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11 January 2023

Karen Bakker Q&A: “I am insatiably curious about Earth’s long-term future”

The environmental researcher on the heroism of Simone Veil, AI art, and the unacknowledged threat of noise pollution.

By New Statesman

Karen Bakker was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1971 and is a professor at the University of British Columbia. She is a researcher of digital innovation and environmental governance.

What’s your earliest memory?

Convincing my sister to sneak out of our house after dark and go to the local park to play. We must have been four and five years old. We were in our pyjamas and she had this toy dog on a string that barked as we walked. Woof, woof, woof, to the park.

Who are your heroes?

As a child it was my elder cousin, Michelle. As a teenager, she walked several hundred miles in sub-zero temperatures in northern Canada to protest nuclear testing. She died tragically, quite young, in an accident, so she is a special person for me. As an adult, my heroes are the front-line environmental land-defenders: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Berta Cáceres, Fikile Ntshangase. They were all killed in response to their defence of their homes.

[See also: Juliet Davenport’s Q&A: “We humans have a lemming tendency”]

What book last changed your thinking?

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her writing is grounding, and her concept of plants as persons is revolutionary.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Simone Veil. She was a Holocaust survivor, of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, who became active in politics in France: she was the federal health minister. Then she became the first woman president of the European Parliament. Hers is an amazing story of resilience.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Environmental science: the myriad wonders of the Earth.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

One billion years from now, when Earth becomes uninhabitable due to the sun’s expansion. I want to know: will humanity still exist on Earth? What will we do, as our birth planet succumbs? I’m insatiably curious about the long-term future.

What TV show could you not live without?

Black Mirror. I love its prescience.

Who would paint your portrait?

DALL-E 2, an AI system that creates realistic images and art from a description in natural language. You might say: “Middle-aged blonde woman named Karen.” Of course, it could be awful!

[See also: David Shrigley Q&A: “I’m getting weak in my old age. I should start lifting weights”]

What’s your theme tune?

“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”.

What’s currently bugging you?

Noise pollution. It is the major unacknowledged environmental and human health threat of our time.

What single thing would make your life better?

More time.

When were you happiest?

At the births of my two daughters.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

In the novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, the ministry is an organisation whose job is to address climate. Its constituents are those not yet born. The head of the organisation is Mary Murphy; I would be her.

Are we all doomed?

I didn’t like this question. Even if we are doomed, I try to resist despair. As Antonio Gramsci wrote from prison, we need pessimism of the intellect combined with optimism of the will. And, I would add, playfulness of the imagination.

“The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants” by Karen Bakker is published by Princeton University Press

[See also: Kate Lee’s Q&A: “People are surprised by how ruthlessly commercial I am”]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor