CANCELLED: Storying Climate Change: How Local Testimonies Engage and Empower Communities to Act

Professor Susan Crate

CANCELLED: We apologise that this seminar has been cancelled because of changed travel plans of the speaker due to COVID-19


In the last decade especially, cultural anthropologists have been engaging issues of climate change on many fronts, including using their unique tool kit to ascertain cultural perceptions and understandings of climate change and to decipher the Indigenous and local knowledge systems communities use to understand those changes. Key to this investigation is the interpretation of narratives and stories with which humans understand their world and express that understanding. Such anthropological engagement plays a crucial role in local to global actions towards adaptation and mitigation and the cultural transformations necessary for a sustainable global society. The applied anthropology of climate change involves engaging local communities and beginning the dialogue they need to move forward and work together towards common answers and goals.

Dr Susan Crate has worked with Viliui Sakha communities of northeastern Siberia, Russia since 1992. For the last 15 years her projects have focused on local perceptions, understandings and responses to the local effects of climate change. Local communities are especially concerned about these changes considering that they live in an ecosystem of continuous permafrost which, due to the Earth’s warming, is thawing. Crate shows the work with these communities and their efforts to bring local and Indigenous knowledge of change into dialog with scientific knowledge of the changes. This work shows how communities understand the local effects of climate change through their own direct knowledge of their environment and not through a formal scientific explanation. Local narratives and stories prove a powerful communicative tool not only to express an understanding of unprecedented change but also to create a community of understanding among other community members who can readily grasp how change is occurring through such tellings.

This important medium also has power in communities who may not be experiencing the extent of change as those in permafrost regions, most notably, inhabitants of more temperate areas. Case in point: after answering audience questions following a screening of the film The Anthropologist, in Matthews, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, I asked the audience what changes they had witnessed in their lives. An elderly man spoke, detailing his observations of changes and, as he described them, at least ten others nodded in agreement. Afterwards he offered to take me out the next morning to show me what he described. We spent 3 hours documenting and, during our last stop, my host and driver stood in awe at how much the beach had receded since her last visit 20 years prior. Local testimony ignites understanding and motivates action.

After sharing her work in NE Siberia and on the Chesapeake Bay, Dr Crate will engage her audience to see how their experiences with climate change are framed and how sharing these understanding can potentially work towards climate action.



Susan A. Crate is a Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University. An environmental and cognitive anthropologist, she has worked with indigenous communities in Siberia since 1988 and with Viliui Sakha communities since 1991. Her recent research has focused on understanding local perceptions and adaptations of Viliui Sakha communities in the face of unprecedented climate change—a research agenda that has expanded to Canada, Peru, Wales, Kiribati, Mongolia and the Chesapeake Bay. She is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles, one monograph, Cows, Kin, and Globalization: An Ethnography of Sustainability (AltaMira Press 2006), and is senior editor of Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions (Left Coast Press 2009), and a second volume, Anthropology and Climate Change: From Actions to Transformations (Routledge 2016). Crate is currently writing an interdisciplinary longitudinal ethnography on climate and culture change in northeast Siberia where she has worked with the same communities for 30 years. Her most recent work focuses on the use of narratives and stories, embracing various ways of knowing, to communicate for effectively and demand action on climate change.

Crate has served as PI for four prestigious National Science Foundation projects, and most recently an Urgent Anthropology Fellowship with the Royal Anthropological Institute and the British Museum. She has served on various global change initiatives including as a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere (published Fall 2019), and a member of the American Anthropology Association’s Task Force on Climate Change.