Rebecca Baker: September 2021 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for September 2021 is Rebecca “Baker” Baker. 

Rebecca “Baker” Baker (they/she) is an English PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They are broadly interested in cultural constructions of speculative scientific discourses – including science fiction – with a focus on decolonial worldbuilding, climate justice, multispecies ecologies, and radical utopian imaginaries. Their work is situated at the intersections of the environmental humanities, contemporary science fiction, critical infrastructure studies, and feminist STS; their current project focuses speculative, anti-imperialist human futures in space travel, exploration, and colonization.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities?

I have always been keenly interested in the natural world. I grew up in rural Washington State and, as a child, taking long walks through the evergreen forest was my saving grace from the noisy intensity of day-to-day life. I trained myself to identify the animals, birdcalls, trees, and plants that I saw around me, and would often disappear in the woods for hours at a time with sci-fi and fantasy novels from our smalltown library, dreaming of the stories that I might write – or live – when I grew up. As I got older and went to college, I found myself torn between pursuing a degree in field biology or in English literature – two fields that seemed completely and mutually exclusive to me at the time! Eventually – in no small part due to my love of teaching and of immersing myself in speculative storyworlds – I chose the latter. However, I never lost my fascination for the delicate balance of cycles, the endless adaptive variations of life in its many forms, and the close, and careful observation that blurs the boundaries of self – something like awe and humility in equal parts – that accompanies the study of ecosystems and nature.

When I began my PhD in 2015, I had no idea that “the environmental humanities” even existed- I had a vague idea about “ecocriticism” being some sort of Thoreau-esque nature poetry but, lacking any real perspective, this did not seem interesting or appealing. Like most endeavors that eventually shape the course of my life, after much ontological wandering I eventually came at the environmental humanities “sideways” – through a series of other discourses, a confluence of special interests, and serendipitous encounters with clever books and human beings who were able to suggest a paradigm shift in my thinking. I had been struggling to reconcile my burgeoning interests in Science and Technology Studies (STS), speculative and science fiction, postcolonial studies, social justice, the history of science and technology, queer theory, cognitive science, the digital humanities, interactive media, American race and ethnic studies, Marxism, Critical Infrastructure Studies (…I know, I know!), etc., into something resembling an actual project for my dissertation prospectus – the poor thing underwent wholescale metamorphoses several times in the process! Suddenly, a bricolage of conversations I had, seminar papers I’d read and written, and scholars that I admire all clicked together into a pattern, a bit like a kaleidoscope shifting into focus.

I realized what had been staring me in the face this whole time was the fact that the environmental humanities, in various capacities, provided an umbrella structure for all of these things. Since environmental humanities discourse is deeply interdisciplinary, often pedagogically-focused, and at times even public-facing, I also see it as a praxis-oriented field which draws strength from its heterogeneity, in addition to being committed to making a positive difference in the world, outside the rarefied ivory tower. As a first gen college student from a low-income background, this last part is perhaps the most important of all. I was finally able to come full circle and reconcile the old split between “two cultures” that my undergraduate self had chosen so long ago, recognizing it as a false binary in need of a serious update. An in a way, I suppose that is what I am trying to do!

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

It is always so difficult to name a “favorite” in these circumstances! I suppose that my favorite environmental text right now – and this changes often – would probably be an even split between Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide and, for different reasons, Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering.

Waste Tide is a science fiction novel set in the not-too-distant future in midst of China’s e-waste and plastics recycling industry. It brilliantly narrativizes the excruciatingly complex, tangled webs of how climate devastation and extractive capitalist greed go hand-in-hand, making it impossible to separate one from the other. In so doing, it looks askance at top-down, “technology as panacea” solutions to climate change, while nevertheless acknowledging the centrality of technology to any form of active resistance against networks of entrenched capitalist power, a toxin-saturated ocean and Earth, and rising greenhouse gas emissions. It also actively deconstructs the notion of recycling and waste management as inherently good by exposing the hypocrisy at the core of corporate monetization of these endeavors, which perpetuates the very exploitation it claims to mitigate through its use of precarious, abusive gig labor in which human bodies become oddly conflated with the garbage they sort. It emphasizes the deep complexity of the issues at hand (there is nothing “simple” about the Anthropocene), while nevertheless theorizing systemic yet localized change, restorative climate justice from the standpoint of worker empowerment and grassroots solutions.

After Geoengineering is another book that recognizes the dialectic entanglements of capitalist exploitation and human-caused climate change. The book itself is a hybrid of speculative short fictions, journalism on the current state of climate governance/activism, and public science writing discussing several carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies /strategies being currently proposed in the service of mitigating climate change. In contrast to some environmental scholars, Buck argues that implementing biotechnical, large-scale CCS technologies is likely crucial to averting wholescale disaster, but are far from an easy workaround. Rather, these emerging technologies must be deeply informed by climate justice, and the sustained cultural labor of these difficult, deeply contingent conversations is likely to be even more challenging than developing the technologies themselves. Nevertheless, science and culture have a feedback effect on one another – informing public views on CCS and climate change (which tend toward being uncritically technophilic or technophobic), along with a general shift away from narratives of “conquering” the crisis and toward the moral obligation of repairing damage, are conversations that must take place – on an ever-widening scale – if we are to implement truly systemic change. Part of why I like this book is that it rejects cynicism and climate despair as luxuries that environmental activists simply cannot afford, and instead – rather pragmatically – theorizes what it would mean to seize the means of “climate narrative” production.

What are you currently working on?

My dissertation project explores speculative narratives of space travel, colonization, and exploration from an environmental humanities, STS, and Critical Infrastructure point of view. More specifically, I seek to trace and examine the deeply entwined (infra)structures of colonialism, capitalism, uncritical positivism, and the uneasy tension between utopia and dystopia within the narratives we frame surrounding “the future” in space, while at the same time identifying writers, thinkers, and activists who utilize speculative fictions to retool these dominant narratives in the service of environmental repair, restorative justice, and anti-hegemonic futures

All too often – by accident as well as design – the heady discourses surrounding human futures in space merely become extensions of the “frontier” mentality; the mythos of infinite surplus, exploration-as-conquest, rugged individualism, and technological determinism that characterize the current state of our world, and the Global North in particular. Additionally, the fact that these imagined futures are written from within the crisis-laden context of the contemporary Anthropocene, I argue, matters deeply in terms of the parameters they are able to envision; the positionality afforded by the author and her lifeworld both enables and constrains that which is considered plausible, possible, desirable, terrifying, or downright absurd. But how are creative thinkers mis-using or creatively adapting these delimiting parameters of fear, stagnation, and crisis, in order to narratively co-opt and repurpose the infrastructures of power in the service of decolonial, anticapitalist futures? Science fiction and speculative science may serve the interests of power, but it can also open space for hope, alternative realisms, and productive uncertainty from within power’s cracks and interstices. It is possible – though not easy – to imagine speculative futures in space where we decide to do things differently, shaping and changing our lifeworlds, built environments, and politics towards sustainability, equitability, and respect for the entanglements of ecology and culture. These stories, in turn, can bring a powerful alternative to bear with regard to the world we already inhabit, to the ongoing scholarship, activist, and cultural work that seeks to foster critical hope. These science-fictional worlds can work toward imagining robust alternatives to the capitalist modes of exploitative extraction and settler-colonial conquest, rejecting both eco-despair and the ostensible ‘end of history’ in the process.

Imagining a speculative future that you may never see takes time, energy, and meticulous attention to both quantitative and qualitative detail. It is easiest – but rarely wise – to simply adopt the heuristics and underlying structures of knowledge at hand as a baseline for new technological innovations and expansions of “business as usual.” But speculative futures – and science fiction in particular – can do the work of constructing the social frameworks necessary for new paradigms of thought and possibility; speculative narrative becomes a sort of cognitive cultural workspace, a technology in its own right that helps people navigate out of the double-binds of the status quo.

The question – I hasten to add – is not whether we ought somehow to contort ourselves into imagining an ethical form of offworld colonialism where we “do it right” this time; rather, I posit that speculative extraterrestrial futures open a critical space for accepting strangeness and estrangement, projecting forward rather than emulating the past, taking responsibility for the debts of our ancestors, and emphasizing the need to re-orient one’s relationship to place from dwelling-upon to dwelling-with. As Frederic Jameson observes, “Utopia as a form is not the [prescriptive] representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them” (416). It not a distant city on a hill, but process and praxis, always-already making the world anew. Perhaps the desire to dwell within strangeness, in a space that is not your own, can be generative rather than appropriative, an impetus to build and grow rather than conquer and destroy. But the requisite shift in perspective must be firmly anti-colonial at its heart – a refusal to engineer out difference, alongside the recognition that people living within an unequal system will themselves perpetuate such inequities. How can we imagine futures in space as a project of worlding-with, of moving toward a radical acceptance that which is not-now, and not-you?

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? Comment briefly on why or how it inspires you.

Last month – while visiting family in Washington and steadfastly forcing myself NOT to peek at work – I had the opportunity to read the entirety of Becky Chambers’s Wayfarer series in fairly short order. Without hyperbole, it is one of the most genuinely fun, queer-normative, multicultural, socially progressive, feminist, and anticolonial instances of creative and speculative worldbuilding that I have ever encountered in science fiction. The plot revolves around the picaresque wanderings of a ragtag crew of multispecies misfits aboard the Wayfarer, a small but scrappy wormhole-punching ship that picks up gig labor across the galaxy.

As an English graduate student who reads for a living, it has become somewhat rare for me to experience that delicious rush of excitement and intense interest that makes it impossible to put down a book once you begin; however, I am happy to say that was the case with the Wayfarer series. While not precisely a work of environmental humanities-related science fiction (although it does allude several times to “The Collapse” that destroyed the Earth centuries ago, and causing the human diaspora into space), its commitment to science fiction worldbuilding, alternative realisms, and anticolonial speculative futures in space is intensely interesting – even, I dare say, for someone who doesn’t see themselves as “an SF fan”!

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

Another impossible question, since I am inspired by so many scholars in the field – most especially by those who have the kindness (and patience) to serve on my dissertation committee! However, in the interest of not embarrassing any those wonderful individuals, one scholar who has been a major inspiration to me is McKenzie Wark. Although she is best known for A Hacker Manifesto and other work in game theory/new media studies, it is Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene which stood out to me as a paradigm shift in the way I thought about academic writing, and the role of scholarship in helping to craft speculative alternatives that challenge ossified ideas and entrenched structures of power. More specifically, her conceptualization of low theory has become foundational to the way in which I frame not only my dissertation project, but also my approach to environmental humanities and STS scholarship.

Reading Wark’s work is a rush of ideas, a cognitive plurality pointing toward the possibility for collective justice and alternative realisms even within our current state of crisis mobilizes these myriad systems of thought in the service of pluralized, speculative narratives that gesture toward alternative ways of writing, thinking, and fostering hope within what Heather Houser has dubbed the “infowhelm” of the Anthropocene. Wark’s conversational writing style, public-facing scholarship, rainbow of multidisciplinary expertise, and bold anticapitalist politics are all aspects of her activist-oriented scholarship that I deeply admire, and hope one day to emulate in my own work!