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Psychology Mental Health

Generation Dread

Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis

by (author) Britt Wray

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
May 2022
Mental Health, Global Warming & Climate Change, Anxieties & Phobias
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    May 2022
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2023
    List Price

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"A vital and deeply compelling read.” —Adam McKay, award-winning writer, director and producer (Don’t Look Up)
“Britt Wray shows that addressing global climate change begins with attending to the climate within.” —Dr. Gabor Maté, author of The Myth of Normal
"Read this courageous book.” —Naomi Klein
An impassioned generational perspective on how to stay sane amid climate disruption.

Climate and environment-related fears and anxieties are on the rise everywhere. As with any type of stress, eco-anxiety can lead to lead to burnout, avoidance, or a disturbance of daily functioning.

In Generation Dread, Britt Wray seamlessly merges scientific knowledge with emotional insight to show how these intense feelings are a healthy response to the troubled state of the world. The first crucial step toward becoming an engaged steward of the planet is connecting with our climate emotions, seeing them as a sign of humanity, and learning how to live with them. We have to face and value eco-anxiety, Wray argues, before we can conquer the deeply ingrained, widespread reactions of denial and disavowal that have led humanity to this alarming period of ecological decline.

It’s not a level playing field when it comes to our vulnerability to the climate crisis, she notes, but as the situation worsens, we are all on the field—and unlocking deep stores of compassion and care is more important than ever. Weaving in insights from climate-aware therapists, critical perspectives on race and privilege in this crisis, ideas about the future of mental health innovation, and creative coping strategies, Generation Dread brilliantly illuminates how we can learn from the past, from our own emotions, and from each other to survive—and even thrive—in a changing world.

About the author

Britt Wray is a radio broadcaster and writer and has worked as a host and producer on programs for CBC Radio. She holds a BSc in Biology and is a PhD candidate in Science Communication with a Focus on Synthetic Biology at the University of Copenhagen.

Britt Wray's profile page


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction

Excerpt: Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis (by (author) Britt Wray)


The artists at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, who are coming up with new language to better describe our changing world, have named a quintessential sentiment of the times brokenrecordrecord­breaking: “a recurring feeling of déjà vu, quiet terror, and slow shock which is both acute and familiar that occurs when opening a news­paper, radio program or website and reading a headline that that year (month, season, day) has broken the record for the hottest on record.” Many are struggling to stay afloat as we process the steady stream of scary environmental news that tells us things are unravel­ling even faster than scientists expected. Some lose themselves in activism, while others keep their distance or close their eyes just enough to pretend that the reality we face isn’t nearly as bad as it is. For some whole communities who may be contending with the imme­diate practical threat of hurricanes, heatwaves, floods, rising sea levels, drought, or raging wildfires, closing one’s eyes isn’t an option. Increasingly, even for those far away from hazard zones, neither is taking the time to examine one’s emotional response.

Over the last few years, especially but not exclusively in liberal circles, the term eco-anxiety has become all the rage. It describes a condition that robs sleep from those who, when all is dark and quiet, stir in thoughts of how uninhabitable the Earth will soon become. Tools are cropping up to help people cope with eco-and climate anx­iety, grief, and a pervasive sense of powerlessness to halt nature’s destruction. Self-care guides, climate-conscious therapists, and a cottage industry of coaches have emerged to help folks grapple with ecological uncertainty, find community support, and focus on the pro-environmental actions they can take. But acknowledging and reckoning with difficult emotions is still not the norm, and mental health resources are cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for many people who need them.

Too often, though, the conversation around eco-anxiety reveals its own amnesia. Only some of us are being forced to grapple with the threat of annihilation— and the emotional weight this carries— for the very first time. For so many people who’ve been marginalized, the oppressiveness of how bad things are is a tale as old as the hills. As a white, cis-gendered, economically secure woman, I have the luxury of dreading the future (in light of problems like climate change) while others already acutely fear the present, and have long been suffering for how they were treated by dominant power systems in the past. Unfortunately, the climate crisis creates a double injustice here, as the most marginalized, those who had the least to do with creating this mess— predominantly poor people of colour— are disproportion­ately harmed by a warming world.

Eco-anxiety researcher Panu Pihkala says that waking up to the climate and wider ecological crisis is particularly hard for middle-class citizens of industrialized nations because “the world is revealed to be much more tragic and fragile than people thought it was.” This profound disruption, which can be as severe as an internal shattering, sends them into a grief-stricken process of mourning the lost future they believed would come— a future of ecological stability. This then erodes their sense of security. As more and more people who’ve been living comfortable lives wake up feeling eco-anxious, that awareness comes with a risk. If we only turn inward, to recognize this pain within ourselves, instead of looking outward, to glean a sense of implication in the far-reaching and unequal consequences of the climate crisis and our agency to improve the outcomes, little will change. Better futures will be entirely missed if we get stuck in fear and dread.

For those who might roll their eyes at the groundswell of anxiety and grief that many privileged people are now expressing, I hear you. We’re going to get this wrong if we depoliticize this pain, by not seeing its entanglement with centuries of environmental violence, racism, and domination. Without that context, we cannot be honest about who is the most vulnerable now and going forward, nor figure out how to best reduce harm. On the flip side, the tumultuous feel­ings that are on the rise are completely valid, need tending to, and present a great opportunity for justice-oriented personal, environ­mental, and social transformation.

Everyone is vulnerable to the distressing— and potentially revital­izing— power of eco-anxiety, but we don’t all have the same resources, space, or interest to harness it when other existential threats may be more immediate. My hope is that by being explicit about these inequalities in Generation Dread, this book can contribute to us get­ting better at looking out for each other, as things get harder and heat up. I am part of this generation, and I know what it feels like to go on a journey of developing critical awareness from one’s own existential fears. If you’re part of it too, no matter your age— if you want to find inner strength and also help bring about a more sustainable, just, and equitable future— you’re among those who can most benefit from reading these pages. Right, so what is it we’re dreading again? It’s the fact that we are in the midst of an escalating planetary health crisis. Much more than just climate change, the planetary health crisis is humanity’s destruc­tion of nature, and it is affecting everything from the climate to bio-diversity, fresh water, fertile soil, clean air, land cover, the spread of infectious disease, rates of chronic disease, and, as a result, the health of all living beings. It is a civilization-changing event that is well under way, causing incredible damage and deepening existing injustices. With each passing day, the realization dawns on more people with even a smidgen of environmental identity— a feeling of connection to the non-human environment— that much of what we love in the world is under threat, and so the collective sense of being traumatized grows. The demand for resources that help people ground themselves and feel capable of creating change is outpacing the supply.

Wealthy nations and elites must act on the climate crisis in order to flip the dangerous trend lines, but most are acting as though they don’t understand that to delay is to dance with their own demise. Much as we see with the covid-19 pandemic, without bold preven­tive measures in place, few to no rich countries will be spared its dev­astating effects. Just like our warming climate, pandemics are not separate from, but a symptom of, our planetary health crisis. As we continue sucking resources out of the natural world— by cutting trees in tropical forests, for example, or extracting minerals and fossil fuels— we bump into species that live in the wild places we tear into, and become hosts to their viruses. Epidemiological research shows we can prevent future spillovers and stop outbreaks from turning into pandemics by dramatically changing the way we interact with the natural world.

All this ought to compel us to rethink our relationship to nature itself. As the cries for change along these lines grow louder, denialists clamp down harder, critics police the tone of climate alarmists, climate alarmists burn out while hunting for a sign that their actions are having an impact, and doomsayers make peace with their own death and that of society. “Rational environmentalists,” arm in arm with climate dismissives, condemn emotionally charged messaging about the climate emergency with hashtags like #climatecult. Climate scientists and green political leaders quit their jobs and move to the countryside to escape the mental exhaustion of their work. Meanwhile, some people believe that it is already too late to prevent societal collapse. They speak about the “earth as hospice,” and suggest we use what time we have left to summon the courage to face the music, as the ship we’re all on sinks.

We’re in a profoundly turbulent time, and it begs us to build up our wisdom about how we relate to our feelings inside a culture that still values capital over compassion and the well-being of the poor, the “Other,” and the not yet born. Unfortunately, emotions have typically been regarded as feminine and a sign of weakness, and so have been undervalued and dismissed. This tendency is deeply harmful, because in order to thrive on a hotter and more hostile planet, we will need a high degree of care, interest in each other’s point of view, sensitivity to one another’s vulnerability, and patience as we seek sites of commonality. All these qualities will be key to restoring our humanity amidst competing pressures, including tightening borders, rising walls, pointing fingers, and social unrest.

I had a reckoning with my own eco-emotions in 2017 when my husband Sebastian and I thought we might start trying to get pregnant. A deep sense of grief and despair came crashing over me when I considered what it would mean to deliver a child into this world— a world dominated by a small group of greedy humans who are walking with open arms into ecological dead zones, mental breakdowns, and conflict over dwindling resources; humans who won’t raise their fists to these calamities because their avarice restrains them. Sure, we also grappled with the common ambivalences many people list when considering becoming parents (issues of resources, identity, time), but environmental concerns loomed largest. Still, Sebastian and I longed for a child, and felt more drawn to the idea of reproductive alchemy— converting both of our base metals into gold in baby form— than adopting, likely due to several kinds of societal, familial, and biological pressures. This birthed a painful dilemma, from an ethical point of view. When you confront head-on what scientific models say about the suicidal track we’re on, alongside the political establishment’s completely inadequate efforts to address it, is it okay to decide to bring a new person into this situation?

As a science writer and graduate of a biology program with a focus on conservation, my exposure to research on climate change and the environment was significant enough to put me in that hapless bracket of professionals who are, unsurprisingly, especially stressed by what the science says. I could not resolve my fears by talking them out with Sebastian, or my parents, or my friends. The dilemma had no solution. It was either have a kid, and risk being taxed with crushing anxiety for the rest of my life about how our child will deal with a planetary condition that is becoming deadlier and more devoid of natural wonders; or don’t have a kid, and miss out on something we deeply want to do and all the nourishment that kids bring into people’s lives. I had to get my heart around this quandary and see if my thinking was perhaps twisted or off base. I started interviewing all kinds of experts, parents, and non-parents, collecting their perspec­tives like charms on a bracelet that, once full, I imagined would allow me to come to the right decision. As it turns out, dilemmas don’t wear jewellery, and no amount of other people’s insights could glue what had fragmented inside me back together again. I’d have to be brave enough to intentionally stay child-free, take the leap, or reveal that I was too much of a coward to make a decision, at which point my biology would do my deciding for me. But then, somewhere between the UN’s 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that outlined the difference between a world at 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming— which was etched into people’s minds as saying we only have twelve years to avert climate catastrophe— and the global youth climate strikes of the following year, reproductive anxiety due to the climate crisis had become mainstream. There are plenty of statistics and articles to prove it, which I unpack in chapter 4. That made me wonder how the planetary health crisis might be psychologically affecting people in other ways, includ­ing pernicious ones that most of us are not aware of. I started gather­ing people who know much more than I do about things that fascinate and trouble me—such as

· what’s been holding us back from dealing with this crisis head-on;
· how eco-anxiety affects one’s thinking and behaviour;
· where the nuances lie in people’s concerns around having kids in times of warming;
· what we can do to prevent eco-emotions from becoming over­whelming and debilitating;
· how we can support each other in living more comfortably in the moment while appreciating the immense dangers we face and working to mitigate them;
· what communities that have long lived under existential threat know about surviving dark times;
· and how those with more privilege and protection can supportively partner with them, recognizing that all fates are tied, with­out re-centring their own needs.

Through conversations, research, and reflection, I learned how we can maintain a balance between hope and fear without giving in—out of self-preservation—to either side of this tempting binary. A crucial part of finding that balance—and sitting in the uncertainty— is grieving what is happening and understanding why mourning eco­logical losses may hold political power for us now, allowing us to gather the conviction to make change while extending a platform for others to join us. Rather than bury our heads in the sand and suppress our discomfort, we can harness and transform the distress we feel into meaningful actions and forms of connection. It became clear to me that the keys to that transformation are wise communication and building bridges across our divides, as well as supporting young people to deal with the dangers they are inheriting. Lastly, I wanted to understand what happens to mental health when disaster strikes, when people’s hope in the future erodes, and what will be required from the mental health field if it is to deal with the scale of psychic damage this is all causing.

Those ideas became the seeds for this book, and what I discovered about them makes up the chapters that follow. They chronicle an edu­cation I received by peeling back the layers of many different fields. Partway into my research, I developed an understanding of how my own privileges were fuelling my eco-anxiety. My lack of personal experience with existential threats meant I had a lower reserve of existential resilience to rely on. I’d have to learn to cultivate it through a process of internal emotional activism, which will be explained in the chapters ahead. A key part of that for me involves listening to the stories of people who have not been able to take their security for granted, and who have long understood how unsafe the world can be. What my research clearly shows is that facing your fears and authenti­cally committing to the belief that it isn’t too late to strive for better futures is long and exhausting work that requires all forms of care. That’s why this book also includes therapeutic concepts for cultivating additional forms of inner resilience from the ones you already hold— because everybody needs support in ontologically threatening times.

In order to shore ourselves up against what’s to come, how we organize our society and economy needs to change, how we care for our health needs to change, how we parent needs to change, and how we relate to nature and each other needs to change. Because, whether we like it or not, what it means to be human has already changed. The environment we grew up with is slipping away, making room for the emergence of a new Earth that many scientists have projected in grim detail. But this coming world is not yet fully known— there is still room to shape it. The positive in all this is that the torment comes bearing gifts. If you explore its depths, you’ll find a valve somewhere inside you that taps into the most existential part of yourself. Once you open it, a boundless stream of love, connection, and meaning will always be at your back, fuelling what you do. And if you are among those feeling this pain, we cannot afford for you not to also discover this fuel. The planet will be here for a long time, but its humans and many other species might not. They need you to be wakeful, internally strengthened, and externally motivated, and that is not hyperbole.

Editorial Reviews

“A rare look at the internal work required to meaningfully confront the existential threats climate change poses to our institutions, our futures, and our selves. If you are ready to feel through eco-anxiety, grieve what’s lost, and imagine what comes next, read this courageous book.” —Naomi Klein, author of On Fire and This Changes Everything

"Dr. Britt Wray doesn’t ever look away from the hard emotional truths of the climate crisis. But it’s also exactly from this scary place that she is able to help us manifest something we all desperately need nowadays: strength. Generation Dread is a vital and deeply compelling read." —Adam McKay, award-winning writer, director and producer (Vice, Succession, Don't Look Up)
“In this intriguing and engaging work, Britt Wray explores the internal ecology of climate anxiety with insight and sensitivity. She shows finally that meaningful living is possible even in the face of that which threatens to extinguish life itself, and that addressing global climate change begins with attending to the climate within.—Dr. Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No

“The climate future can look bleak, and alarming, but those aren't the only ways to relate to it—or the only ways we will live through and experience it. Generation Dread is a marvelous exploration of many of the divergent, sometimes contradictory, sometimes paradoxical, but always human ways in which we navigate the effects of climate change, with ideas for how we might do so more productively and healthily in the future.” —David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth

"What a gift. Generation Dread meets the unsettled soul with kinship and insight. In these brimming pages, Britt Wray guides us through the interior and interpersonal landscape of the climate crisis, helping us find a grounded, collective path forward in our tangled time." —Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson, climate strategist and co-editor of All We Can Save
"If like me you walk around in grief and fear about the unravelling of Earth’s ecosystems, if avoidance and silence often feel like the only way to cope, then you will meet yourself in the pages of Generation Dread. With utmost empathy and wisdom, Britt Wray explores how we can stay engaged with hard truths and act responsibly in their light. This book was just what I needed and I read it twice." —Joan Thomas, Governor General's Award-winning author of Five Wives
“An extraordinary exploration of the emotional and psychological toll environmental chaos is already exacting. It’s also a road map out from under that burden, made all the more compelling by the way it tracks [Wray’s] own journey. . . . If Generation Dread has one overriding theme, it’s that community saves, and that trust and mutual care are its foundations.” Maclean’s
“In her new book Generation Dread . . . Wray . . . [charts] a path forward for those who feel uneasy or even stuck when it comes to eco-anxiety. Wray’s approach is holistic, weaving together various strands of thought from psychology and public health to help readers cultivate the resilience and emotional intelligence they’ll need to fight for the planet—and to survive the calamities that might come.” Mashable
“Grateful to Britt Wray for devoting her work to shining a bright light on climate dread. . . . I have said before and I’ll say it again; I believe climate anxiety and climate grief is the unseen shadow at the heart of all of our crises of society and mental health, and until that’s faced, we can’t understand fully what is happening in us and around us. In this context, Britt Wray’s book is indispensable.” –Tamara Lindeman, Brooklyn Vegan

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