Host Daniel Raimi talks with Susie Crate, professor of anthropology at George Mason University. Susie discusses how she studies environmental issues through an anthropological lens and describes the community in northern Siberia that she's been studying since 1991. Daniel and Susie talk about how that community is being affected by climate change and how they are planning for the future.
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The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Susie Crate, professor of anthropology at George Mason University. Susie will tell us about how she studies environmental issues through an anthropological lens and describe the community in northern Siberia that she's been studying since 1991. We'll talk about how that community is being affected by climate change and how they are planning for the future. Stay with us.
Okay, Susie Crate from George Mason University, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Susie Crate: My pleasure.
Daniel Raimi: So Susie, you're the first anthropologist that we've had on the show and we're going to talk a little bit about your approach to thinking about climate change and the environment and how you study it. But first, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into the world of climate change and started thinking about it from the disciplinary lens that you have?
Susie Crate: Certainly. I had known and heard about the greenhouse effect probably from the late 80s. That's what it was typically termed back then. But it wasn't until the late 90s that I got climate change. In other words, I understood what the implications were and that was because I went to a very effective presentation by David Orr at the time, and also because my daughter was four years old and I was doing the math, figuring out how old she would be at some of the projected points out into the future.
I got interested in it professionally when after working with Viliui Sakha communities in northeastern Siberia for 15 years, they started asking me about how the winters were warmer, the summers were colder, the rain was coming at the wrong times, the seasonal timing was off, all things that I knew had to do with climate change and we decided to collaborate on a full fledged project in that area.
Daniel Raimi: Right. That makes sense. And we're going to come back to that community in Siberia and talk about them specifically in a couple of minutes. I'm going to ask you to say the name every time because I'm sure I'm going to mess it up certainly.
Susie Crate: Okay, no problem.
Daniel Raimi: But before we talk about the specifics of your work, can you just tell us a little bit about how you think about doing research on climate change? So as you know, RFF, we're mostly economists. Many of the people that we interact with are economists and policymakers. We think a lot about trade offs that are required to address environmental problems. As an anthropologist coming up and studying this issue, can you tell us just a little bit about how you think about the effects of climate change and what role climate policy sort of takes in your research, if it takes any role at all?
Susie Crate: Certainly. To do that, I need to give you a little background on anthropology and climate change.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah.
Susie Crate: Anthropology has four fields; archeology, linguistic anthropology, social or cultural anthropology, and biological or physical anthropology. Archeologists have been looking at climate change for a long time because in the past there have been events of climate change. Anthropologists, environmental anthropologists have also been interested in it for a long time, but it's only been in the last 20 years that anthropologists started really seriously looking at it in the field of environmental anthropology, which is one of the sub-fields of cultural or social anthropology. And now it's really taken off. You can find anthropologists working in all the four fields and in many of the sub-fields that I mentioned working on climate change because it really affects people in all aspects that anthropology looks at.
So I'm an environmental anthropologist. I also do cognitive anthropology. So in terms of environmental anthropology, I'm interested in human environment interdependence and interactions, how people make sense of their world based upon their cultural understanding, et cetera. And cognitive anthropology is really getting into perceptions, how people perceive what is going on around them and their interactions. So these are very good areas of anthropology to look at and investigate climate change. In terms of cognitive anthropology and environmental anthropology for that matter, too, a lot of what I look at are knowledge systems, so either indigenous knowledge or local knowledge and also narrative, so how people describe and talk about climate change.
Daniel Raimi: And are there ways in which climate policy factors into your research or is it sort of a secondary step?
Susie Crate: Climate policy definitely factors into it because for example, right now I'm a lead author on one of the special reports by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It's the second special report. You probably heard that the first one on 1.5 degrees came out last fall. This is the second one, which is a special report on oceans and cryosphere and a changing climate. So ocean and cryosphere are all the frozen places of the planet. And within that, I'm helping to frame the section on knowledge systems.
It's critical for policymakers to understand—and scientists, in fact, I'm learning as I'm working with other scientists on this special report—to understand that the majority of people on the planet do not think and act based on science. They think and act based on local knowledge or indigenous knowledge. So for policymakers to understand that, to understand that the only way their policies can be effective is if they bring them into the understandings that the people that they are addressing maintain and the ways they understand change, the ways they interact with each other across stakeholder groups.
So in my mind it's extremely critical, but it takes a little bit of doing because it's not business as usual for policymakers. So this is one of the key issues, key messages we're trying to communicate in the special report. And of course, this sets up a precedence. So these knowledge systems will be in all of the IPCC reports from this point on. So that's one area that I can think directly about how our work is very much engaged in policy.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's fascinating. There are so many questions I want to ask you about that. Maybe just one question would be, so when you're thinking about this issue of communicating in frameworks that, I guess to paraphrase it, make sense to people in their context, is it something where policy design needs to take that into account before the policy is developed, or is it the sort of thing where policymakers will make their decisions and then figure out how to communicate effectively? Basically I'm asking, does this knowledge need to be incorporated at the front end or the backend of the policy process?
Susie Crate: Oh, I would say that the place of knowledge systems in the front end, in the development of policy is really more about policymakers having an understanding of their audience, right? So when a speaker creates a talk, they think about their audience. A policymaker needs to understand, and of course policymakers know their audience, but what they need to understand about their audience is their capacity to understand or what kinds of narratives and language do they need to use for there to be an understanding. And then of course in the delivery, that's critical.
We're brought up on science. This is the kind of understanding that we're surrounded by all the time, numbers, crunching numbers. Economists are familiar with this, I know. And that's what we're brought up with. But we know for a fact, people respond to narrative. They respond to stories. And I'm not talking about children's stories. I'm talking about bringing people into an understanding via their being able to relate to it. And we'll talk about the documentary later, but that's one of the beauties I think of the documentary that we put together.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Fantastic. Right. So the documentary called The Anthropologist, which I think we'll touch on in a couple minutes. So, let's move on and let me ask you a question about another topic that you've thought a lot about and written about, which is the role of advocacy and the intersection between advocacy and research. So for someone to do advocacy around climate change, I think there's a certain amount of research that has to occur before advocacy will take place so that the advocacy is informed. But you've written and thought about sort of the relationship between advocacy and research for anthropologists. So can you talk a little bit about why you see advocacy or how you see the connection between advocacy and research in your own work?
Susie Crate: Well, anthropologists are trained to be what we could call cultural interpreters. So we're trained to understand how people live in their world, how they make sense of their world, their symbolic forms that they use to communicate the meaning, how they generate meaning in their lives. So when you are in a research context where you know certain things, I'll use the example of climate change because it makes sense to have an example, so for example, with the Viliui Sakha, in the process of doing focus groups and interviews where we were basically eliciting from inhabitants the kinds of changes they were observing, and by the way, we didn't use the term climate change in our research. We just were getting people to talk about the kinds of changes they were seeing, what they thought the changes were caused by, or what was causing the changes, the ways it was affecting their lives, et cetera. We found out that most people did not associate the changes they were observing with climate change because later we found out that there was no locally contextualized information about it.
They knew of of climate change. They'd heard about it for 5 or 10 years at that time. This was 2008. They'd read about it in the paper and heard about it on the radio and TV. But it was all about climate change happening in other parts of the world. So we understood at that point in time that it was critical to bring to them the understanding of climate change, and I'm not talking about the Al Gore talk. I was collaborating at the time with the permafrost scientist Alexander Fedorov at the Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, and I mentioned to him that it would be great to do a knowledge exchange because their intimate knowledge of change was invaluable to him as a scientist to understand how climate change was affecting these very local ecosystems and cultures, but it was also valuable for them to have his research looking at how the permafrost was thawing, looking at the changes that were coming as a result of that for them to make sense of what was going on around them. So we did that.
And this is sort of a long story to come around to the kind of advocacy that I think is crucial, critical, especially when we're talking about the kind of a global change that is not really within local people's understanding. It's nothing that they've been taught about, from their parents or grandparents or anywhere down the line of their lineage. This is a brand new type of change. So that makes it important to be able to bring that in and also to recognize and value their local knowledge or their indigenous knowledge of the changes.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's fascinating. So, you've mentioned the Viliui Sakha a couple of times.
Susie Crate: Very good pronunciation.
Daniel Raimi: Oh good. I got it on the first time. I was practicing it quietly as you were speaking. So you mentioned them a couple of times. Can you tell us a little bit about them as sort of where they are? You mentioned that they're in Siberia. I know you've been studying them since I think 1991. Correct me if that's wrong.
Susie Crate: Exactly.
Daniel Raimi: But can you just tell us a little bit about some of their history, the climate that they currently live in and any other really important pieces of information that help understand their culture?
Susie Crate: Sure. So the Viliui Sakha, I should just mention first that this name is given to Sakha who live along a river called the Viliui River, as opposed to or in addition to a group of Sakha who live in what are called the central regions. These are both located in the larger area in northeastern Russia called the Sakha Republic. It used to be called Yakutia in the Soviet period. Capital is Yakutsk. If you ever pay played Risk, the board game Risk, you would know that the name of Yakutsk.
Daniel Raimi: I'm sad to say, I never ... Now I wish I had played Risk, because I don't know.
Susie Crate: Yeah. Well, maybe I'm dating myself.
Daniel Raimi: No, I'm sure plenty of our listeners will get the reference. I'm just not one of them.
Susie Crate: So the interesting piece of this is that the Viliui Sakha, they're a Turkic-speaking peoples. Their Turkic ancestors transmigrated from Central Asia around 900 to southern Siberia. Around Lake Baikal in the Genghis Khan period, they were pushed away out of there and they traveled north following the Lena River to where they are now in northeastern Siberia and they settled in this area because of the abundance of natural hay fields. And again, these natural hay fields have a lot to do with the permafrost story because it's ... Anyway, the special ecosystems that they settled on, but they're horse and cattle breeders. They adapted to an extreme climate with over 100 Celsius annual temperature change from minus 60 Celsius to plus 40 Celsius in the summer. And they did this-
Daniel Raimi: Sorry to interrupt. In Fahrenheit terms, gosh, I can't do the translation in my head. What's that roughly in Fahrenheit?
Susie Crate: It would be approximately 100 degrees in the summer. It's completely dry, so don't think about 100 degrees in Washington DC because there's no humidity. It's the same amount of heat. It's just more bearable, and minus 75 Fahrenheit.
Daniel Raimi: Wow.
Susie Crate: Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: That's really something.
Susie Crate: Yeah, the stories about the cold, you spit and it freezes before it hits the ground and kind of bounces away. So it's extremely cold. That is changing, though. And I can tell you a little bit more about that later. So here they come in the 13, 1400s into this area, of course in several waves. And of course, it wasn't clean and neat. There was a lot of interactions with other groups, a lot of intermarriages, a lot of mixing of blood, et cetera. And of course, the Russian colonization in the 1600s and then the last 100 years of collectivization and state farm establishment, and then the breakup after the Soviet period, the post-Soviet period now, I would argue those were the biggest historical changes that came about. I could go on and on and on, but you probably don't want me to.
Daniel Raimi: Well, I mean, I do want you to, but we have to keep it relatively short. So can you give us an example of how climate change is affecting the community today and how it is likely to affect the community tomorrow and sort of what important cultural elements of the community are kind of in play or in question?
Susie Crate: Sure. Let me just start this out by just saying that I work with people who are very much ... Well, let's say they're born in the same place that their parents were born, their grandparents were born, and however many before them. Perhaps again in the collectivization period, et cetera, they were forced to move into a larger and larger village context. But in general, they have stayed relatively close or on their homelands. And there's a very strong attachment to that. And there's been a lot written, at least in my understanding about how critical it is for us to think about place attachment. That's the term that's used for peoples who are very connected to their land.
So one of the important things to think about when we're talking about how climate change is affecting these people culturally is that connection to place, that connection to homeland. And when we're in parts of the world, and this is going to be happening in more temperate areas soon, but if we're in areas of the world which are dependent on ice like the Arctic areas or the high mountain glacial areas or near sea level areas, when you think about the multitude of island atolls in the South Pacific and the Ivan Nations in the South Pacific, you're going to be working with people who have very strong place attachment. So a lot of what's happening for them, of course it's difficult for them to manage with the physical changes, but I would argue that perhaps we need to understand that more difficult for them is this place attachment and seeing their homeland changing the way it is and not knowing, right, what it's going to be in the future.
So for Viliui Sakha, the first epiphany I had about this was with the bull of winter, which basically, again, if we think about indigenous and local knowledge, people have specific ways of understanding how the seasons change, how the annual cycle is et cetera. And for Sakha, they have this understanding that what used to be this very deep, dry cold period for three months in the winter, there was a bull who came and that bull would stay for those three months, named the bull of winter. And in my 2006 interviews, as I was starting to really hear community members talk about the changes and in my own mind knowing that they were mostly associated with climate change, we interviewed 30 elders and 10 of them talked about the bull of winter not arriving. In other words, the winters not being as cold.
What I'm seeing now though, after 15 years of this research focusing on climate change and other changes, is that it's the alas systems that I mentioned already, these ecosystems with the lake and the area around them that is lush hay field and then the boreal forest, many Sakha who are living out in the rural areas identify with an alas as their birth alas. This is their identification of their specific attachment to it, and these alas have a kind of permafrost underneath them that has large pieces of ice in it. So as that permafrost thaws, it tends to change dramatically. The land surface falls or it rises. In some parts, in the central regions, my permafrost scientist collaborator took me this December when I was there to visit some communities who literally have lakes forming around their yards and they have no intention of leaving.
A policymaker might look at this situation and go, "Oh yeah, they've got to get out of there. Let's relocate them." On the ground, people have no intention. I mean, Alexander Fedorov is working with these communities to help them understand how they can protect the permafrost by taking the snow away so that it's really cold and it keeps it frozen. So I'm going off on a little bit of a tangent here, but these cultural effects we could say of climate change are very much part and parcel of understanding knowledge systems, understanding that people have a specific way of understanding how their world works and that's critical for policymakers to grapple with.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. And I mean, just understanding the impacts of climate change and range of adaptations that are available to people, at least in their own minds as they're thinking about it. So you mentioned that many of the Sakha have no intention of leaving. Are there adaptations that they could make that you think would realistically allow them, or at least some of them in these more disrupted areas, to actually stay in place as climate changes? And of course, as we know, the Arctic is warming faster than the world on average, so they're likely to face these effects more quickly than the population on average.
Susie Crate: Yeah. Well, as I mentioned, Alexander Fedorov is working with communities so that they can understand how to protect the permafrost that's directly under their house and yard. Of course, the ultimate thing is that we have to stop emitting greenhouse gases, but in lieu of that happening anytime soon due to other factors, which we won't go into right now, the practice of, as I mentioned already, moving the snow every time it snows to clear the yard of snow. Snow is an insulator. If this snow is there over the land in the frigid winter, it's going to keep the land, the yard warm, relatively less cold, let's say, so helping to preserve the permafrost under their yards by clearing the snow off, and of course you can't do that for all of Siberia, but people can do this in their own yards.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense.
Susie Crate: I mean, unfortunately I'm not very hopeful. I'm working on a book right now. I have a British Museum fellowship and I'm working on a book about my almost 30 years of work, and I liken thawing of the permafrost to someone who's turning over in bed and it's very hard to get them to turn back. They're going to turn over. What I'm trying to say through that analogy is that we've really set in motion something that is going to be extremely difficult to reverse.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That analogy actually holds extra weight for me because I have a eight month old baby who can roll onto his belly, but can't roll back onto his back. So I know exactly what you mean there. So Susie Crate, these are so many fascinating elements of your research and I wish again that we had more time to talk about them, but we're going to close out our conversation with the top of the stack segment, which is where we ask you what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack that you've enjoyed and that you'd recommend to our listeners.
And I'm going to start off recommending a New Yorker article that I read. It was in maybe the issue a couple of weeks ago. It was called “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” by Douglas Preston. And basically this article is about an archeologist who fancies himself a bit in the mold of Indiana Jones who actually makes a discovery in Montana that seems to have captured thousands of organisms who died just in the hours, the few hours following the impact of an asteroid that started near the Yucatan Peninsula and wiped out more than 99% of life about 66 million years ago on earth. So it's this really incredible discovery, or at least it appears to be. And there's a couple of sentences in particular that describe the impact of the asteroid that I just loved and wanted to share. So, here's a couple sentences from the article called “The Day the Dinosaurs Died:”
“The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blasts looked nothing like a nuclear explosion with a signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a rooster tail, a gigantic jet of molten material which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America.”
So just really evocative language and the article is fascinating, so I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in history or archeology or any of that stuff.
Susie Crate: Yeah, that sounds fascinating.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. How about you Susie? What have you read or listened to or enjoyed lately?
Susie Crate: Well, not that I am full of myself or anything, but I will really recommend The Anthropologist, which is this documentary that I'm in with my daughter and Margaret Mead's daughter is in it, and there's some footage from Margaret Mead, which follows us to Siberia, to our field site there. We also go to Kiribati, which is in the South Pacific, to talk with communities there about sea level rise and we go to the Peruvian Andes to talk to communities there about the disappearance of the glaciers and people's dependence on the glacier, not just for water but their spiritual cosmological understanding of the glaciers.
We also go to the Chesapeake Bay. I told the filmmakers that it would be important for us to go somewhere also within the United States to help viewers understand that this is not something just happening in these far away places to these people that look so different from us. So we went and talked to watermen who are Chesapeake Bay oyster and crab harvesters and got them to talk about the changes that they're seeing. And I was amazed when this one gentleman talked about how they used to get 2000 pounds of lobster out of the Chesapeake Bay and they don't catch any anymore. So that's kind of eye-opening to think about that lobster used to come from the Chesapeake Bay.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, fascinating. We'll certainly look out for The Anthropologist, the film, which I've watched the trailer. It looks fascinating. I haven't seen the full thing yet, but thank you so much for those recommendations, Susie Crate, and thank you again so much for joining us and telling us about your work here on Resources Radio. We really appreciate it.
Susie Crate: Well, the pleasure's been all mine.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think, so please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review. It helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Peterson with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.