Meaningful life is possible even in the face of existential threat

Generation Dread: Finding purpose in an age of climate crisis

Britt Wray

Alfred A. Knopf, Canada. 2022

ISBN 9780735280724. £16.99

The author Britt Wray, is a writer and broadcaster researching the emotional and psychological impacts of the climate crisis. Originally from Toronto, she holds posts at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has hosted podcasts, radio and TV programs and writes Gen Dread, a ‘newsletter about staying sane in the climate crisis’.  

The key message of this book is that we need to face the climate crisis and engage with the difficult emotions that the potential threat to our survival brings, in order to live as skillfully as we can. Actually, there is still uncertainty, Wray argues, as to the specific outcomes and their timings, so being able to connect with hope, meaning and purpose in this landscape may enable positive change to emerge, including greater social justice and equality. 

An underlying theme is the question for Wray and her partner as to whether to have a child, when as a science writer she becomes more aware of the climate threat, and the risks this may bring for the future of any child born at this time. Wray acknowledges there has always been uncertainty in life over the generations, and in fact the difficulties humans have survived over the centuries might suggest procreating is in many ways necessary for there to be any future at all. But what she is making clear here is how the future she and her generation perhaps thought they had, as much as they could know it, looks considerably more uncertain and unsustainable. This is a major existential crisis affecting us all in one way or another. 

Wray explores the psychology of the climate crisis and the varied, generally negative, emotions it brings up and that we can ‘cycle’ through in numerous ways, unless we remain ‘stuck’ in denial, disavowal or despair. Eco-distress is a sign of connection to the world, and it is a normal reaction when we see the planet and living creatures destructively impacted. Often environmental communications lurch between hope and fear, whereas acknowledging the wide spectrum of emotions that eco-disruption brings may be more useful. It can all lead to a type of general amnesia, as Wray describes it, which gets in the way of us collectively, more fully addressing the climate crisis. It is key to acknowledge our own feelings and connect with others who share them, as well as taking some form of action that is appropriate for us. In our trauma therapy work, we will be familiar with working within the window of tolerance, and the potential to move out of the window into hyper or hypo-arousal. Wray points to resilience-building practices such as mindfulness, self-care and connecting with others to expand our own window of tolerance around climate trauma, as well as monitoring consumption of negative climate news to avoid overwhelm and burn out. All of this is the work of ‘internal activism’ that is required of us and even grief can be transformative, leading to individual and collective changes. 

How we communicate about the climate crisis is considered, with the need to contain emotions in some way, for others and ourselves. Arguably this is key to our therapeutic training, and again our own personal work is critical to our work, if a client brings eco-distress to a therapy session. Given that trauma therapy is likely to become increasingly relevant to the climate crisis, what EMDR protocols might we use, or need to be developed? While of course this is not considered in the book, it is a question for the EMDR community to reflect on, and perhaps seek the experience of those therapists working on the frontline of climate change. 

Wray points out that the crisis is playing out along racial and inequality lines, with people in the global south much more impacted already, with those with the least resources often facing the stark reality of it right now. Colonialism, industrialism and generations of exploitative politics and human action underpin the climate crisis. But, Wray argues, there is an opportunity to address this injustice, in fact a climate response without this, she suggests, is inadequate. Furthermore, in building the personal resilience we need to help bring the best of our capacity to climate adaptation and mitigation, we can enrich our communities and address some growing social issues, such as loneliness. She quotes research showing how stronger communities recover more quickly from disasters than those with weak connections within them.  

The key message of Wray’s book is there is much urgent work to do, which has the potential to make a difference, but time is of the essence. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted public health challenges and failings and can offer lessons for what is likely to be a much greater problem for humanity, over many years. 

I found the book covered similar themes to other writers, whom she references and often speaks to, but bringing a generational perspective. Whether you are of a similar age (early 30s) and considering having a family at this time or are of an age where your children are approaching that stage of life, this is an informing exploration of the considerations in a time of climate crisis. It also seems likely we will see this conundrum appearing more in our client work. 

This book is both a good starting point for those who are beginning to engage more with the impact of the climate crisis, as there is a rich list of references should you wish to explore further. But even for those already familiar with the issues, there are new angles and perspectives here, so it is well worth a read. It is an honest, searching and at times, deeply personal book that also manages a broad sweep of the relevant research, theory and science.  

Patricia Downing is a psychotherapist and EMDR therapist.