What is the political ecology of the gray whale? Is it somehow related to NAFTA and/or the making and unmaking of borders?

An understanding of the current conditions affecting the gray whale requires an understanding of the various actors and agencies involved in the gray whale’s ecology. No longer is it conceivable to assess organic matter solely within the context of the ecological environment, for as humans have indelibly altered global ecologies, all assessments must include an analysis that equally addresses the political conditions affecting an organism’s ecology. Citing Eric Wolf (1972) in Reimagining Political Ecology: Culture/Power/History/Nature, Aletta Biersack (2006) describes the term political ecology as the ways in which power relations mediate human-environment relations (3). Because reality, in our ecosphere, is constructed through discourse, political ecology addresses “the intersection of the symbolic and the material” (22), placing power at the center of analysis (3). As Biersack states, “in bringing actors and agency within its framework, today’s political ecology inevitably incorporates consciousness, ideology, and meaning and the relationship between these and material life into its study” (22). As discourse and signification construct reality, political ecology is concerned with “the relationship between symbols and physical constraints” (Biersack 13), the by-product of which is referred to as “second nature, social nature, and humanized nature”; or nature that is “after nature” as Escobar (1999a) describes (cited in Biersack 2006, 13).

In Closing the “Great Divide”: New Social Theory on Society and Nature, Michael Goldman and Rachel A. Schurman (2000) further argue that political ecology aids in theorizing our understanding of: (1) the material and symbolic aspects of environmental struggles; (2) the discursive practices which embody power relations; and (3) the exploitation of land for capital in the industrialized North (Goldman and Schurman 2000, 568). The constellation of political economic and bio-ecological forces which combine to form the political ecology of the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale therefore involves numerous actors, both past and present. Key players include: the indigenous peoples and colonial settlers of North America; contemporary locals along the Pacific coast; government policymakers of Canada, the United States, and Mexico; local fishermen; industrial players; corporate capitalists; and foreign tourists. In addition, the political ecology of the gray whale also includes other organic actors such as the killer whales that feed upon young baleen whales, and the crustaceans upon which the gray whale feeds on the ocean floor. Factors and outputs of industrialization also threaten the gray whale’s existence in the biosphere, further impacting the gray whale’s political ecology.

As Philllip J. Clapham et. al. (1999) argue in Baleen whales: conservation issues and the status of the most endangered populations, the most significant of these industrial factors include: container ships and other high speed ocean traffic, which cause strikes leading to injury or death; oil spills, causing environmental pollution; shoreline development, which leads to habitat degradation; fishing lines, which cause entrapment, injury, starvation, and death; and harassment of gray whales by tourist boats, which disrupt the large mammals’ reproductive habits, especially during breading season (35-40). Each of these factors present significant ecological problems impacting the gray whale in the age of capital, which Jason W. Moore (2014) defines as the capitalocene, “a world-ecology, joining the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the co-production of nature in dialectical unity” (1).

Within this meshwork, or field of interwoven lines (see Ingold 2007a, 80; Ingold 2008, 1805), the gray whale cannot be viewed as separate or distinct from the human species, according to prior notions of a nature-culture distinction. Rather, the gray whale species is more effectively understood within the relational field (Ingold 2008, 1805), or framework of, a nature-culture hybrid, or, as Goldman and Schurman (2000) identify, “people, organisms, and things that are more complex than the distinctions between human and nonhuman suggest” (578). Nature and culture are reciprocal (Biersack 2006, 4), and as such, physical and symbolic constraints penetrate both human and non-human boundaries. The porosity of ocean-air and ocean-land boundaries complicate human-whale boundaries, especially within regions no longer autonomous but now subject to the demands of capital. Understanding the gray whale within such relational dynamics, or what Biersack (2006) calls “the dynamics of local-global articulations” (4-5), allows deeper insights into the gray whale’s political ecology, particularly via an assessment of places as individual “nodes within relational fields” or “sites of local-global articulation” (see Biersack 1999b, 81; Biersack 2006, 16). As Biersack (2006) states, “place is both local and relational” and, therefore, “fundamentally intermediary” (16-17).

Employing Biersack’s approach to tracking (2006) in my study of the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale’s migration pattern, an examination of whale watching tour videos reveals both the porosity of human-whale, ocean-air, land-ocean, and geo-political boundaries as humans follow, observe, engage and interact with whales along their migratory pattern along the Pacific coast of North America. These relationships are examined through user generated content uploaded to YouTube, which I have traced via Google Maps, in order of location, along the gray whale’s migratory route. This approach enables a view of the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale’s political ecology at the physical and symbolic level along relational nodes, as local-global articulations (Biersack 2006, 4-5). From the Bering Strait along Alaska, to the Baja peninsula of Mexico, the porosity of political-ecological borders is evident, particularly given the dynamics of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Whale watching tours provide educational opportunities and symbolic connections to our mammalian cousins, yet also highlight and obscure the gray whale’s political ecology. As Martin O’Connor (1993; cited in Goldman and Schurman 2000) argues, formerly noncapitalist realms in the biophysical world, or nature, become construed as reservoirs and stocks of “capital” (567). While NAFTA opened new business development opportunities for whale watching tours in gray whale breeding regions, new forms of commerce appeared. Yet these enterprises benefit neither the whale and its environment, nor the local communities, but rather multinational corporations who gain access to these regions through now-porous borders open to capitalist enterprise. Thus, whereas the gray whale was once hunted to near-extinction, the gray whale now returns to its status as a commodity, albeit for tracking, observation, and interaction, rather than mass hunting for oil resource extraction. As Goldman and Schurman (2000) state, “because ecological (and social) problems traverse conceptual, geographic, and species boundaries, human membranes as well as cultures […] social analysis must follow them wherever they lead” (578).


For an analysis of inter-species placemaking in the political ecology of the gray whale, please see The Politics of Place Making and Biodiversity Conservation (next page).


Works Cited:

Aletta Biersack (2006) Reimagining Political Ecology: Culture/Power/History/Nature

Michael Goldman and Rachel A. Schurman (2000) Closing the “Great Divide” New Social Theory on Society and Nature

Philllip J. Clapham et. al. (1999) Baleen whales: conservation issues and the status of the most endangered populations

Ingold, Tim (2008) Bindings against boundaries: entanglements of life in an open world

Jason W. Moore (2014) The Capitalocene Part 1: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis