Dread isn’t a feeling that people tend to think of positively. It is something to be avoided – even dreaded.
But through the extensive research she undertook to write Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis (Knopf Canada, out now), writer and science communicator Britt Wray discovered that dread has the potential to be harnessed for good.
“Dread is a resource floating freely in the air, and it’s this generation’s job to capture it,” Wray writes.
Wray began grappling with her own feelings of climate anxiety in 2017, when she and her husband first thought about starting a family. Her fears about the fate and state of the earth amid the worsening climate crisis seemed at odds with her desire to bring a child into the world, a fact that resulted in “a reckoning with my own eco-emotions,” she writes.
Wray didn’t intend to write a guidebook for a generation struggling to cope with its own feelings of anxiety and dread about the threats posed by our warming planet.
“These heavy questions that came with the reproductive anxiety had been knocking around inside me for a while,” she says by phone from her home in Northern California. “I thought, Jeez, this is troubling and fascinating, what I’m going through and thinking about, and I wonder if other people are also finding themselves in a similar place.”
The result of this exploration is part memoir and part guidebook for Generation Dread – a demographic Wray defines as anyone who feels distressed about the climate and wider ecological crisis.
“Anyone is vulnerable to the potentially overwhelming but also potentially revitalizing force of eco-distress, as long as they understand that their own health is tied up with the health of the environment,” Wray says. “It doesn’t matter your gender, it doesn’t matter your creed, race, where you live – many people report feelings that would belong to this umbrella of eco-distress.”
The book is divided into three parts: the first is about the feelings and emotions that a person may confront as they deal with their eco-anxieties, the second explores how people can come to terms with their eco-distress, and the third looks forward and examines how people can connect with others to take action related to the climate crisis – the act of capturing the dread and using it as fuel to build a different future.
In both her book and in conversation, Wray is clear that people who feel eco-anxiety shouldn’t look away from their feelings or try to minimize them. Eco-anxiety may seem like a luxury to those coping with disasters on the front lines of the climate crisis, but these feelings are not a pathology or an aberration; it’s normal to be upset by something so fundamentally distressing and world-changing.
“We can’t make big uncomfortable changes if we’re feeling comfortable. Things just continue if people are privileged and protected enough to not be disturbed on some kind of somatic, bodily, emotional, or psychological level about what’s going on,” Wray says. “People need to feel the discomfort; it needs to break through the psychological defences that allow people to pretend themselves away from difficult truths and from a scary reality. What we’re seeing now is that many people’s defences against climate change are breaking down.”
Generation Dread serves as a support for those feeling eco-anxiety – “a landing pad” Wray had to discover and create for herself when she was facing her own feelings. Through her conversations with other eco-anxious people, activists, writers, thinkers, and climate-aware therapists, she has created a road map for how people can work to address and accept their own feelings of eco-distress.
But the book is also about the mental health crisis at large, and an exploration of just how significant the effects of the climate crisis are going to be on a mental health care system that is already buckling under people’s existing needs.
On a personal level, Wray was surprised that the research she undertook for the book led to a big change in her own life: she had just finished a PhD in synthetic biology and was consulting for companies in the field, but based on her experiences with the Good Grief Network and other peer-support groups, she decided to change her line of work.
“It came from the curiosity that stemmed from my own reproductive anxiety; now I have a different line of work and I’m joining the psychiatry department at Stanford,” Wray says. “That certainly was unexpected.”
She is now a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and is investigating the mental health consequences of ecological disruption.
Wray’s own outlook about reproduction in an age of climate crisis had to change before she was able to make the decision with her husband to start a family. Instead of asking whether it was okay to have a child in a world on fire with climate change, she thought more deeply about what would be required of her to raise children to be resilient in a future where the climate crisis will be a part of their lives from birth.
Her son was born during the pandemic.
“Now that he’s here, he’s a daily reminder and a stake in the ground that I have to do everything I can to give him the skills that he needs to deal with a climate-disrupted world,” she says.
Britt Wray: Arden Wray