Karen Bakker

1971 - 2023

Photo of Karen Bakker

On August 14, 2023, geography lost a vital voice, Dr. Karen Bakker. She was a professor at the Department of Geography at University of British Columbia since 2002, having earned her Ph.D. at Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She leaves an astonishing record of achievement: as Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study 2022-3; as recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship 2022, a SSHRC Connection Award and Trudeau Fellowship in 2017; and as Stanford University’s Annenberg Fellow in Communication, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars. She is the author of more than 100 academic publications and seven books.

In 2005, she was recognized with the AAG Glenda Laws Award for her uncompromising commitment to advance understandings of the nature of governance, the significance of natural resources, and the importance of distributive justice in contemporary societies. She organized many panels and presentations at AAG meetings, particularly on the topic of water governance. She also supervised more than 30 graduate students and postdocs, secured funding for indigenous scholars in the department, and oversaw the work of scores of undergraduate students.

In recent years, Dr. Bakker brought her geographical fascinations with environmental perception and scientific world-making to the realm of sound. In The Sounds of Life (Princeton 2021), she builds a prismatic portrait of planetary ecology through the medium of chirps, buzzes, and low cetacean moans. The book garnered immediate critical acclaim, including from the very scientists it featured. It also reaches a broad public through her April 2023 TED Talk. Her next book, Gaia’s Web, (upcoming with MIT Press), explores how interconnected digital and natural networks will impact biodiversity conservation, environmental governance, and cultivate greater empathy for other species. Both books drew from her Smart Earth Project seeking to mobilize digital technologies to address some of the most pressing challenges of the Anthropocene.

Karen Bakker will be remembered too, for her fierce public engagement. She founded the Program on Water Governance at UBC, where she produced insightful analysis about the environmental, social and economic impacts of large dams like Site C and on a range of critical issues including water security, water privatization, Indigenous water sovereignty, and the human right to water. Research results from these studies have circulated widely in the media, and connected diverse academic, policy, and practitioner worlds.

At UBC, and in the community, Dr. Bakker was an outspoken advocate for equity issues, leading the pay equity process as the Chair of the Faculty Association Status of Women committee. She also frequently engaged local politicians on social and environmental issues of concern to the community — hosting meet-the-candidate nights and engaging in debate on key issues.

The faculty and staff of UBC has said, “We will remember Karen as multi-faceted and superbly talented in all realms. Writing, speaking, researching, or chatting about any topic imaginable, Karen always had interesting things to say and could offer incisive commentary and engaged banter — whether it be about cooking, gardening, stand up paddle boarding, or the local food cart scene in Vancouver. Indeed, alongside her academic pursuits she authored award winning books about feeding children healthful food under her nom de plume Karen Le Billon.”

Dr. Bakker was a committed mother, partner, and friend who transformed fields of knowledge related to water governance, neoliberal natures, and digital environmentalism. She also transformed those who worked alongside her. Her immense energy, passion, and intellect will be dearly missed. We join the UBC faculty in its statement, “We grieve together with her family, friends, and all the communities of which she was a part.”

This remembrance draws deeply from “Remembering Karen Bakker” on the University of British Columbia website, and is used with modifications and permissions from Dr. Bakker’s partner Phillip Le Billon.