big Data Fast Tracked Human Mobility Research and the Lessons for Animal Movement Ecology. Frontiers in Marine Science.

5.3 Radical Care vs. Eco-Cyncism: What would it mean to really care (like: really care) about whales?

1. S. Sullivan (2019) Towards a metaphysics of the soul and a participatory aesthetics of life: mobilising Foucault, affect and animism for caring practices of existence. New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory & Politics 95(3): 5-21.

2. N. Clarke (2020). ‘Primordial Wounds’: Resilience, Trauma, and the Rifted Body of the Earth” in Resilience in the Anthropocene Governance and Politics at the End of the World. Routledge

3. B. Gibson (2020). “On Knowing the Winged Whale” Hakai Magazine. online.  

5.4 Conclusion: The Futures of Whales

1. Share and discuss paper topics (see: assignment page).

2. In-class assignment, Part II: write a second analysis of the selected example. Share. 

3. Final themes. 

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: