How do you explain climate change to a lay person? Do you show images of melting ice caps and withered landscapes? Or numbers and charts that explain the effects of polluted air and changing temperatures? Sure, you would be able to make a solid case, but chances are that your audience has tuned out before you reach your conclusions. Interviewed by Ruben Reus, climate anthropologist Susan Crate provides us with another, more anthropological possibility.

Susie Crate and Katie Yegorov-Crate


Following The Anthropologist

An interview with Susan Crate by Ruben Reus 

“Nothing is about climate change. Which, to me, means that everything is about climate change”. There are eleven people attending the master class at Utrecht University campus: on one side eight anxious master students (and me), in the middle one of their teachers and on the other side Susan Crate, a climate anthropologist and leading character in the documentary “The Anthropologist”. A long flight and two documentary screenings in Utrecht and Wageningen hardly seemed to have worn her down. Invigorated by the students’ research ideas she explains that it is actually quite difficult to keep climate out of the equation in social science research.

The reluctant nods from the students across the room confirm, in a way, how illustrative the above statement is of Susan’s view on the stuff of climate research and the position of anthropology: “There’s a tendency to speak a language that people don’t understand. We need other ways to communicate climate change, and anthropologists have something very tangible to contribute to these larger global issues.”

The ripple effect
What better way to communicate than through a documentary? Surprisingly, Susan did not sign up for the job right away. “They called me and I didn’t really want to do it because of the intrusive aspect of making a documentary, which would wreck my research. But then I thought about it a little and I knew their documentary about languages (The Linguists, ed.) and actually used it in my teaching, because it was very effective. Still, it was important to me to stay true to our [anthropological] protocols in terms of letting people know that this was happening.”

It took Susan about forty screenings before admitting to be satisfied with the result: “You can always find something that you believe could have gone better. But the documentary does what I hoped it would do: it helps people get a better idea of what climate change is and what anthropologists do.” Susan’s refusal to point to any specific impact of the documentary is insightful, and reflects her experience as a teacher (and mother, perhaps?): “It’s sort of like teaching; you just don’t know the effect you’re having. In other words, the documentary – I’m sure – changes how people think, but exactly how that manifests itself in their lives and in the world, is another question. It has this ripple effect: the direct results of what we do are not always easy to see.”

Research and activism
How do we create awareness on a large scale and how do we bring about actual change? After watching different peoples around the globe struggling with the effects of climate change, the audience at the screening was ready for change. But how could they convince their friends, family, politicians and fellow citizens to get in line? According to Susan, one can only try to convince people by continuing engagement, keeping the discussion going and hoping that at some point there’s a level of understanding. As for political aspirations to bring about change, she tells us: “If you want to, go for it, because it’s very important as well. But it’s not really my thing”.

Combining research and activism is a challenging endeavour and can incite accusations about political bias of researchers. Still, Susan does not consider research and activism a problematic combination. In her eyes, having the privilege of information obliges academia to help those without the information to understand what’s going on: “Whether it’s climate change or some forces of globalisation, or something else. It’s part of being a global citizen, you could say. I think facilitating people’s capacity to stand up for themselves and advocate for themselves is also part of our ethical and moral duty in the kind of world we are living in right now.”

Bringing home climate change…
Interestingly, the sense of duty among anthropologists seems so strong that some have started questioning the value of the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. As a former member of the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force, Susan has a different opinion: “It’s admirable I agree, but I think that if we are going to be active in transforming the culture then we have to be active in the culture. We’re all on the path to the real fix, which is a transformation of culture. I think the swiftest way towards that is continuing to do what we’re doing and bringing about the change as we can. I think we have to play the game the way it’s being played. Make our moves and our strides forward using our resources, and I’m not talking about natural resources, I’m talking about our agency to move forward and make this huge turn of culture.”

It is the scope of Susan’s research and the documentary shows how it can be put into practice. “One of the big problems with how we’re communicating climate change is that most people don’t understand science. They need to have it translated to relatable, understandable narratives. Something they can understand in their own lives.” In the end, the issue is not that the climate is changing; it is how we interpret and deal with the changes we are confronted with. To witness a society adapt to its surroundings is what makes climate change an unavoidable reality, a force that is dealt with on a daily basis.

A striking example of how we can translate issues of climate change to people in western societies is found in Chesapeake Bay, one of the locations of the documentary. Similar to what we describe as ‘indigenous peoples’, the bay has been the home of the same people for generations, creating a long history and a sense of place and attachment to it. Now the inhabitants are seeing changes that they’ve never seen or heard from before, but their response to it depends on more than their natural surroundings: “At the same time they live in this western system, where there are more and more restrictions on what you can do because there are problems with the ecology of the bay. So part of the reason that they don’t want to believe in climate change is because they’re afraid they will receive more and more restrictions.”

… through ‘radical canvassing’
This brings us back to the ability of climate activists to help people adequately interpret issues like those in Chesapeake Bay. Because, in a time when fake news is spiralling out of control, how can we still reach people with compelling arguments? The question quickly steers Susan to the devastating elections in the US: “The problem with the last elections was that people just sit in their houses watching tv. When you actually interact with people you discover that you have similar concerns. That’s how you start building community. “Since the elections, there’s been a lot of what they call ‘radical canvassing’. Canvassing means going around and reminding supporters of your party to vote again the coming elections. Radical canvassing is going around and talking to everybody, not just the democrats’ houses. I think that when you do that in fact there is a breakthrough in terms of understanding.”

Who is able to ‘stay within the culture’, but at the same time strive for ‘cultural transformation’? Who is always working on ‘engagement’ to reach a ‘level of understanding’? And who engages by talking about relatable and understandable (in another word. ‘everyday’) narratives? Could it be that it would help us, ‘the anthropologists’, if we were less concerned about climate change and more about continuing to put our anthropological tools into practice? Could it be that, the moment we stop looking for specific solutions, they will start presenting themselves? Could we use some ‘anthropological canvassing’?