"Between the things we hope for and the things we're afraid of": Interview with Dr. Britt Wray
Facts: Google Maps for city climate action; Feelings: "the grey space of tension between the things we hope for and the things we're afraid of," with Dr. Britt Wray; Action: Faculty for a Future
This month I am grateful to share with you some words of wisdom that have helped me in this painful and beautiful moment to be alive, from my first-ever We Can Fix It interview featuring Dr. Britt Wray, an author and researcher on climate and mental health.
I have long admired and learned from Britt’s leadership in facing the climate crisis with eyes and heart wide open, which she shares at her Gen Dread newsletter. Britt isn’t afraid to say the hard parts out loud, always with self-awareness and empathy that makes her words resonate even more deeply.
I devoured her new book, Generation Dread, and am honoured to have the chance to speak with her about it, and to share her insights with you. I hope it provides some comfort and courage for you to keep nourishing yourself, and to keep doing the work the world needs. As Britt says, “We all are tiny drops as individuals, but we are needed in this tidal wave of change.”
Oh, and if you’re new, join We Can Fix It to keep getting posts like this:
On to the facts, feelings, and action!
Facts: Google maps for city climate action
Did you know Google can tell you how much of your city’s emissions come from driving versus buildings, map trees and air quality by street, and show where there’s potential for rooftop solar?
I learned this in a presentation from Anna Williams from Google, who introduced the Environmental Insights Explorer tool at the ICLEI Congress in Malmö.
These data are super useful because, to reduce emissions in practice, we need to:
Identify climate pollution at its source.
Stop doing things that cause climate pollution.
Replace with things that don’t cause climate pollution.
But soooo many people who want to help don’t know the answer to #1. If you don’t know the biggest sources of emissions for your city, country, business, or household, you risk misdirecting effort away from where it’s most needed.
As Alexi Lynch of Ironbark Sustainability reported in a case study of using the tool:
“Be open to letting the data and evidence change your direction and focus for climate action. You might find you’ve been knocking on the wrong areas to reduce emissions — and that’s OK. We’ve all had to pivot at times…. use the tools to then move onto the important task of planning and delivering on climate action in the right areas.”
Australia has drawn from the Google EIE data for 537 Australian municipalities cities in a platform called Snapshot to make emissions overviews to inform climate plans:
The data are freely available, but Anna told me the tool is designed for one person from each city (an employee, consultant, or NGO working for city government) to register to the database and serve as the main point of contact. (This approach gives city officials a chance to review and understand the data before making them public).
So: send your favourite city employee this email and tell them to sign up to access here, then make the data public for your city so you can help choose and implement the practices that will most reduce emissions for your city. Entice them by saying they’ll get wonk-worthy data like these:
Feelings: “Between the things we hope for & the things we're afraid of”
I’m so glad to share this conversation with Dr. Britt Wray inspired by her new book Generation Dread, a book that the world needs, and that I needed. This excerpt has been edited for structure and clarity.
Kim: How was the idea for Generation Dread born?
Britt: My reckoning with eco-anxiety became so severe that I couldn’t rely on my soft denial tendencies to turn away out of self-protection any more, which a lot of us unwittingly do. This was ultimately productive, because it helped me turn the difficulty into meaning-focused coping.
Working on this book allowed me to broaden out my view of the future, to muster hope and optimism, and alternative ideas that are also true about the future. One way to do this was by bringing in lots of other perspectives and learning from them, including from people who’ve been living with existential threat for a long time, for whom the fact that they don’t feel like the world is a safe place is nothing new.
Kim: How did you make a career shift into climate, and what’s your advice to others considering the same?
Britt: Quitting my old field of work, coming to work on climate issues, made everything feel a lot more purposeful, and it helps address the threat that was stressing me.
I understand that not everyone can afford to change their career. But if you do have the flexibility, even if it’s daunting and challenging, I would encourage you to do it.
We are at a moment where we need a billion climate activists. We just do.
Using your daytime and your livelihood space, the most powerful time when you’re not sleeping or engaged in domestic responsibility duties, to channel your energies towards something that really matters... it helps the movement, it helps you to choose something that’s most existentially purposeful and meaningful for you, and it will help you feel more alive. That’s what I’m finding. On your deathbed, it will increase your life satisfaction.
Kim: How do you live with worsening external circumstances and uncertainties about the future?
Britt: The future isn’t written in stone. Uncertainty of how bad it’s going to get doesn’t need to be something we’re just fearful of. It can be a huge leveraging tool for getting to work.
We can hold on to uncertainty as a potential opening up of the future for good things to happen; to being our best, most caring, compassionate selves, and applying morality to our lives.
There’s a liberatory aspect of knowing things are getting harder, and going through the process of grieving and owning up to that, while also understanding it will only get as bad as we let it.
We have to use that motivation from our fear to jolt us into meaningful action, to get to work with each other. Once you act, you produce the hope you want, from rolling up your sleeves and earning the hope, rather than simply having it.
We all are tiny drops as individuals, but we are needed in this tidal wave of change. Your drop is as important as everyone else’s drop. Your actions, even if small, do matter. You always have something available to you, even if it’s so easy to feel helpless in this crisis.
As we move forward, it’s going to be challenging, but there’s also lots of opportunity to inject it with joy, our collective courage, all the love that is already around to make being alive beautiful.
Kim: Why is it so important to get beyond binary thinking in the climate crisis?
Britt: Binaries are really inadequate for facing up to and moving through the complexity of the climate crisis. Only focusing on the scary stuff forecloses the idea of what’s possible, and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of doomism: the belief that action is futile, so you don’t take it, which leads to more negative consequences.
We can try to take a non-binary approach to emotions like fear, hope, courage, sadness… they all have important things to teach us right now. We need to get better at feeling them, and letting them move through us, and teach us things as they do move through us.
I know holding this tension of conflictedness can be unsatisfying. People want answers and cognitive ease. But that is just not what’s on deck with the climate crisis.
It’s about trying to balance and move forward with the best of our cognitive capacities, where we’re not so hypervigilant with stress that we’re only reactive and rigid, but we’re not naively optimistic and letting down the urgency to act.
We need to be able to bear cognitive dissonance. We can do that.
We have to live in that grey space and hold that tension between the things we hope for and the things we’re afraid of, and know that they’re both true dynamics of the climate crisis.
Kim: What are your practical tips to work on the skill of existing in that uncomfortable, non-binary grey space?
Britt: Something that’s super painful for a lot of people is feeling like they live in a split world. They’ve had a climate awakening, and they’re so awake to the scary things barreling at us, to human suffering and conflict. At another moment, let’s say a parent is playing with their child, reveling in the innocence of a nice walk in the park. The sky isn’t falling, the sun is shining. This split sense of self is really difficult to reconcile within an individual.
Something that has really helped me is meditation. Being able to ground oneself in the present moment is huge. You focus on what is real in this moment, rather than hypotheticals. It brings you into the non-dualistic nature of reality. You realize there has always been joy and suffering in the world; they are inextricable.
It's important to notice when you’re at your edge, getting outside of your window of tolerance, and then take a step back and think about the basics: eating, sleeping, exercise, connecting with someone you love. You’ll know what works for you, if it’s cooking, gardening, or climate-aware therapy, the burgeoning cottage industry of climate coaches, or validating and connecting over concerns in support groups.
Black feminists like Audrey Lorde tell us that self-care is a political act because we have to fill ourselves up to be able to take on the external struggles we have to push against, and we can’t do that if we’re depleted. We need to nourish ourselves for the long haul to carry and stay with the trouble of this crisis for the rest of our lives.
Kim: What is your dream for Generation Dread? What impact do you hope this book can contribute?
Britt: I hope it can be a salve for people who find themselves on the harsher end of climate distress, to step out of isolation and towards understanding and connection with others over how they’re feeling. That they can take these emotions and realize, it creates bridges of solidarity, courage, and commitment, and they can transform difficult feelings to something more constructive for them, and for the planetary health crisis.
I also want to put on the map that we need to think deeply about shifting how we address mental health care in society at large. The one-on-one biomedical model is already not enough. There aren’t enough therapists to address the pandemic fallout, and it’s expensive. There are solutions we can use from getting global mental healthcare into low-resource settings. For example, training peer counselors and lay workers to help others in their community; clinical trials show how effective this can be.
At a policy level, I hope to alert decisionmakers that we have choices about how we’re going to react in these choiceless events. We can still help bring about more effective ways of preventing harm to mental health, and support communities to deal with disasters and recover afterwards.
Please read and share Generation Dread with those who can benefit from it, from your eco-anxious cousin to your old college roommate now working on mental health policy!
Subscribers will get access to the full audio of our conversation in an email tomorrow- stay tuned!
Action: Faculty for a Future
Wrestling with how to serve society in an era of colliding environmental and social crises?
Yep, me too!
Every day, more people are increasingly aware that business as usual cannot continue. But how can we use our jobs to help work towards the world we want?
One initiative trying to figure this out for academia is Faculty for a Future. They aim to “help academics who feel a duty of care over Earth’s colliding crises to transform research, teaching, and public engagement for a better future,” including by “attracting new funding streams that allow academics and other stakeholders to equitably collaborate” in making these goals a reality.
As Chief Executive Jordan Raine says, “I’m going to do everything in my professional power to make sure what I do safeguards life on this planet.”
It’s early days; the initial launch of Faculty for a Future was just last week, with many of their first products like an open-access teaching repository being rolled out over the summer. Academic Lead James Dyke acknowledges the need to experiment and learn in navigating these uncharted waters. While there are clear goals and six principles for understanding the emergent world on the website, he admits he doesn’t know exactly where Faculty for a Future is going to go, but James insists:
“There’s gotta be something else we [as academics] can do to connect our practice, our day jobs, with the real concerns we have about where we’re heading. There’s gotta be something between writing a paper and spending a night in jail. There’s tremendous latent power in academia where we can do something really transformative.”
I was honoured when Faculty for a Future invited me to serve on their Advisory Board, and I’m excited to see how this work develops.
To get involved, you can:
Join one of the 90-minute virtual launches in July for the Teach for a Future, Research for a Future, or Communicate the Complex Crisis projects
Contribute your expertise! Faculty for a Future is looking for beta testers to design, test, and use their open-access teaching repository; help develop the Research Hub linking researchers, practitioners, and creatives; share stories, resources, and inspiration with your networks; and more. Have a look at their projects to find where you can jump in.
Join! (It’s free.) Use the link to express your interests and stay in touch with updates.
More resources for academics to roll up our sleeves:
Sweden’s concise Climate Framework for Higher Education Institutions Guidelines include 13 areas of action with specific research-based steps universities should be taking now, from finance to procurement to campus operations, travel, teaching, and research.
The comprehensive new ALLEA report Towards Climate Sustainability of the Academic System has advice for conferences, academic air travel, funding organisations, policymakers, and more.
For recent grads (congrats!):
Share these words from my climate crush UN Secretary General António Guterres, whose commencement speech called for grads to boycott jobs in fossil industries:
“As graduates, you hold the cards. Your talent is in demand from multinational companies and big financial institutions. You will have plenty of opportunities to choose from. My message to you is simple: Don’t work for climate-wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future.”
-UN Secretary-General António Guterres
I have some good news to share!
Hey, my proposal to the Swedish Research Council FORMAS was funded! This 2-year project will support developing new ways to get evidence-based climate action advice into the hands of those who need it, including a personalised climate action guide, a podcast, and social media materials. I’ll share updates with you here, including an invite to beta-test the interactive guide when I have an early draft ready!
Our study on the 12 best ways to get cars out of cities was cited in an editorial in Sweden’s top national newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, titled “The way forward is to drive less,” calling out politicians for their short-sighted policies continuing to favour cars that don’t add up to meeting their climate promises. I’m really grateful to all who’ve shared it with and demanded accountability from your city leaders (including this piece from my local newspaper Sydsvenskan about Lund’s response), or otherwise used it in your work.
Listen: I talked with Laura Diez on the ECO CHIC podcast about facing climate grief, being a climate citizen, and the value of community.
Read: Generation Dread, by Dr. Britt Wray, really reached out from the page and grabbed me. It is so affirming and helpful to have such an honest, unflinching, love-filled guide to acknowledging and coping with All The Climate Feels. Get your copy stat!