Mental health and climate researcher Britt Wray
Courtesy Britt Wray

Britt Wray on How to Stay Invigorated and Accountable in the Face of the Climate Crisis

The mental health and climate researcher tells us what sources she turns to in order to turn “eco-anxiety” into mindful motivation and informed conviction.
By Zoe Cooper
May 23, 2022
11 minute read

In her new book, Generation Dread, author and researcher Britt Wray delves into the psychological consequences of the climate crisis. Combining scientific research with passionate insight, Wray, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argues that intense feelings of what she deems “eco-anxiety”—which can manifest as burnout, avoidance, or daily emotional disturbances—are in fact healthy responses to the stress of environmental collapse and the troubled state of the world at large. Instead of pushing these difficult feelings aside, Wray encourages readers to see eco-anxiety as a human reaction to a grim truth, and as a tool for learning how to live and act within it.

Though the climate crisis’s effects disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities, they touch us all, making resources for compassion and care more important than ever. In her book, Wray skillfully combines insights from climate-aware therapists, essential perspectives on race and privilege, ideas about the future of mental health innovation, and creative coping strategies, mapping out ways readers can harness their emotions, engage their communities, and understand history as a means of moving forward in a positive, empowered way amidst a moment of deep ecological disruption.

We recently asked Wray where she turns for insight on the issue, both for her research for her book and on an everyday basis. Here, she details how her daily intake blends insights from climate journalists, emotional analysis, and meditations on mindfulness and existentialism as a means of keeping her invigorated and accountable.

How do you start your mornings?

I read The New York Times’s The Morning newsletter, the Quartz Daily Brief, and The Download by the M.I.T. Technology Review. I also read select articles from The Guardian and online articles in The New Yorker.

After that, I’ll often listen to The Daily podcast, but it depends on the mood I’m in, because one can only take so much negative news about the world. I also listen to CBC’s Front Burner podcast, which is also a daily news show, but from a Canadian angle—I’m Canadian, and this helps me feel closer to home while living in the U.S. I listen to these podcasts while getting ready or while commuting to work in my car, carpooling with my husband. Sometimes we eschew news podcasts for conversational podcasts at this hour, like The Ezra Klein Show, or serialized podcasts like The Trojan Horse Affair.

What are some of your favorite newsletters?

I really enjoy Emily Atkin’s Heated newsletter. It’s a climate accountability newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis. And she’s an investigative journalist who does a lot of amazing work on a fast-paced basis. Heated is unapologetically angry, and the anger is rooted in a search for justice, so there’s moral clarity behind it. It’s very invigorating and motivating.

There’s also Hot Take by investigative reporter Amy Westervelt and climate-justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar. They bring a climate-justice lens to everything they look at. I like the ways in which they cover issues that matter across broad aspects of what the climate crisis is doing to society right now, and to people. But they’re also irreverent and funny, so it’s also entertaining to a degree.

I also subscribe to The Crucial Years, by the veteran climate reporter Bill McKibben. He’s really good at showcasing important developments that are unfolding week by week in the climate space that people need to know about. But he’s a literary guy, so the way he writes is compelling, and he has this habit of passing the mic over to other people so that readers can hear directly from them, which I really appreciate.

Unrelated to climate, I read This Is Precious by Sarah Wilson, who’s a best-selling author, philanthropist, and minimalist. She’s Australian and a climate activist, but she’s really focused on getting people to wake from the slumber of modern life that is holding them back from being the biggest, boldest people they can be, and get them to live, as she calls it, their “one wild and precious life.” A lot of it is about brushing the bullshit aside and tapping into what matters, and aligning one’s life with their values. While a lot of it is good for my research, because it is climate-related, she takes a broader look than that. She’s quite existential, and she holds the tension of that with lightness. She’s very frank and direct, yet constantly seeks out beauty.

Any favorite podcasts?

I religiously listen to Sarah Wilson’s podcast Wild. It’s even better than the newsletter, in that she brings on fascinating guests and has super long, deep-dive conversations with them. This morning I listened to an episode on degrowth economics with Jason Hickel, a leader in that space. She unpacks the minds of influential people who are doing interesting, bold things at this time to confront some of the biggest issues facing humanity, but again, she does it with an emotions-forward approach. It’s a very human, conversational kind of podcast.

I listen to both of Brené Brown’s podcasts these days—one called Unlocking Us and the other called Dare to Lead. The former is much more about general conversations on the human experience and trying to understand it through an emotional researcher lens. The latter is about what this understanding means for leadership and organizational culture, in terms of having a more sophisticated understanding of human psychology, what really drives people, and the kind of conflicts and messiness that show up in our professional relationships. Her approach is compelling because she’s very heart-forward—I mean, she’s a vulnerability researcher. She is vulnerable in the ways that she discusses topics, attaches herself to them, shares the human experience, provides examples that allow you to learn by listening to how she’s wrestled with things, and she uses those formats as a key for how she interviews really impressive guests. She’s a white lady in her fifties, and she seems very invested in doing the work of understanding her role in trying to be anti-racist. And she brings forth all of the uncomfortable elements of that as she’s learning. It’s probably marketed as self-help, but it also feels like a leveling-up of collective emotional intelligence.

I like Kara Swisher’s Sway. She asks really hard questions of very powerful people, and holds their feet to the fire. Plus, she’s a really no-bullshit kind of person and funny. I also listen to her and N.Y.U. business professor Scott Galloway on their podcast, Pivot, where they break down business, culture, and tech trends. I find it an entertaining listen because of their dynamic.

I also like the Ten Percent Happier podcast. The host, Dan Harris, is very relatable. He’s on a quest for better practices in mindfulness, but not in a way that is about being all buttoned-up and a great practitioner, but in a way that instead shows some vulnerability. He’s open about how difficult it is to struggle to be mindful.

What books are you reading?

I just read a forthcoming book by Elvia Wilk called Death by Landscape. She’s a whip-smart writer employing voracious curiosity about huge issues in the Anthropocene, but with a wittiness, and an incredible ability to probe topics through essays that are captivating, strange, and uncanny. Usually I think a collection of essays is a hard sell for a book, but here, it works.

Currently, I’m reading a book of Greek myths, compiled by Gustav Schwab. Not only is the book itself gorgeous—illustrations, heavy bounded copy—but the myths themselves are so enduring and transport the reader into a place of wonder, fantasy, ancient history, and reflections on human nature. As a researcher and nonfiction writer, not enough reading is for fun these days, but these Greek myths help!

I’ve also been reading about babies, since I just had one, including The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik.

Any favorite television series?

The Kids in the Hall, a weird Canadian sketch comedy show from the eighties, is a favorite. More recently, I’ve enjoyed The Crown and The Dropout for their drama about real-world characters, and Succession and The Handmaid’s Tale for their darkness.

The Dropout has been extra interesting to me, because when Theranos was found out to be this fraudulent company and folded, Stanford University bought the Theranos headquarters. And my office is now in the Theranos building as a result of my job as a postdoc at Stanford, and Elizabeth Holmes’s old CEO office is our boardroom. I have a newborn, and the breast-pumping room is a tiny little closet that was attached to Elizabeth’s office. Just funny, strange things like that. So I’m definitely enjoying that one right now. It's kind of like when you read a book about a place that you’re from, and you recognize someone else’s portrayal of what you lived. It’s inherently intriguing.

What specific media did you consult while conducting research for Generation Dread?

The approach was very mixed-media in terms of reading tons of books, interviewing tons of people, watching films, and listening to podcasts. The documentary Flight from Death was influential. Key texts included The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, Commanding Hope by Thomas Homer-Dixon, Witness to an Extreme Century by Robert Jay Lifton, Earth Emotions by Glenn Albrecht, and Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change by Leslie Davenport.

Any guilty pleasures?

My partner is Danish, and I enjoy exploring Danish film and TV with him. We watch really old classics that any Dane would know, like Matador or the more recent Klovn—largely inspired by Curb Your Enthusiasm, as I understand it—and the world-wide hit Borgen. I enjoy these because they give me integration points with my Danish in-laws and friends. Getting those references is key sometimes!