Wray discusses her book, which is framed around her decision about whether to have a child in a climate crisis, and advice for navigating the stormy seas of climate change.

Britt Wray is a Stanford University postdoc and the author of “Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.” Courtesy Sebastian Wray.

Britt Wray, a Stanford postdoc who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains, talked to The Six Fifty about her book “Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis,” which debuted last year. In its pages, she discusses the mental health impacts of the climate crisis, especially on young people who are increasingly agitated that the planet is facing unprecedented threats due to the actions of previous and current generations. 

Wray, who writes the “Gen Dread” newsletter and is a Human and Planetary Health postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shares her insights about her own journey in grappling with the mental health toll of the climate crisis, offers advice on what people in the Bay Area should do to build resiliency and recommends ways everyone, especially young people, can work toward coping and acting to more effectively face the climate crisis. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Kate Bradshaw: You’ve pulled together a lot of really interesting ideas and experts in your book “Generation Dread” around this question that I think a lot of people are thinking about right now: How do people handle the mental health impacts of this growing awareness that the climate crisis is only getting worse? You frame the book around your own personal journey in deciding whether or not to have a child (which you decide on by the book’s end). Can you start by telling me a little bit about what that process looked like? 

Britt Wray: A lot of people are feeling like they are stuck in a dilemma around how to act right now. We’re all part of a very carbon-intensive system, and we don’t want to be making the problem worse. And yet we are entrapped within these ways of life. 

“Generation Dread” is framed around author Britt Wray’s decision on whether to have children given the climate crisis. Courtesy Penguin Random House.

We can see how we are contributing to the problem itself, through our actions, through the actions the organizations that we work for are taking, through the way that our investments are being made. Change to a radical degree is required yesterday, immediately, in order to prevent harm and curb the damage, and it’s overwhelming. It’s really difficult for people to take the next step and feel anything other than helpless or powerless.

There’s this huge gap where we have environmental values (on one side); the desire to save the world, to improve protections for people’s well-being, for non-human species and for the future of generations not yet born. And then we see what’s going on in the news every day and what might be coming out of our tailpipe. It can be easier for people to avoid it, or just push it beneath the surface, rather than face the difficult truths of this really challenging predicament. 

This gap keeps people unconsciously very anxious and stressed, and sometimes it pokes through and it becomes trauma. So I include my own story in the book to try and model that vulnerability that I think is needed, so that we don’t continuously shove things beneath the surface because they’re difficult but actually can increase our tolerance for dealing with “negative” emotions. Because our ability to act is really thwarted if it remains in a bubble of silence. 

I’ve had environmental values – I worked on conservation biology, and definitely had my eyes open to this, (but) it didn’t become profoundly transformational for me until I had my own real mental health reckoning around the climate crisis, through the question of: Do I feel comfortable, knowing everything that I know about what the science is saying, and seeing the lack of effective action, bringing in another person to deal with this for the rest of their life? How would I rather use my time and resources and energy? Would it be better to just focus on trying to be part of political change-making with others, rather than devote all that time to what is an all-consuming task of raising a child? 

These kinds of big questions were not easy to solve, and when I started talking about this publicly a few years ago, there weren’t that many people talking about it. In the many years since 2017, when I started that project of looking at this through a reproductive lens, it’s exploded (and) become a really mainstream topic. For me, feeling very distressed about this particular dilemma was what led me to go much deeper into climate, and much deeper into finding coping mechanisms for my own well-being that I wanted to share.

We also need to talk way more proactively about how to prioritize mental health protection and promotion strategies in the climate crisis as we move forward. This isn’t just about people feeling climate-anxious or getting distressed about questions around lifestyle, like raising kids. It’s about vulnerable communities losing everything, and parts of the world becoming uninhabitable, and the loss of life, loss of sanity, and loss of community and individual resilience that the climate threat presents us with that we need to talk about now. It isn’t just mitigation and adaptation;  it’s also about how can we create the right theory of change in our society now, so that personal resilience and community resilience on a psychological level is upheld, honored and respected. Without that, if people are so drained, traumatized or burnt out, then there’s not energy left to do the other transformational work that we need.

Under an orange and smoky sky, tree lights are on around 3 p.m. in downtown Palo Alto on Sept. 9, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Kate Bradshaw: What would you recommend for people who are based on the Peninsula as they try to tackle their own anxieties around climate?

Britt Wray: I think we all need to have conversations about how this is showing up in our lives. Big Basin burned to the ground not very long ago. The air pollution that comes from wildfires, and now the wildfire seasons that we have, is super injurious to our health. Particles 2.5 (micrometers) and smaller from the burning of trees and structures are small enough to enter into not only our lungs, but deep down into the alveoli, where they then cross the blood barrier and enter our circulatory system and can add all kinds of lifelong health threats. It’s especially dangerous for children. My colleagues at Stanford study this and it’s really relevant to people in the Bay Area. 

It’s not just that you have to worry about your house burning down, depending on where you are and where the fires are at any given time, but you really need to think about protecting the air that you’re breathing, especially with the young people in your life because it can cause immune system problems that are lifelong cancers, all kinds of awful things. 

You should know in your community if there’s a clean room, for instance. Is there a place where you can go and have safe, reliable, clean air to breathe? Do you have the right kinds of high-quality filters on the buildings you live in and that you work in? All of this is really critical for the Bay Area. There are other climate hazard exposures that people have here.

A freeway marquee on U.S. Highway 101 in Palo Alto advises the public to avoid travel due to a storm on Jan. 4. Photo by Jocelyn Dong.

Kate Bradshaw: Like the storms that have hit Santa Cruz recently. 

Britt Wray: Exactly! It ripped out the pier and Capitola got flooded. It’s important to know your emergency procedures, and how to get out when things get dicey and who to rely on. A lot of the research shows (that) our ability to not get traumatized by these things happening and rebuild faster after adversity hits our community really lies in the strength of our social connections, social trust, (and) social capital, defined as the ability for people in a community to come together and know how to lead and follow and achieve shared goals.

It has been shown time and time again to prevent mental disorders, for instance, in groups who have been through disasters. Where there is high social capital and trust and connectedness, you see less post traumatic stress disorder than communities where (there is) a lot of isolation. We can invest in the strength of our relationships and the quality of the community ties that we have. It’s not just a nice-to-have, it’s actually a need-to-have for dealing with these things. 

That’s a big issue for people at this time, because loneliness as a medical issue is off the charts. People are more isolated from their neighbors than our previous generations were. We need to be thoughtful about moving away from what this climate psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe calls a “culture of uncare” towards a culture of care. We need to build intentionally these caring cultures to deal with climate adaptation on the ground level where we live.

Montserrat Mendez raises a sign that reads “Climate change is NOT cool” as part of worldwide Climate Strike demonstrations calling for more urgent action on climate change on Castro Street in 2019. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Kate Bradshaw: You also talk in the book about how young people in particular are really bearing these mental health impacts. What are some of the tools that can help them right now? 

Britt Wray: There needs to be a supportive, caring, validating environment in which this can be discussed. Many adults might get their own defenses raised and they might get scared themselves and try to shut down the other person’s concern. There’s a lot of scientifically valid reasons to be feeling distressed – (it’s a) normal reaction, and it’s okay to validate that. To be able to offer social support, so that there’s a constructive way through it is key. It requires not minimizing, legitimizing, mirroring the concerns (and) making it okay to go deeper and explore more. 

Too often, people get blamed for being some kind of catastrophic thinker, or (are told they) just have an anxiety disorder or are worrying too much. That’s unproductive and leaves people feeling a lot worse. It’s really important to support young people through the educational system so that they can better deal with distress, anger, grief, anxiety or whatever it might be. In educational systems, often climate isn’t even talked about. But in some places where it is talked about, or in specific programs, like environmental studies programs, young people are being dealt a barrage of terrifying news (with) no mention of the fact that this is distressing, and no psychosocial skills or supports to be able to work through that. 

That needs to be changed, because it makes (young people) feel at a loss or isolated. It’s so much to carry as a young person who’s being told, ‘You’re part of the climate generation. You’re the ones who are going to fix this problem’  – meanwhile, you didn’t create it, (and) it’s threatening your quality of life, not in some distant far-out future, (but) already, now, and we see that it’s getting worse. 

Those messages are distressing. To pierce that damaging bubble of silence and start talking about resilience-building practices is really key. What do those look like? There’s a lot that we can gain from wisdom traditions, contemplative practices, ways of working with the nervous system, (and) things that are already used to help people with psychological distress and anxiety. 

Los Altos High School students march down El Camino Real as part of worldwide Climate Strike demonstrations in 2019. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Kate Bradshaw: Do you see those best practices being played out anywhere in the education system? 

Britt Wray: The Climate Mental Health Network is doing a great project to create these really practical toolkits that can support educators to accompany their lessons about climate change, for instance. There is something called the Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators. They’ve shared various approaches that are helping. 

Kate Bradshaw: You talk about how, in previous work you’ve done in media storytelling, there were times when you felt pressure to frame climate-related stories in a way that has a positive spin at the end, or at least isn’t depressing. But when that doesn’t feel like the most truthful way to tell a story, how do you balance the different pressures of narrative structure and truth-telling? And do you feel a sense of responsibility for the mental health toll of your own research and writing as it passes on to your readers? 

Britt Wray: We need to be authentic to the science and the emotions that this information carries. It’s critical to think as a journalist and as a storyteller about trauma-informed ways of doing this work, not just dumping a bunch of traumatic information on people and not leading them somewhere more constructive, whereby they can actually do something, whether that’s internal action for their own well-being or external action out in the world to address the systems that touch on the crisis itself.  You can’t just give people a bunch of really bad information and then not lead them anywhere where they can more proactively and with empowerment move towards somewhere that helps with their own nervous system disturbance that has happened, and also makes them feel like they’re helping to close that gap between their actions and their values, which can cause so much of that psychic strain that we talked about. 

So it is a balancing act, and there isn’t a simple formula. No one knows the exact ingredients you should give someone in a story in order to provoke positive change. We have a lot of behavior, psychology and decision-making science that has lots of insights, but it’s not like there’s a one-size-fits-all. The approach that I take is really about nuance and trying to balance the dark with the light. I try to use my own story and vulnerability, not just on the baby question, but other things to make it humanizing and to be able to talk about these things in a supportive way.

It’s a really difficult subject in which to work. What responsibility do I have for people’s mental health when dealing with difficult topics, versus what responsibility do I feel towards the world itself in this political moment of crisis that we’re in, and needing to do something – and in order to do something, you need to talk about it? I don’t have a perfect answer. 

To finish the answer about supporting young people: It’s really important to me that it doesn’t get framed as just helping young people self-soothe their nervous system when they’re anxious. We have to help people cope and act at the same time. It is about galvanizing political power, seeing yourselves as change-makers, being able to come together with people in your community and take some kind of action that is meaningful to you. In a really creative, permission-giving, expansive way, find ways of tapping into some of the changes that you want to see. There’s so much to be said about how to do that. The All We Can Save Project has resources to help people figure (that) out. 

For some people, it’s mindfulness and meditation and yoga. For other people, it’s somatic breathwork. For some people, it’s listening to podcasts and reading books about astrophysics and the solar system that put into perspective how infinitesimally small this moment is in the history of life; having fitness regimes or a social group that they can check in with; or going to a specific climate support, like climate cafes, or the Good Grief Network, groups that I write about in the book.

There’s lots of ways, but I want to highlight that it’s about coping – psychologically adapting to difficult information – and acting. 

“Generation Dread” is available for purchase online. Instagram: @gen_dread. Sign up for the Gen Dread newsletter here.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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