The backstory to Gen Dread
Before we really get into it, allow me to introduce myself
Next week, I’ll start publishing here on Gen Dread. Thanks for signing up! Clearly, you’ve also been feeling the heat. We’re going to brave it together with this newsletter by learning from some of the most insightful people on the planet who are tackling the deeply intersecting issues of mental health and the climate crisis.
Before we start, I’d like to tell you a bit about myself and how mental health in the climate crisis became my favourite research subject. I’m Britt Wray and I’m an author and broadcaster. Over the past 5 years I’ve hosted and produced podcasts and TV shows for the BBC and CBC, completed my PhD in science communication (I know kind of weird, but it’s a thing), and wrote a book about scientists who are trying to recreate extinct species like the woolly mammoth in the name of conservation (*ahem* so many ethical problems). I’m now writing another book called Generation Dread (Knopf-Random House 2022) and yep, it’s about mental health in the climate and wider ecological crisis.
The backstory to the book is that in 2017, I became overrun with eco-anxiety and eco-grief when my partner and I started talking about trying to get pregnant. The process of confronting what scientific models say about the terrifying ecological track we’re on, matched with completely inadequate action from the political establishment, birthed a painful dilemma. Back then, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Miley Cyrus, and umpteen news sites had not yet legitimized this form of anxiety. National polls hadn’t yet been tallied. Activist groups on this theme had not yet appeared (with the exception of this one). And academics weren’t yet studying reproductive angst in the climate crisis as a social phenomenon. (You can expect more on those studies in future editions of Gen Dread).
But there I was, suddenly overwhelmed, and because I’ve never had an anxiety disorder also quite disoriented. Almost overnight, I’d turned into that annoying person who manages to bring up climate trauma in every discussion. Congratulating friends who were newly pregnant became a tightrope walk tinged with tragedy. And when I cried about the climate, it hurt like the wind was knocked out of me. It was real deep grief, like someone I loved had died. I also felt new levels of rage and scorn for people who didn’t seem to care about ecocide. My partner even had to ask me to put a time-out on how I was discussing the climate at home, because it was poisoning our home (read: I was like a living breathing version of David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth - not fun!). These new feelings were, to say the least, interfering with my life and my relationships. I felt alienated by having these feelings inside of a culture that generally disallowed them. Worse, I could see I was unsettling people around me the more I shared what was going on.
But then my science communicator brain kicked in, and I decided to study myself. What was really going on here? And was there anything I could do to bring my old self back? I started interviewing 100+ experts -- several types of scientists, psychologists, therapists, activists, journalists, artists, and philosophers -- to get to the bottom of my new disposition and how it fit in with wider global and social trends. What I’ve learned from those people has been life-changing. They helped me gain a deep understanding of why there is nothing pathological about feeling eco-anxious; how psychiatric trauma sets in after fast moving climate disasters and slower moving ecological events; how social injustice - the kernel of climate change - affects emotional wellbeing; what individuals can do to cope when the dark scientific data in their head takes over; why the secret sauce for emotional resilience lies in community ties; and what kinds of system overhaul are needed to climate-proof the mental health system.
I also developed a critical awareness of how my own white, middle-class, cis-gendered, and able-bodied privilege was 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, not least by centring the stories of communities that have always known how unsafe the world can be.
I’m no longer so rattled and am much more resolved about the need for complex systems change and how I can help bring it forth. The crushing feeling of powerlessness is gone and whenever the darkness returns, I know how to welcome it. It turns out, when it feels welcome, it never wants to stay. And as I watch more and more people - particularly young people - fall into the grips of hopelessness and helplessness that waking up to the climate and biodiversity emergency can cause, I’m eager to share what I’ve learned. A lot of those lessons are contained in my forthcoming book, and more will be served up here. So please, share this newsletter with someone who you think needs it.
Or feel free to forward this email to a friend. After all, what’s more daunting than realizing we’re all stuck on a cooking rock together and have wasted the bulk of time we’ve had to cool it off? We all need coping tools as well as to see the big picture of what mental health demands in the climate crisis.
So now that you know where I’m coming from, we can skip the pleasantries and hit the ground running when the first edition comes to your inbox next week about climate-aware therapy (yes, it’s a thing! And it’s glorious).