The tundra of northeastern Siberia is a long way from the Swannanoa Valley, but Anthropologist Dr. Susie Crate ’82 said the lessons she learned exploring the Warren Wilson campus have been an ongoing source of inspiration as she has studied the impact of climate change in the Arctic. Her research is at the forefront of examining how changing climate and thawing permafrost affect cultural understandings and adaptation strategies.
Crate has spent the last three decades conducting research in Siberia and, since 2006, documenting perceptions of, and responses to, climate change among Indigenous Viliui Sakha people. Thawing permafrost challenges Viliui Sakha’s horse and cattle breeding livelihood as the land rises and falls. Crate documented their many challenges in her 2021 book, Once Upon the Permafrost: Knowing Culture and Climate Change in Siberia. She makes the issue relevant to us all by arguing that, metaphorically speaking, “we all live on permafrost.”
“I learned a lot at Warren Wilson about how our planet is one interconnected system. So if the permafrost thaws in the Arctic, then we’re all in trouble,” she explained. “You can say the same thing about all of the harbingers of climate change: floods, droughts, fires, and more.”
At Warren Wilson, Crate loved working on the Garden Crew and taking a wide variety of classes, from plant taxonomy to music. She came to Warren Wilson because it was an ideal setting to nurture her
“At Warren Wilson I was given a lot of freedom and personal attention. I learned that I didn’t need to fit into a cookiecutter degree or job, that I can explore my own passions in life,” she said.
Before pursuing graduate studies in Anthropology, Crate spent a decade working as a singer and storyteller. “At Warren Wilson, I studied how singing and storytelling could educate about environmental issues. Eventually that led to an interest in Indigenous cultures, since narrative is how many cultures teach. Songs often have innate environmental education,” she said.
Crate is currently on a Fulbright Arctic Initiative Fellowship to study how permafrost thaw impacts Arctic security issues. Prior, she was the subject of an acclaimed documentary, The Anthropologist, which followed Crate and her teenage daughter as they traveled to Siberia, the South Pacific, the Peruvian Andes, and the Chesapeake Bay in the United States. In each place, they interacted with local communities to understand how thawing ice, rising sea-levels, and melting glaciers are impacting daily life.
Crate believes that mitigating the impact of climate change is going to take more than just policy prescriptions.
“When people ask me what we need to do to fight climate change, I say, ‘we need to build community.’ And a lot of people look at me dumbfounded, and say ‘well what about cutting carbon?’ And of course that is important, but in order to be able to weather the changes that are already set in place due to rising carbon dioxide levels, we need to support and assist each other,” she explained.
The Anthropologist ends with a scene of Crate waving goodbye to her daughter who is driving off to college. In the scene, Crate expresses hope that the next generation will have the gumption to turn things around.
Now, Crate qualified her optimism. “I don’t think it can happen if young people aren’t given opportunities to cultivate new ideas for how to face these challenges,” she said. “In my experience, Warren Wilson is one of those places that really cultivates ways of thinking outside of the box.”
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