10 minutes with Dr Britt Wray
Britt Wray, PhD is a science writer, TED Resident and broadcaster researching the intersection between the climate crisis and mental health. She is the author of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction (Greystone Books 2017) and is currently working on her second book Generation Dread (Knopf-Random House, 2022). She also runs a newsletter called Gen Dread (gendread.substack.com), which dispatches weekly analysis about emotional responses to the ecological crisis such as eco-anxiety, eco-grief, and how to build resilience.
What first brought the climate crisis to your attention?
I first learned about the climate crisis while I was studying conservation biology in my undergrad, which was back in the early to mid 2000s. Back then I appreciated how big the challenge is and believed nations must take swift action, but I regarded the issue at a purely intellectual level. Nothing about it kept me up at night. It wasn’t until 2017 that I began to feel the climate crisis on a viscerally emotional level. That’s when I started grieving for all that’s being lost and getting very anxious about all the uncertainty it is setting into our world. These experiences changed my life and led to the work I’m now doing on emotions, mental health, and the climate crisis.
What environmental issues most concern you right now?
Gosh, where to start? Biodiversity collapse is a big one. I am very disturbed by how little regard many humans have for the welfare of non-humans at the level of simply recognising their intrinsic value, let alone because humankind will cease to exist if enough non-human species disappear. Global heating is of course another one. It is pure trauma, at a global scale, in a way that deepens existing socio-economic injustices. It’s nightmarish.
What gives you hope?
The fact that when we learn to process our emotions around the ecological crisis/planetary health emergency in healthy ways, they can actually lead us to find sources of resilience that lie deep within us. By facing difficult emotions, we can find the authentic role we each have to play in bringing action and transformation forth; one that feels right for our unique personality, interests, and talents. By embracing the truth of how much trouble we are in and really truly feeling the existential terror it can cause, enormous benefits can be reaped that allow you to become a deeper human being.
When you have enough time and support to work through those emotions, without falling into the default mode of soft denial that many humans are still in around this crisis, emotions become a powerful force that can carry you into action, fuelling everything that you do. Facing all of this allows you to connect with a greater purpose — of protecting what you can for the present moment rightness of it rather than for any expected outcome — which feels way more meaningful than what neoliberal norms have generally offered people.
What’s the most inspiring solution you’ve seen so far?
Sustainable finance, the no bullshit kind, is really exciting. The creeping mainstreaming of alternative proteins and plant based meat is also great and I’d love it to move faster. But the idea of throwing out the economic growth model for a wellbeing economy is what I hope for the most.
What do you do to feel connected to nature?
Any kind of walking, jogging, or hiking in forests and mountains, where I can breathe deeply and feel enveloped by the tree canopy, is when I feel most connected to nature. Or when I’m in a canoe paddling through a lake in my home province of Ontario. A crisp fall day always makes me feel a spark of electricity somehow, and I love getting awe-inspired by nature by spending as much of the autumn outside as I can.
What book or film would you recommend everyone reads or sees?
These days, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.
Who inspires you when it comes to tackling the crisis?
All the youth climate marchers/leaders (and of course Greta), the many coalitions and groups focused on climate justice and fighting environmental racism (who tend to work collectively and not have one famous leader propped up as the face of the movement), Naomi Klein, Joanna Macy, Adrienne Marie Brown, reporters like Amy Westervelt, Emily Atkin, David Wallace Wells, several climate-aware therapists and therapist-activists at places like the Climate Psychology Alliance and The Climate Mobilization, David Attenborough, Timothy Morton, Robert Jay Lifton, Kyle Whyte, Elizabeth Sawin, plus I deeply respect Extinction Rebellion activists for going after their truth even though I’ve never been a part of XR and appreciate that they haven’t always done things in the most conscious way.
If someone asked you what climate action they should take today, what would you say?
Chat openly with people around you about the emotions that the climate crisis stirs in you and if relevant, help to create new norms for talking without judgment about the existential feelings it creates. We need all people to connect with climate at a deeper emotional level and understand how to harness the climate/eco feelings that are living inside of them. Real change can only happen when both the rational intellect and the emotional self are engaged.
If you could implement one global policy tomorrow, what would it be?
Every new piece of infrastructure that is built in order to generate energy must not rely on the burning of fossil fuels (and pre-existing ones that do burn fossil fuels must be continually phased out at the quickest rate possible).
What does 2050 look like to you?
My rational brain sees an unbearably dark possibility for 2050 with many signs of societal collapse and profound suffering. Yet my emotional brain sees a near utopia where we’ve finally addressed the root causes of our ecological crisis and figured out how to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with each other, other species, and the planet, healing many of our current wounds. Realistically, of course it will probably look like something between the two, which is both beautiful and tragic and best left not described. For when we narrativise the future, in a way, we close it down. I think it is an ethical duty to keep it open to emergence. When we don’t know what’s coming, we can strive for something more.