Reading About Sustainability: Generation Dread by Britt Wray

Reading About Sustainability @TrishTalksBooks
January 2023
Generation Dread by Britt Wray
Knopf Canada 2022

Read this Book If: You’re thinking more about climate change and dealing with anxiety about what lies ahead, or struggling with guilt over your own sustainability choices.

About the author:

Wray was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and has an impressive resume. From her website, she is, “a Human and Planetary Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health. Her research focuses on the mental health impacts of the ecological crisis.” She had a PhD in Science Communication from the University of Copenhagen. She has a TED talk, and has long been vocal in the climate arena. She’s hosted lots of programs on CBC, and she even hosted a special Nature of Things feature documentary! This is her second book. Clearly, she knows her subject.

Why I wanted to read it:

As a retired physician, I’ve seen patients increasingly consumed by eco-anxiety, and about their growing unease around how to deal with climate change. There’s also the huge personal impact of how to conduct oneself in the world in order to minimize one’s own impact. I’ve personally experienced enormous guilt, feeling trapped by the choices that I make every day. Do I drive my gasoline powered vehicle to the store? Can I go on a vacation that involves air travel? Should I buy anything wrapped in plastic? It sounds over the top, but I’ve found myself occasionally paralysed in the grocery store aisle trying to figure out just what I should buy or not in order to avoid plastic packaging.

This book starts to examine what eco-anxiety is, what it isn’t, and how we can harness our own feelings of dread for change.

The questions the book answered for me:

Wray tackles the idea of eco-anxiety, as well as grief and mourning for the loss of what we took to be true of our planet, emphasizing the need to accept that change will happen. I appreciated her discussion of the difference between what is mental illness in terms of an anxiety disorder; and the normal, adaptive and expected anxiety about climate change. “After all, the last thing we want is to pathologize this moral emotion, which stems from an accurate understanding of the severity of our planetary health crisis.” She talked about where on the spectrum of “belief” about climate change we all are. I could identify myself as in the stage of Disavowal, though moving towards Acceptance. There was ample time to self-reflect as I listened to the book. How is it possible to know the facts but to be a “disavower,” to believe that things really won’t change? We live in this “conflicted space,” according to Wray, and that’s an very uncomfortable place to be.

I suffer from eco-guilt a lot, feeling trapped by having to constantly make every decision matter with respect to my own sustainability. Chapter 5 presented an excellent look at eco-guilt, and it hit close to home. She identifies this as a “massive energy drain,” if we let it take over us, and obsess over each choice.

What do we do with all of these forms of dread? Next, Wray walked through her contention that we need to do our own inner work to process our feelings. This is “inner activism” and I love that term. This can teach, change and heal us, and then we can turn our discomfort into something positive: a mobilising force.

Finally, she gives us ideas on how to talk to others about climate change and action. It’s informative and uplifting.

Each chapter ends with “Key Takeaways”. Basically a TLDR!

I also want to mention that Wray does a good job of discussing the intersectionality of privilege and eco-anxiety, and the disproportionate effects of climate change on those who pollute the least. It’s humbling. “Privileged anxiety about the climate, such my own, must be harnessed and purposefully directed outward for justice oriented results if it is going to be of help.”

Some practical takeaways and directions for further learning:
  • I can more easily identify the nature of my own eco-anxiety and guilt. I can start with my own “inner activism,” which will gradually allow me to decide how I can mobilise my feelings in a useful way for activism in my community.
  • I can be more cognizant of my own privilege in the world, which increases my motivation to learn and value the way that climate is changing elsewhere and accept that we need to change not only for ourselves but just as much for others.
  • I liked learning about the spectrum of acceptance of climate change, and I’m gradually waking up from disavowal. I’ll work on moving forward.
  • We can move away from the binary of all bad or all good in terms of how we act and how we try to think of making change:
“Reframing environmentalism as a movement of abundance, connection and wellbeing may help us rethink it as a politics of desire rather than a politics of individual sacrifice and denial.”

Further resources:
  • She has a newsletter called Gen Dread that you can subscribe to
  • There’s a link to her excellent TED Talk

Other articles in this series: