Mourning Becomes California, or New Reflections on Slow Shakespeare

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

Some years ago, I published an essay in a forum on Shakespeare and Ecology, arguing that historical work in the early modern period could assist the science of ecology, a science that studies populations of organisms.1  The reason our historical work might assist the ecologists is that one significant problem for them is “the shifting baseline syndrome,” a problem that was forcefully noted in a 1996 academic journal by the prominent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, Daniel Pauly, and subsequently by him in fora aimed at laypeople (e.g., a 2012 Ted Talk and a 2010 talk to the Slyvia Earle Alliance).  In 1996, Pauly wrote that

each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.2

(We have our own problem with a shifting baseline, the weirdly a-historical nature of our historicist criticism, for example.  About fifteen years ago, an ambitious graduate student at a prominent university explained to me—I’m paraphrasing—“we were told not to bother reading criticism published before 1980.”3  When I was a new assistant professor, a senior colleague told me that if my work wasn’t cited within five years, it never would be. That, thankfully, turned out to be incorrect.)

For a number of reasons easily hypothesized by all, few commentators, whether scholars or journalists, address the scientific question of populations, specifically human populations, another shifting baseline we perhaps ought to heed.  It’s refreshing, therefore, to read, as I did recently in Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “What Were Dinosaurs For?,” that “[w]e’re now in the midst of another mass extinction, driven by the global proliferation of humans (7.7 billion and counting) and our frenzied economic activity.”4 An asteroid killed off the dinosaurs and the vibrant ecosystems in which they lived.  We are doing it to ourselves and the vibrant ecosystems that have sustained us. It my desire in this post to flesh out Klinkenborg’s sentence by reflecting on my return to the state of my birth, California, after living elsewhere for almost three decades.  Mourning becomes California: I first wrote the following in the fall of 2019, as fires raged in northern California. Today, COVID-19 rages across my state and the world, another ecological disaster, the result of (too many) people exploiting animals through habitat removal and urbanization, as well as through the hunting and consumption of exotic animals.  

In the autumn of 1987, when the population of California was about 28 million, I left Berkeley, CA for the deep south of the United States, for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I took up an assistant professorship in the Department of English at the university there.  Born and bred in California, loving my state, the air, the light, oceans, mountains, really the breath and breadth of the place—all made leaving difficult.  But I wanted the job, a research job, even if I had to move 2000 miles to a part of the country that humanist academics disdained and still do, though with somewhat less vehemence.  Even if I had to move to the hot, humid sub-tropics, whose fecundity shocked.  Whose trees strangled. Whose topography lulled.  Whose tornadoes and hurricanes killed.  Whose mosquitoes might, carrying viruses in their bites, moving northward—West Nile, Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya.

Leaving was difficult, and I was certain I would never return to live in the beautiful, alluring state of my birth, childhood, and young adulthood.  The cost-of-living would always be out of reach, I thought, the houses in beckoning metro areas too, too expensive for a humanist to keep up, working as I was in a poor state’s flagship institution.

Twenty-nine years later, in late summer 2016, when the population of the state was 39 million, I returned to Berkeley, looking for a home to buy. I’d run the numbers over and over; I’d consulted with the wealth managers; I could do it!  And you know what they say about returning to one’s roots, to home, to the embrace of place, so familiar and kind, known. The sun emerging from the coastal fog, energizing my body as it did long ago. The water, the bridges, Mount Tamalpais in the distance. This time, with money to spend on dinners in the new gleaming restaurants of San Francisco or in the foodie temple in Berkeley, Chez Panisse.

But the air, the light, the breath of the place wasn’t quite the same.  Berkeley was dry to the eye and the touch: lawns brown; trees gasping, dull, dying. Dirt and trash lined the streets, urine and feces sometimes, too. Unhoused people staggered about, pushing grocery carts or baby strollers (without babies). Or they hunched on their haunches at intersections, begging, dying.  RVs lined streets; tents formed little cities; fires broke out and fights, too. The income inequality (worse than Alabama’s); the failing public schools (when I was a child, among the best in the country, but now not much better than Alabama’s); and the decaying infrastructure (Alabama’s might be better; Berkeley’s streets remind me of New Orleans’s). The light can’t redeem these sights. 

In late autumn 2019, with the population up another million, a fire burned uncontrollably 80 miles north of my home, smoke seeping visibly toward Mount Tamalpais and the Golden Gate, obscuring, gasping.  Last year a fire engulfed a small mountain town called Paradise; the year before that, an entire neighborhood or two in the city of Santa Rosa. And before that…others. This time, upwards of two million people lost electricity, hundreds of thousands for the second time in a month, as the electric utility pursued what it calls a Public Safety Power Shutoff.  And the utility informs us that this will be the norm for at least a decade to come.

It’s silly to think a particular year can be a turning point, but I am not the only one to arrive in the East Bay in 2016, shocked at what the place has become. In the December 2019 issue of Harper’s, Wes Enzinna describes his return to Oakland in 2016 after an absence of eight years, not quite as long as my absence but long enough.  “Gimme Shelter: The cost of living in the Bay Area” describes his struggle to find housing with a disposable income of about $1500 per month: 

After nearly a month of looking for a place to live, I got a text from [my friend] Jenny: “Would you consider a shack?”. . . . It was smaller than a closet . . . and illegal to inhabit, but if I was willing to seal it against the elements and finish construction, I could rent it for $240 per month. I said yes without visiting.5

Enzinna’s shack and the homeless camps around it are about 3 miles from my condo in Berkeley.  The cover of that issue of Harper’s features “illuminated tents erected by artist-activist Suzi Garner and members of the #WhereDoWeGoBerk movement at a homeless encampment alongside Interstate 80 near Berkeley, California.”6 “Where Do We Go?” the tents ask as you exit the interstate to go up the hill to the University of California, three miles away.  And as you exit to go to my residence, less than one mile away.  My wife and I ask the same question, “Where Do We Go?”  

In nine years, the population of California is expected to nudge 44 million.  That’s one year before 2030, the year of the climate’s point of no return according to some.  In 2050, the population is expected to be 60 million.  And all this after the population of California almost tripled in the latter half of the twentieth century. When I was born, in 1955, the state’s population was around 10 million.

What happened?  One may point fingers at Republicans or Democrats or capitalists or migrant workers or Proposition 13, but the numbers, the numbers of people tell the story.  (And if you don’t believe me, ask Donna Haraway.7) Servicing the needs and desires of Californians and Americans are three of the busiest container ship ports in the country, in Los Angeles, in Long Beach, and in Oakland.  In southern California, the two ports spew huge amounts of nitrous oxide into the region and efforts at control struggle to keep up, because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “At stake . . . are billions of dollars in potential costs at the nation’s busiest seaport, which handles roughly 40% of U.S. imports and remains overwhelmingly powered by diesel-spewing trucks, ships, locomotives and cargo-handling equipment. The volume of shipments moving through the two ports has more than tripled since the mid-1990s, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.”8 

Cars, computers, phones, diapers, rubber ducks, plastic straws, yurts for glamping, umbrellas for pina coladas, vinyl for trendy albums, the cast-off task chairs the homeless gobble from the streets. Everything, almost. But those needs and desires aren’t just ours; we consume so that perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese may do so, too, may desire and need and spend just as we do.  Or desire and need and spend somewhat differently, for rhino horn, civet cat, or bats, because, as Chinese food researcher Zhenzhong Si observed in an interview on National Public Radio in late January:

Eating wild animal is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. And wild animals is also considered more natural and, thus, nutritious, compared to farmed meat. It’s a belief in traditional Chinese medicine that it can boost the immune system, you know?  

Si acknowledges that in China, “It’s really difficult to change the mindset of, you know, eating wild animals is better than eating farmed animals,”9 but changing mindsets about wet markets may be less of a challenge than changing ecocritics’ mindsets about the elephant in the room, the human population, the third rail of environmental action, which ecology as a science demands to be studied, its costs and benefits. Instead the city of Berkeley bans plastic straws and Alice Waters takes meat off the prix fixe menu at Chez Panisse one day a week.  Baby steps, one might say, they are so important!  But 250 actual babies are born every minute of every day.  And they will grow up to consume and consume and consume some more. Many of us dream that populations can continue to grow without economic growth driven by fossil fuels.  The first few months of 2020 should cast doubt on that proposition: air pollution and carbon emissions are dropping precipitously world-wide—in China, in India, in Europe, in the United States, as numerous news sites report. The skies around Berkeley are beautiful, clearer than in decades, perhaps.  But in Berkeley, as around the world, few people are working: unemployment is rising as precipitously as pollution and emissions are dropping.  As the shutdown continues more and more small businesses—restaurants, bars, small retail shops—will fail; more and people will become homeless, more and more children will fall behind in their studies; more and more people will die from ancillary medical causes, the heart valve or brain tumor that isn’t fixed.  My point is not that the shutdown is unnecessary; it is.  My point is that the COVID-19 shows that the sorts of economic change a lot of us wish for—degrowth or no growth—comes with a price.  And as the Gilets Jaunes demonstrated last year in France, the mass of people struggle to pay it. 

We know that our highly mobile and globalized economic system will produce more pandemics;  there’s “a huge reservoir of virus strains in other mammals (1,200 bat species alone, one of which may have given us SARS-CoV-2).”10 Si observes that changing the mindsets of his fellow citizens is difficult.  But we do have opportunity now to change the ways we live. In fact, we (dare I call us the winners in our globalized world?) can lead. The global economy has come to a screeching halt; travel has, too. It is difficult for most of my readers to imagine what material life was like in the early 1970s—my baseline, shall we say, even more than the 1980s.  Life without plastic—cf. The Graduate—or consumer credit or interstates (to speak of) or the Shakespeare Association of America or neoliberal capitalism or MDs who bartered, sometimes, with craftspeople so that they could pay their bills.  Difficult to imagine, in California today, what life was like with half the population, a time when Population Connection (what does that mean?) was Zero Population Growth (we know what that means).  But my baseline, that of 40 or 50 years ago, may have new relevance: life was slower, more local, and education was too.  Higher education was regional, barely national, and certainly not international.  Professors weren’t professionalized, making professional salaries; “publish or perish” wasn’t a phrase; and CVs weren’t twenty pages long.  Two campuses of the University of California—Irvine, and Santa Cruz—opened only in 1965. After the pandemic, it is already clear, globalization will loosen, though not break.  Will performing arts or sport return in their current globalized forms?  Will businesses, including universities, return to long-distance travel for meetings or for research? Will ecologically-minded people question travel in any form? Think how quiet the world is now, and how much time we have for reflection. With reflection and changes in our lifestyles, perhaps a new baseline will emerge for the young some years down the road, one very much different from the one they inhabited just a few months ago. Perhaps a new baseline will emerge, in which people, including scholars, are rooted in the local and engage more slowly and cautiously and generously—less competitively, consuming less—with their environment, including animals and their fellow humans.  The new baseline won’t be a significantly lower global population, but it might include an understanding that nature has given us yet another warning to slow down, before a worse, more deadly virus emerges, or the icecaps melt. Slow Shakespeare.11


[1] O’Dair, Sharon. “‘To fright the animals and to kill them up’: Shakespeare and Ecology.” Forum: Shakespeare and Ecology.  Shakespeare Studies 39.  Ed. Susan Zimmerman and Garrett Sullivan. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011, 74-83.  

[2] Pauley, Daniel. “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 10 (1995): 430. 

[3] For a call for to historicize post-1980s criticism, see Albanese, Denise. “Identification, Alienation and ‘Hating the Renaissance’.”  Ed. Sharon O’Dair and Timothy Francisco.  Shakespeare and the 99% Literary Studies, the Profession, and the Production of Inequity.  New York: Palgrave, 2019, 19-36.

[4] Klinkenborg, Verlyn.  What Were Dinosaurs For?” The New York Review of Books (December 19, 2019):

[5] Enzinna, Wes. “Gimme Shelter: The cost of living in the Bay Area.” Harper’s Magazine (December 2019): 27.

[6] Harper’s Magazine (December 2019): 1.

[7] See Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 99-103.  See, too, her follow-up, “Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice.” Making Kin Not Population. Ed. Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway.  Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018, 67-99.

[8] Barboza, Tony.  “Port ships are becoming L.A.’s biggest polluters. Will California force a cleanup?” Los Angeles Times (January 3, 2020):

[9] “Why ‘Wet Markets’ Persisted In China Despite Disease And Hygiene Concerns.” National Public Radio (January 22, 2020):

[10] Boudry, Maarten.  “A strange paradox: the better we manage to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the less we will learn from it.” The Conversation (April 2, 2020):

See also the just-released study by UC Davis’ One Health Institute.  Johnson, Christine K., “Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (8 April 2020):  For a news release about the study, see Kerlin, Kat, “The Link Between Virus Spillover, Wildlife Extinction and the Environment” (April 7, 2020):

[11] I was an early promoter of slowing down the profession.  See these three essays, for example, from 2008: “Slow Shakespeare; An Eco-Critique of ‘Method’ in Early Modern Literary Studies.” Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare. Ed. Ivo Kamps, Karen Raber, and Thomas Hallock. Palgrave, 2008. 1-30; “The State of the Green: A Review Essay on Shakespearean Ecocriticism.” Shakespeare 4.4 (December 2008): 474-492; and “Virtually There:  Shakespeare and Tourism in the 21st Century.”  Upstart Crow 27 (2008): 5-23.  I have continued to urge this, as I do in this piece.

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