Keeping Cool in the Face of Eco-Anxiety with Britt Wray

PodcastJuly 25, 2022

It can be very stressful to see how we are contributing to the problem that makes us feel unsafe. And that is a very psychologically, strange place to exist.

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Intro

In this episode of the podcast, Brooke chats with Britt Wray - author of Generation Dread and a Human and Planetary Health Fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Britt talks about her work around eco-anxiety, the reasons and extent to which different people feel it, and the tools people can deploy to harness it and achieve positive, climate-friendly outcomes.

Some of the topics discussed include:

  • The drivers of eco-anxiety, media hysteria, and the evolutionary experience of an existential threat.
  • Why do some communities experience higher levels of eco-anxiety than others?
  • The role of time perception and present bias in eco-anxiety, and why it can be compared to Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Why climate change is a unique ever-evolving challenge for us to contend with psychologically.
  • Tools to help us acknowledge and accept eco-anxiety as being real and valid, and move beyond a state of anxiety-induced paralysis.

The conversation continues

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Sneak Peek

Disproportionate Community Grief

“For example, if you're Inuit then the sea ice is a big part of your identity. But the sea ice is vanishing for more and more months of the year which prevents you from being able to carry out specific traditional roles in hunting and fishing, and things that make your community integral to that place. And so, there's been a lament, a mourning, a grief for what is truly melting away.”

Eco-Anxiety as a Justice Issue

“The connections between kind of colonization and extraction and industrialism in this crisis today become very clear. And then, there's anger about the injustice of having to suffer at the hands of this when, of course, those communities haven't been the ones really with the most material consumption, making this crisis worse.”

Pre-Traumatic Stress

“So those are some examples of common feelings that people report. But really, another way of thinking about it is like pre-traumatic stress. So we often hear about post-traumatic stress, after some horrific thing unfolds. But what we're experiencing now is the interpretation of scientific information, data that tells us things are going to get harder as the world continues to heat up.” 

Why Eco-Anxiety Hits Young People Harder

“Young people in general, Gen Z, millennials, people who have grown up with the awareness of this crisis in the back of their mind, ever since they've been an independent thinking human, and they know that they've inherited the duty to clean it up along with the mess, very unfairly, which they didn't create. And because it is an existential kind of stress and pressure, this becomes very overwhelming on still developing brains and bodies, which is a huge injustice intergenerationally, and they know this.” 

Living Life in the Grey

“Yeah, there's a lot to be fearful of and still reason to hope. When we can get into that non-binary gray space and hold those two conflicting ideas and be more flexible in our thinking and not split them off from one or another, but actually straddle the fence, then that's the productive place we need to be working from.”

Facing Eco-Anxiety and Harnessing it Productively

“We actually have to increase our tolerance for this difficulty, for this distress, for this discomfort, and get comfortable being uncomfortable, so to speak. Because it's a disrupted, turbulent world of synchronous intersecting crises that we have to deal with, that will be getting more focal as we move forward. And so, all of these kinds of approaches are really resilience building necessities, and that we can do it in community.”

Transcript

Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, Research Director at TDL. And I'll be your host for the discussion.

My guest today is Britt Ray, author of Generation Dread and currently a Human and Planetary Health Fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In today's episode, we'll be talking about eco-anxiety, fears about global warming and more, and how we can cool them off. Britt, thanks for joining us.

Britt: Thanks for having me. Hi.

Brooke: Tell me everything there is to know about eco-anxiety. Let's start with, what is it?

Britt: Sure. Well, it's really this assortment of feelings that one can experience when confronting the climate crisis and other forms of ecological degradation. So of course, anxiety's in the title, and your mind goes to that kind of hypervigilance of worry and stress and anxiety. That being aware of the danger we face can produce, and that's certainly part of it. But there's also another set of emotions that often co-occur with it, including grief, sadness, anger, sometimes even a sense of powerlessness or helplessness in this crisis. And many mental health professionals argue that it's really normal, natural, and healthy to feel anxiety, sadness, worry, and grief, even anger about what's happening, because we do face a real existential threat with what's going on.

However, when it becomes so overwhelming that it impairs our functioning and our ability to get through the day. Or it traps us in a space of despair, married to powerlessness, which really robs us of our agency to come together with others and make a difference, then of course it's a problem.

Brooke: Okay, so there's a lot to unpack there. You mentioned a lot of different kinds of feelings, and potentially in response to different kinds of stimuli, let's call them that, or different kinds of situations. Can you walk us through a few practical examples of that? What might one be confronted with that would kind of catalyze this feeling, and what would the feeling feel like?

Britt: Sure. So there are many different versions of this. It's not a monolith, but it can range from taking in scary headlines, understanding that the UN secretary-general is saying that it's a code red for humanity and that the latest UNIPCC reports are just documentations of abject failure to protect our ability to thrive in the future. And so, that can bring about a sense of dread and fear and worry and anger about the lack of action. And just a real existential sense that we're in real danger, and it makes the floor shift beneath people's feet, so to speak.

Especially, if they've previously taken their security for granted and now are contemplating, “Okay, well, we see already disasters are up-ticking a lot. What does this mean moving forward, in terms of more hurricanes, floods, fires, drought, heat waves that are the deadliest and most common of disasters?” And then understanding, “Okay, this is not just about proportional change. It's really about cascading change. And we can surpass tipping points that will produce even faster transformation, which is really dangerous, than what we're seeing now. And indeed, things are happening faster than scientists expected.”

And so, all of that can start to get the thoughts kicked up and the feelings about, “Okay, how do I protect myself? How do I protect people I love?” Or a lot of grief. For example, if you call a certain coastline home, and it's being lost to erosion and sea level rise. Or if you're Inuit and the sea ice is a big part of your identity. But the sea ice is vanishing for more and more months of the year which prevents you from being able to carry out specific traditional roles in hunting and fishing, and things that make your community integral to that place, and that have, of course, been going on for thousands of years. And so, there's been a lament, a mourning, a grief for what is truly melting away.

There is a kind of anger that people can experience from the injustice of all this. Understanding that the frontline communities, those who are the most vulnerable to climate hazards already, and going forward, are typically those who are the least responsible for putting emissions into the atmosphere and are predominantly poor communities of color in low and middle-income countries, but also in industrialized high-income nations.

And so, the connections between colonization and extraction and industrialism in this crisis today become very clear. And then, there's anger about the injustice of having to suffer at the hands of this when, of course, those communities haven't been the ones really with the most material consumption, making this crisis worse.

So those are some examples of common feelings that people report. But really, another way of thinking about it is like pre-traumatic stress. So we often hear about post-traumatic stress, after some horrific thing unfolds. But what we're experiencing now is the interpretation of scientific information, data that tells us things are going to get harder as the world continues to heat up. And that this can stoke conflict over dwindling resources and migration crises never before seen, and all the political tension this will create in an already disrupted world.

Well then, okay, thinking about that ahead of the fact becomes an anticipatory way of experiencing grief, anxiety and that sort of thing, which is why eco-anxiety is also sometimes talked about as pre-traumatic stress or anticipatory grief. Because a lot of this is this future-forward experience of being told week after week, month after month, that things are getting worse, and that we are not acting, and that we're missing our opportunities to prevent harm. And so, all of that just makes a whole lot of sense, as to why it's now living in people's bodies as a sematic reaction, a stress reaction.

Brooke: So you said a lot there. I want to start breaking some of that down into chunks, to help people kind of parse the things that are in there.

So you mentioned a range of triggers. Sometimes it's reporting and headlines, and a bit more distant. Sometimes it's effects that are visible right in your backyard, or at your front step, or where your front step used to be, but can't be anymore. Sometimes the information I gather or the kind of catalyst can also be interpersonal. It's engaging with the community and seeing the effects on your community that this is having.

And in terms of responses, you mentioned some more outward focused things like a sense of injustice, a sense of anger. You also mentioned some more kind of inward focused reactions, like fear, or a sense of powerlessness.

Is there something else in the taxonomy there that you feel that I've missed in trying to capture what you've said?

Britt: Well, there are many other climate and environmental linked emotions that we could talk about. But they're not necessarily going to be categorized as eco-anxiety, because there can also be really positive eco-emotions of love and connection and care and joy and celebration. All kinds of nourishing responses to the environment that people are also cultivating at the same time as they're working to protect what can be protected and saved.

But no, when it comes to eco-anxiety, those are the main ones. Although, there's also a sense of just exhaustion, burnout. The mental exhaustion that people often experience in activist and climate science circles from having known about this, talked about advocacy and the solutions we could deploy, and seeing them continuously disavowed and denied, becomes really psychologically harmful day in, day out over many years, and can cause people to just give up out of a sense of defeat and frustration. But we need those people in the fight, as they hold specialized knowledge. So this is another issue within what it means to confront challenging climate and environmental emotions that we're seeing pop up a lot.

Green political leaders as well, they understand this. Environmental journalists understand this. There's a variety of people who, if they're thinking about this crisis eight hours or more a day, really do bear a psychological cost.

Brooke: I want to dig into that a little bit more. So talking about which groups are more affected by eco-anxiety or maybe affected differently is a better way to talk about that. There was something subtle that you said in passing a few moments ago, which is about people in the first world being accustomed to more safety and stability, but that's not the case for large swaths of the human population who don't get to enjoy the benefit of safety, and haven't grown up in a situation where safety and stability and security are the norm. Can you tell us a bit more about the different reactions that different groups can have, depending on their baseline experience around security?

Britt: So there's been this discourse that emerged a couple of years ago to say, "Okay, eco-anxiety, climate anxiety, that sounds like it's just for the worried well." That's predominantly middle class people, often White people, those who have had the luxury of being able to take their safety for granted, now feeling rocked for the first time when it comes to their sense of safety in the world, because the climate crisis is an all-enveloping hazard for humanity. And they're understanding that in a deep, new way.

Whereas, of course, communities who have been dealing with marginalization through generations and still today, the majority of people who have ever walked the Earth really, have always understood, on a more narrow, deep level, how unsafe the world can be. And there's an existential resilience there, that comes with facing existential pressures and adversity many times before. And of course, we can talk about slavery and colonization and also living under an authoritarian regime or experiencing sexual violence in an organized way. There's lots of different ways in which people have been confronting these feelings and moving through them and finding ways to say, “The future has us in it, and we will produce better conditions for our people.”

But what the data actually shows is no. Although yeah, maybe it's climate anxiety or eco-anxiety that is the first trigger to chip away at what's called ‘ontological security’ of the most privileged among us, we can see that this type of distress actually just sits on top of other layers of distress and social determinants of emotional wellbeing in communities that are experiencing poverty and racism and intergenerational trauma from colonization, and all kinds of other things that might be unique to them.

So in one study that my colleagues and I did, we looked at eco-anxiety in 10,000 16 to 25-year-olds in 10 countries around the world. And we were looking in Nigeria and the Philippines and India, but also countries like the U.S. UK, France, Finland. And we found that while these young respondents reported in huge proportion that their feelings about the climate crisis are negatively impacting their daily functioning (45% across all the countries said that it's getting in the way of their eating, sleeping, concentrating, going to school, going to work, having fun, playing) that this was much higher in places like Nigeria, Indian, and Philippines. Instead of an average of 45%, it was closer to 67%, for example.

We know that these young people in these countries are experiencing disproportionate exposure to climate hazards already, and have lower resource settings in terms of what they can work with to actually buttress themselves against these harms, compared to some of the high income nations that are producing the emissions, pointing to the inequality and why climate justice is so key. But it also means that eco-anxiety and climate anxiety is another justice issue, because this becomes a layer cake of difficulty, a layer cake of distress for communities on the front lines. And then, it might just be the first existential threat that the more privileged and resourced communities are dealing with. So that's an important nuance there, even though it's understandable that we might want to at first dismiss this as being just a privileged person's problem or first world problems. It's certainly not the case when you dig into it.

And furthermore, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in the U.S has mapped out which groups are most concerned about the climate crisis and what they are willing to do about it. And Black and Latino communities are more likely to be concerned than their White counterparts, and also move into a space of agency and action likely tied to their awareness of facing the brunt of the hazards more directly themselves.

So this makes sense, what we are stressed by, we will move to act on if we have that form of resilience and know that we can step into some power on it. But it does weigh down on different groups in a disproportionate way. It does bring about the need for justice to be the key of what it means to live well with environmental emotions, especially when they become disruptive to functioning. And we know that other groups can experience this in a big way, compared to the average across the population, including, as we mentioned, climate and environmental professionals and young people.

Young people in general, Gen Z, millennials, people who have grown up with the awareness of this crisis in the back of their mind, ever since they've been an independent thinking human, and they know that they've inherited the duty to clean it up along with the mess, very unfairly, which they didn't create. And that because it is an existential kind of stress and pressure, this becomes very overwhelming on still developing brains and bodies, which is a huge injustice intergenerationally, and they know this. And of course, we see fervent activism from, especially, Gen Z on this issue. They know that they're fighting for their ability to enjoy themselves on this planet in the future. And so, they're made aware of this often before they have the power to vote, before they can go out and really take up power in society, which they're being told, "Oh, you're our hope. You will fix this.” However, “Hey, I'm 14,” for example, “Give me a break. We really need older people to bridge together in meaningful ways with us on this.”

And furthermore, being told that this is the crisis you're going to have to deal with for the rest of your life, before you've had an opportunity to move out of the house and explore important aspects of your identity, can be obviously very psychologically crushing. So it's no wonder then that we see spikes in eco-anxiety and its impairment on the wellbeing of young people in the research that we're doing, compared to older generations.

Brooke: I want to talk about time, because time is obviously a really important aspect of this. You mentioned intergenerational justice and these kinds of things, and the timing in life when different generations are being confronted with this challenge, where they are in their development cycle. There's something that you mentioned a couple of minutes ago, that again was subtle, but really kind of stuck with me. And that was the way that the visible signs of climate change that we're seeing already kind of pull us into the future.

In the behavioral community, one of the things that we often talk about is present bias and how laser focused we are on what's going on right now and right in front of us. And that we struggle to take the long view. We struggle as a species to take longer term considerations as seriously as short term immediate considerations.

What you're talking about though, sounds like it's bringing an interesting nuance to this. It's not just about experiencing the present and the future as interchangeable. It sounds more like the future has a different texture to it. And that has impacts on the way that we feel in the present. So the exhaustion that we might feel, of contemplating this potentially catastrophic future. That's just materially different from how it would be to contemplate that kind of catastrophic event in the much nearer term. We're actually not talking about from a kind of lived phenomenological perspective. We're not talking about just exactly the same thing, except 30 years later, instead of next month. It really is different, to feel about the long-term future, than it is to feel about the near-term future. And so, it's not just a matter of degree, it's a matter of quality as well. Does that sound about right to you?

Britt: Yeah, I think that's very well put. And of course, the reason why the future is feeling so materially different in content and degree is because of our bias to focus on the present. It's because for decades, while we've known about this problem and had opportunities to galvanize a meaningful response to it, we have chosen to continue to invest in present-term comforts, rather than make uncomfortable shifts in order to give up on some conveniences in the near term to safeguard the future and prevent our way of life from eating the future for others.

So they're deeply interconnected, what you're talking about, but we're now dealing with the accumulated effects of having been blocked by political malfeasance and the entrenched interests of, of course, the powers of oil, coal and gas lobbying in many power-holding positions across the globe, essentially, that have stalled and delayed action in many ways. And of course, sowed doubt about it and confused the public for a very long time, as to whether or not this is even a real threat. Now that we're thankfully past that, it's still extremely late in the game, and we are continuing to do what the science tells us we must not do if we want to have a particular texture to the future. And so, it's understanding that these last ‘best hopes’ we have to retain a particular texture of the future are slipping through our fingers, which produces despair and anxiety and whatnot. But we still have to safeguard whatever texture of the future that we can, and that it is not too late to do that.

And so, it's this very difficult psychological space to be able to move into, where we can go beyond the black and white thinking, because it's much more comfortable for our brains to simply commit to one story. To not have to contend with the tension of cognitive dissonance, of holding two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time, which is that, “Yeah, there's a lot to be fearful of and still reason to hope.” And that when we can get into that non-binary gray space and hold those two conflicting ideas and be more flexible in our thinking and not split them off from one or another, and then rest our feet in a permanent position on one side of the fence, but actually straddle the fence, then that's the productive place we need to be working from.

But our biases, as you would know, in the behavior change community, this is really complex stuff cognitively, for people to do, which is why we need to talk about these emotions and be able to work out of these ruts that we can get ourselves in. Especially, if we ruminate in the thoughts, or doom scroll and find it more authentic to then say to ourselves, "Well, it's too late." Or, "We're doomed." Or, "There's nothing we can do." Because indeed, the information we're being told to focus on is harrowing. And often, in the way that the media's constructed, not very helpful in terms of showing us what actions we can take alongside sounding the alarm, which also is not good for our thinking and sense of efficacy and agency.

So we have a lot of mental gymnastics to do to make ourselves comfortable with that tension of uncertainty, of how bad this is all going to get, and how nations are going to respond. And knowing that our actions do matter, even though they are small as individuals, and we can't reconcile this. But it's a very interesting time to be alive and to try to do these things in order to get the texture of the future that we want, as compared to the one that we are most fearful of in this time.

Brooke: Speaking of fear over time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether this is just part of a bigger pattern. So in the 1960s with the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a whole wave of nuclear anxiety. Then a couple of decades later when the Cold War seemed like maybe it wasn't going to remain so cold, you have this kind of next wave of nuclear anxiety. Is climate anxiety just the latest kind of existential anxiety ‘du jour’ for our age? Will we always find some existential threat to agonize?

And maybe another way to approach this is to ask, what is the different coloring that's imparted to eco-anxiety in particular, in virtue of its subject matter, that would be different from nuclear anxiety? One of the things that comes to mind is the kind of binary nature of a lot of the nuclear anxiety. It's like, if the thing that you're worried about is hundreds of nuclear warheads flying around the Earth and literally destroying all of human life, and that's at one end. And that event is either going to happen or it's not going to happen and there's not going to be some intermediate position.

We're heading into this probability distribution of mostly bad outcomes from the havoc that we're wreaking on our natural environment, but we don't know which of those outcomes is going to be the one that we end up with. And we also don't really know what those outcomes are going to feel like, which is quite different from... Either it's going to feel quite a bit like it always has, because there was no nuclear apocalypse. Or it's not going to feel like anything at all, because no one's going to be around to feel it, because there was a nuclear apocalypse.

Can you talk a little bit about how the specific features of eco-anxiety might give it a different kind of flavor, a different color than other kinds of worry?

Britt: Yes, all of that is very well put. The nuclear anxiety really relates to a binary death threat; detonate or don't, this is happening or it's not. And hey, your hands are tied. If the foreign leader suddenly drops a bomb on you, there's really not much that you can do. However, we are faced in the climate crisis with the fabric of our world, every single decision that is made, in every part of the world, all day long, and over our entire lives has been fueling the fire, so to speak, in terms of extracting and burning fossil fuels to produce our way of life. While, of course, there being umpteen opportunities by which to make shifts to more renewable forms of energy.

And this is a very sticky, soupy, complex, foggy space to navigate. It's not clear, like the detonate or don't. And of course, that's what produces the sense of overwhelm, the hyperobject, so to speak. Timothy Morton is a philosopher who describes the climate crisis as this ‘hyperobject’, which means something that is so vast and all-encompassing, that it really protrudes beyond the normal valence of what it means to be a thing, because it is everywhere all at once through time. So you see it with plastic straws, you see it with the collapse of fisheries in the oceans, you see it with concerns about future generations, you see it with what's coming out of your tailpipe, and what the person you're going to vote for is talking about. It just is pervading our intersecting systems, such that when you can't see the boundaries of a thing, when it's a hyperobject, you then can't identify where it stops, where it starts, and where you can intervene to make meaningful change, which makes it this very easy response to say, "Hey, I lie down and I surrender defeat."

However, that's really a sham, to have no sense of efficacy around this, because we do have, as a result of its all-encompassing nature, all of these different levers to push on from all aspects of our economy, ways of life, individual consumption, ways that we vote, invest, et cetera, et cetera. So there's that difference that makes it really a crucially separate threat than what we're dealing with nuclear. Whereby with nuclear, you truly don't have agency in the same way.

Of course, you can hit the streets and protest, as many did, and that was fantastic. But with the climate crisis, what's demanded of us is very different, as compared with what was demanded of us with heightened forms of nuclear scare, which creates this complicated space that provokes anxiety and ambivalence in many of us, because it can be very stressful to see how we are contributing to the problem that makes us feel unsafe. And that is a very psychologically, strange place to exist. And then, we have to make these uncomfortable changes, and it's much easier to pretend ourselves away from that discomfort and kind of close our eyes, or turn away, stick our head in the sands, as many of us kind of unwittingly do, often unconsciously, sometimes consciously.

So another similarity between the two is that they've both led to widespread psychic numbing, however. Given the existential terrorizing nature of the threat, it increases people's death anxiety. And as a result, there is this kind of, "Okay, I'll play dead in the face of this." The way that animals do when they can't escape being encroached by a predator. So it's very interesting psychologically, how to kind of parse the similarities and differences between nuclear and climate.

But ultimately, they are not the same. And there's nothing inevitable about the way in which this is going when we are on a moving escalator and we know it's going down, but we have to muster the energy to hop off the escalator before it hits the bottom floor. Which is very different from simply being blasted into smithereens. And I think we need to talk about that more because there is this kind of flippancy of saying, "Oh, well, this is just another one of those things and we'll always have something." But the truth is, of course, we are human beings. And what it means to be human is to be vulnerable, to be at risk, to not have our survival guaranteed. And we have incredibly powerful technologies that are dual use. And sometimes, we create our own death traps as with nuclear.

And now, we know that our way of life is outstripping the planet's capacity to support us. And it's coming back as the number one threat to human health, both in terms of climate disasters and the trauma of that, but pandemics. The pandemic and the climate crisis are deeply interlinked, in terms of stemming from how humans relate to the wider natural world and extract from wild places and ecosystems and species themselves.

Brooke: You talked about talking and the importance of talking about this and not rolling over and playing dead. What are some effective ways of managing, or perhaps channeling, or working with eco-anxiety? So I use the word managing in kind of the limit the negative impacts kind of way. My perspective is that there's something positive to take out of this, that actually anxiety can create energy, energy for change. So you mentioned, for instance, people getting out and marching on the street against nuclear armament and this kind of thing. How do we use this to tell a story about who we are and what we're going to do about this problem, how we're going to face up to it, and translate that into positive action?

Britt: Brilliant questions. Some of us feel this very deeply, and can get trapped in a pit of despair around it. Others don't feel it, but it doesn't mean that they don't care. So there's a whole spectrum here, and it's okay wherever you are. But if eco-anxiety gets its grips into you in a way that really starts to cause palpable suffering in terms of day-to-day happiness, wellbeing, and sense of the future, and you want to protect yourself from narratively foreclosing it into this doomy tunnel, well, there's lots that can be done.

And the first is to understand what I mentioned earlier, that this is not a diagnosis. It's not a mental health disorder. You can't find it in the DSM. No mental health professional can really give you a clinical rundown of why you would need to get a pill to dismiss these thoughts and feelings. It's normal and natural and healthy. We just have to do a better job at folding and integrating it into our lives, so it doesn't become debilitating.

So if one sits alone in the thoughts, the suffering is much worse. I can't tell you how many hundreds of people I've talked to with extreme forms of eco-anxiety, who say just that simple act of finding the right validating group or person to talk to about this, lifted the biggest weight off their shoulders. Because we're still living in a culture where this is generally not allowed. We don't have social norms to talk about our climate feelings, our emotions about the latest species that went extinct, or understanding that an entire zone is becoming uninhabitable, and livelihoods that are shriveling there as drought chokes the land or whatever it might be, not being able to pass on traditions to the next generation for farming, for example. There's all kinds of things that people are experiencing distress over, but when we don't name it, well, it's pretty hard to talk about it with others, and we say a lot when we say nothing at all, we kind of say that something doesn't matter. So we need to be able to talk about this with each other and move through it.

There are specific groups that are arising to help this. It's called, just in psychology speak, it's the importance of containment. And containment really means that any experience in life, even the worst ones, can be food for thought and growth. And therefore, for growth and development, if they're given the right processing container to be digested in, that has to be someone beyond your own consciousness, it needs to be in relation. And importantly, those people or that person needs to understand, mirror the concerns, validate them, give them permission. Aka, never say, "Don't be so dire. You're fine." Or, "You're just being dramatic." Which is where a lot of people can find themselves being responded to if they try to open up, because there's a lot of denial and disavow around this in our culture.

So there's a burgeoning field of climate aware therapists that exist for exactly this reason. There are circles and groups, something like the ‘Climate Cafe’, decentralized network of meetings, which are popping up all over the world for people to have frank openhearted conversations about how they're doing with their distress about the climate crisis. There's something like the Good Grief Network, which run a 10-step program modeled off of Alcoholics Anonymous, for moving people through eco-anxiety and grief towards actions that are meaningful and purposeful at this time. There's Climate Awakening, which hosts several virtual drop in sessions to have emotional conversations about the climate online, all over the world, three times a week. There's lots of interesting support groups that are popping up in this kind of informal cottage industry, because eco-anxiety is skyrocketing out there. But it doesn't need to be something that explicitly calls itself a climate emotions processing group. It can just be other people who get it, who understand, and who are going to be able to stand in the fire with you, so to speak.

So once you do that, you can start to get out of this entrenched, painful place of often black and white thinking, where it's just like, "It's all societal collapse pretty soon. And I'm living in a space of terror around that." Or it's kind of naive hope and techno-optimism, and not engaging with the problem in a meaningful way. And something that is richer and deeper, and that values this form of distress as a real evolutionary advantage, that your body trying to point something out to you, is under threat, that you care about, so that you can mobilize some resources around it and cultivate the resilience to do something about it. Not just kind of lie with your hands tied on the railway track until the train comes, so to speak. So all of that is really crucial.

And then, stepping into a place of empowerment, from understanding that this is a humane response, it's a compassionate and caring response, and that there are so many others, that there are millions of others out there feeling this way. And that this can be a really beneficial thing, it's uncomfortable, but once we can remove the judgment for having negative emotions, often depression and anxiety are made so much worse for people, simply because they're sitting in shame about even having any anxious or depressive thoughts. If that can be removed, then it's, "Okay, I'm curious about these feelings." Get to know them, understand what they're there to show you, and then notice that they're actually fleeting, and they will move through you. And it's not about entrapment, which people can fear, but it's about learning from the process of integrating such emotions, and having them change you and shape your view on how you can really deeply process what's going on. And then, allocate your own identity, time and resources in the ways that you find meaningful and joyful to what's going on.

But you can't go on that journey of processing all this if you're so resistant to the negative emotions, that you're constantly trying to paper over them, or keep them below the surface. We actually have to increase our tolerance for this difficulty, for this distress, for this discomfort, and get comfortable being uncomfortable, so to speak. Because it's a disrupted, turbulent world of synchronous intersecting crises that we have to deal with, that will be getting more focal as we move forward. And so, all of these kinds of approaches are really resilience building necessities, and that we can do it in community.

So that's just the other thing the research shows, it's not just about talking with others that's important, it's about being in communities of high care, social connectedness, social trust, and social capital. Meaning, when you're in a community where you can achieve shared goals together, where you can follow and lead and take on tasks, it's quite remarkable how when those communities that score high in those ways, go through adversity, experience a disaster, what have you. The mental health of those communities on the far side of acute trauma are they score much better, lower PTSD scores, lower anxiety, depression, clinical symptoms than communities where there's much more social isolation, low social trust, low social capital. It creates the understanding of connectedness and security, which boosts resilience, but it also helps communities rebuild faster when bad things happen, and people take care of one another when the going gets tough.

So all of these are important ways of understanding how to orient ourselves towards tough feelings, harnessing them for action, knowing that in a climate crisis, adaptation requires community connection, and these things can kind of bidirectionally feed each other.

Brooke: There are a few things there that you said that really stood out to me. One of them is about finding the middle ground between techno-optimism and just this kind of lying their hands bound on the railway track, just as the steam engine comes bearing down on you.

That reminds me of a famous Canadian philosopher actually, Charles Taylor, who talked about the similarity between optimism and pessimism. Something that they share deeply in common is that whether you think everything's going to turn out great, or everything's going to turn out terribly, there's nothing for you to do. If you are an optimist and you think like, "Oh, everything's going to be fine," why bother? Why go to the effort of contributing to it? It's going to happen. But if you're a pessimist, it's like, well, if everything's going to turn out terribly anyway, why bother wasting any effort and trying to avert something that's pre-ordained? And he says, "Actually, the thing about the future is that it's something we're building all the time. What happens in the future is determined by the choices that we make right now. And what pessimists and optimists share in common is basically, they make the same choice to not really intervene."

Which I think really, really nicely encapsulated the point that you were making about getting past these simple binaries and engaging with that discomfort in the middle. And that was the second point that you mentioned that really stood out to me. You said something along the lines of like, Going to get a prescription for a pill that will make the bad feelings go away."

I'm loathed to use this term, but to say, in the West, meaning all the places that are rich and benefit from enormous structural advantages, which is actually not to do with cardinal points on a map. But that place that we call the West, we have this idea that somehow bad feelings are bad. Like if you're grieving the death of a parent, you should go and get a prescription from somebody who's going to help you to not feel that way. But that's a really unhealthy perception on the range of human emotion. Grief is something that when you're ready for it and when you're in a position where you can actually encounter it honestly and kind of nakedly, can lead to tremendous growth. But we have this idea that adversity is all always only bad. That adopting that kind of mindset, we lose out on the potential to grow.

And the third point that you made was about how that growth happens, and specifically in community. So I asked earlier about taking our eco-anxiety and kind of digesting it into a narrative about who we are and what we do. And there's one way to hear that, which is, how does each of us individually use this to build our narrative? But narratives, identity, and community, these things are all really densely tied up with each other. We don't just tell our story as individuals, completely kind of Balkanized from the other people around us. Stories are what give us communal identity. They're not our stories individually alone to tell. Even the fact that we tell stories shows how important it is that they don't belong to us. Otherwise, why would we bother telling them, we already know them.

So I'm hoping that you can help us to open up. What do we do in that meaty middle between the really, really empty extremes of optimism and pessimism, which are completely debilitating and totally put us on the sidelines of any action or any implication in this? How do we get into that meaty middle, where, "Yeah, it's going to be hard, but we're going to have to really engage with this. We're going to have to fess up to this. We're going to have to stare it in the face." Some of us, as those who come from communities who are mostly responsible for doing it, others who are coming from communities who have been and will continue to be more impacted by it than others. But that we, as communities, need to address this. We need to figure out who we are and this might very well may become the defining narrative of our time. We think about these kind of wonderful, gauzy pictures of the past. What were you doing during the war? This is kind of where we're at with climate change now.

Britt: That was very powerfully put. I argue that the distress needs to rise to the surface and be met head on for the transformative work to begin. We are not going to, at this late stage in the climate crisis, get to the probing, powerful, impactful, identity changing work that's required to build the new story, if we're not willing to grieve about what's being lost, and have the power of this sense of mourning, this sense of injustice shape the way that we relate to the present, to other species, to other people, to the future. Because it's the privilege of comfort that allows us to contain and maintain the status quo. If we are not being troubled by it, we will be able to continue to protect the present at the cost of the future becoming terrifying, by simply continuing on with damaging systems.

But this is no longer available to more and more people. Every week, more people are falling into the vice grips of getting existentially scared and sad in a deep way about what's going on. Which of course, one coming from toxic positivity culture, which is what you're getting at. Many of our, especially in industrialized high income nations, and in the West, have been describing to this idea of onwards, upwards progress, eternal growth culture. Which has with it brought about a belittlement of challenging feelings, as though they're a sign of weakness, as though you do not participate in growth and progress if you feel anxiety, grief, or if you don't have great days every day, if it isn't all maintaining that narrative of glossy existence. Which is very damaging because we are rich human beings who have a full spectrum of emotions, and there is no positive or negative value that we should put on those. It takes incredible courage to show that you're weak and vulnerable, those sorts of paradoxes.

And what's really powerful about the place that we're at now, with so many people moving into an emotional space on this, is that it can invite that unlearning and that necessary uptake of valuing this difficulty. And then, allowing that space in between stories to change you, and psychologists have written about this, Jeanette Paris is one I'm thinking of. That often when you've let go of the story of what you used to take for granted, let's say a stable climate, and you haven't yet shored yourself up with a new story that feels authentic and that you can see yourself playing a role in, that in-between zone often feels like a deadly place. And it can really invoke behavior change, cognitive change affects that are really overwhelming, scary, not productive for wellbeing. But we need to work in that space to find the more nourishing, joyful orientations toward the future and what we're hoping to regenerate with others at this time.

And grief is such an incredibly powerful tool. As you say, we need to nakedly face it to be strong enough to be vulnerable to it, allow it to move through you, show you how the world has changed, and that you cannot control these choiceless events, but you can really control how you're going to respond to choiceless events. Well, that's a whole world-making, story making exercise in itself, and it can take some time.

So I think that ultimately, that's why I say that these feelings are a super fuel for regenerating the future, coming together with others, and going beyond the kind of two-inch deep approach to emotional intelligence that many of us have inherited by osmosis through our culture. And stepping aside from toxic positivity and understanding that these challenging feelings are powerful and adaptive and constructive. And when we're not alone in them, can certainly be nuggets for change.

Did that answer your question?

Brooke: Yeah, I think so. If I can just sum that up, because I know we're just about reaching time here. Engage with others and engage with each other's responses to the world that's going on around us. And especially, these ecological changes that are coming and that are already here. As that conversation gets going, start to engage more in this kind of directed and productive conversation around, "Okay, who are we and what are we doing about this thing?" This hyperobject, as you put it, this kind of great thing that is standing in face of us. Like, "Who are we going to be in facing up to this challenge?" And how will this campaign against the thing change us both as individuals and communities? Who are we going to be coming out the other end of this, because of the decisions that we've made about how we're going to act, about how we're going to treat each other, about how we're going to engage with our own struggles?

Britt: Absolutely. Well, it's certainly poignant about this time for a lot of people, is that we can look to other histories of social struggle and when community life has been on the line; if we're looking at the Holocaust, if we're looking at other forms of atrocity, when people have dug deep into what it takes to survive and understood that humans make meaning even in suffering. And that confronting death, confronting loss, confronting cataclysmic change can really brush distractions aside and allow you to hone in on what matters in the deepest sense, in terms of expressing existential goals, values and beliefs.

Which is an invitation that the climate and ecological crisis presents us with. When we really grapple with what the science is telling us about all that we're losing and how much worse it will get, unless we make the boldest changes imaginable now. And that we all have a role in playing because like it or not, we need a billion climate activists at this point. It has become such a moment. And there are so many ways in which that can manifest in our lives and it doesn't have to look anything like what comes to mind when you think of activism.

Britt: So it's a powerful call to step into, exactly what you're talking about, ask these hard questions; how are we going to be? Who are we at this time? And hey, when you can get to the as far side of despair, which people can do, you can get caught in the bottom of a U-shape curve around this stuff. And then, come at the other side with new eyes, new commitment, resolve, courage, forms of connection and love. And then understand, no matter how bad it gets, who you're going to be in the face of this, that can be incredibly existentially meaningful for people. And I hope that my book, Generation Dread, is a bit of a travel guide through that kind of process, because there are many people who can share wisdom on what that means for them.

Brooke: I think that is an excellent note on which to end off. Britt, thank you very much for the insights and the time that you shared with us today.

Britt: Thank you so much for having me.

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About the Guest

Britt Wray portrait

Britt Wray

Dr. Britt Wray 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 Center on Climate Change and Planetary Health. Her research focuses on the mental health impacts of the ecological crisis. Britt is the creator of the weekly newsletter about “staying sane in the climate crisis” - Gen Dread (gendread.substack.com), and author of Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis (Knopf 2022). 

Britt holds a PhD in Science Communication from the University of Copenhagen. Her first book was Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction (Greystone Books, 2017). She has hosted several podcasts, radio & TV programs with the BBC and CBC, and is a TED speaker.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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