BRITT: We have 12 years to avert climate catastrophe. Okay, 12 years from now my reproductive window's gonna be pretty much closed. And so it's this strange alignment between one biological clock and one planetary and political clock that where one’s urgency was making the other one feel all the more like a dilemma to act within.
This is Death, Sex, and Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
ANNA: I’m pumped for this walk…
BRITT: can I carry something?
I met author and climate researcher Britt Wray on a trail head on the side of a two-lane road in the Santa Cruz mountains. We’d asked her to take us to one of her favorite places to talk about her research into the mental health effects of climate change.
BRITT: We're going into the Saratoga gap trail
Britt has a PhD in science communications and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. She has a new book called Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, which I really loved.
We all live on the same planet, and are noticing different ways the changing climate is surrounding us, but of course, each of our personal risks differ markedly depending on where we live and the amount of resources we and our communities have. Britt and me? We’ve got a lot of power and access to resources, comparatively.
I wanted to talk to Britt not about the effects of climate climate on our physical environments, but on our psychology, which is what she researches. Britt writes, there’s a pattern to how people incorporate climate threats. Some experience mild climate anxiety, which might can cause you to detach, or become avoidant. As it gets more severe, the anxiety can make it harder to function, or to think about much else.
In Britt’s case she was obsessed with the question of whether to have a baby because of climate change.
ANNA: do you remember being here the first time you did this trail?
BRITT: Yes. I came on a solo walk in the woods. I wanted to explore this trail that I'd seen only on drives up the Santa Cruz Mountain ridge, and I was really pregnant at the time.
ANNA: Like how pregnant?
BRITT: Like early to mid third trimester.
ANNA: Okay. So beginning to have a wide stance.
BRITT:Yeah, exactly. For me it kind of came early. Yeah. and I was just exploring, and I remember being surprised that, you know, a mile into the hike, there was then this perched platform over this rock face where there's supposed to be some waterfalls. And there were none.
ANNA That's like taking a solo hike in late pregnancy and having a moment on a platform.
BRITT: Yeah, it was, it was a time actually. There's a lot going on. One of my best friends had just experienced a stillbirth, and we were going through our pregnancies at the same time together.
BRITT: And I think I was doing some nature bathing on purpose to try and clear my head and sort through my thoughts and feelings.
ANNA: You weren’t kidding about this platform, it’s huge! It’s like a boat dock!
ANNA: Do you remember noticing when you get to the overlook for the falls and the water wasn't running?
BRITT: I think it felt just like yet one more reminder that we're on a bad track. Ecologically speaking, which the bay area is rife with. You understand from the news that you're experiencing the worst drought in 1200 years, people are preparing their homes for battles with wildfires in that season that they can expect to stretch for many months longer than historically had been the way people would have to confront wildfires. Those kinds of things are part and parcel of living in this area. So, yeah, I don't think I was overly moved by the lack of a waterfall. It was just one more kind of data point.
ANNA: And when you say people are preparing for wildfire season in a different way, that included your family when you moved to this part of California, right?
BRITT: Yeah. I remember also being pregnant while shopping for the evacuation supplies, you know, the goggles and the hand gloves so that you can touch burning pieces of trees that might fall on your car a radio battery battery is getting a bunch of small one in $5 bills to be able to use out while escaping.
ANNA: When you were shopping, did you go to a place or were you doing that on your laptop?
BRITT: I went to a hardware store. They had a whole section. It was like evacuation kit section for the locals. Cause everyone was going in there to, to get kitted out.
ANNA: Take me back to when for you, you really think of, um, it hitting you that, the climate crisis life on this planet is changing and it was something that you were going to organize your life and thinking around. When did that happen for you?
BRITT: That happened for me in 2017. I like so many people was of course, aware of the climate crisis and thought it was of huge importance and concerning, but it was always this intellectual problem. You know, I'd been to climate marches. I was part of environmental clubs when I was younger.
And, you know, I'd watched Al Gore's inconvenient truth and so on, but it wasn't until 2017, that things became profoundly emotional and kind of crossing that barrier where it was no longer just sitting as an intellectual problem that I could choose to think about at certain times. And it became really overwhelming.
I was wrapping up my PhD at the time and doing a lot of science communication work and reading, lots of papers, climate science papers, conservation biology papers, and the tone was of course very alarming as we've come to know well about what's happening, but in my life, I was with my partner talking about maybe trying to get pregnant sometime soon, and then my -- the torment started, which was alive in connecting our family planning to the climate crisis, thinking that if nothing drastically and boldly changes very quickly, we can expect a very dangerous reality filled with climate chaos and forms of ecological decline and even breakdown of ecosystems, which of course has knock on effects for food security, water, security, migration crises, conflict, and so on, but it didn't seem like those aspects of what the science is painting was a factoring in for friends around me who were having their babies, and I was really then starting to feel crazy for even connecting the ideas, because I didn’t see it mirrored or validated.
ANNA: Like you, the question of I'm, seeing this data, I'm having a very powerful, emotional response and rethinking what I ought to do and what our responsibility is for thinking about unborn generations, and you're looking around and you're thinking, am I totally alone in this?
BRITT: Yeah, yeah, exactly, because the implications of the data are terrifying.
ANNA: And what would come up when you started to share that when you thought about whether to become a parent was shaped by data about climate change? What were comments that made you feel crazy?
BRITT: Well, often it wasn't even what people would say because people were often polite If I would bring it up with them. They would listen and not necessarily refute. Although sometimes they would tell me that I was being dramatic. But you can just see in their body language and how they're carrying themselves, that they're not feeling it. And then I remember putting a question on Facebook back in 2017, asking, does anyone feel concerned about having kids today because of the climate crisis? Just taking the temperature here within people that I know, and then this comment thread just lit up and it became this really active space for days, and that was super validating. Oh, people are thinking about this.
ANNA: Was it primarily people of sort of childbearing range? Who…
BRITT: Yea, but there were some older people who chimed in to say, we thought the same thing in times of heightened nuclear scare, and we got over our fears and had our babies and you should too.
ANNA: What do you think that’s about? Why do you think there's an investment in you making a choice to, despite climate data, have kids?
BRITT: Well, perhaps a justification for their own decisions, perhaps, a desire to not see a breakdown in the social contract between older generations and younger generations. Um, there's also, I think, a real desire to help and to be hopeful and to generate meaning for people, which is, uh, a part of, you know, perhaps some older people saying that they want you to imagine the worlds in which you should be having kids.
Um, yeah, I think it could probably be a mix of all kinds of things, but I know when I've encountered, for example, my own family members getting upset when I was questioning and having kids and they could see that it was really possible that I wouldn't because of the climate crisis, it became personal and urgent that they would let me know how important crucial life-changing meaningful having kids is as a human experience.
And therefore. My turning away from it, volitionally, like this was just foolish and abandoning my own ability to have the fullest life possible.
ANNA: Um, and where were you living in 2017?
BRITT: I was living in Copenhagen, Denmark.
ANNA: And you're finishing up graduate work. Was there, when you say you felt crazy, was there part of you that also felt a little bit like, look at me where I'm living, what stage I am in my life, what I'm doing to support myself, I have the benefit of time and attention to focus on these feelings. Like, was there a way in which you felt indulgent?
BRITT: Oh yeah, there was, but it also became so present in my life that I didn't have much choice, but to confront it because suppression wasn't working.
ANNA: How did it, how did you know some working?
BRITT: Because I was anxious and full of rage about inaction on the climate in a way that I never before had been in my life.
ANNA: Let's talk about the framework that you present for the level of what you carry with you as far as anxiety about climate. Because I found the framework that you presented in the book really interesting–sort of these increasing levels of the ability to distract away or think about other things leading up to sort of a paralyzing immobilizing anxiety.
BRITT: Well, there was a big aha moment for me when I saw the spectrum of eco anxiety that a wonderful climate aware therapist named Caroline Hickman had created, and so there's these four different stages, mild, medium, significant, severe. And when the feelings are mild it's that, you know, the person might get worried and very distressed at certain points in time, but they can be reassured by a focus on hope and optimism. Message like, yes, this recent IPCC report is very scary, but don't worry too much because there are tons of talented, smart people working on the problem, that sort of thing. And so they still have their psychological defenses available to them and these are unconscious and we all have them and we've evolved them to protect ourselves from anxiety and pain, but then when they get to a more medium stage, okay, it's bursting through the distress is making those defenses fail a little bit more often. When it gets to that significant level, things start to change. There will be minimal defenses against the anxiety. The emotions are so overwhelming that it really becomes this climate trauma lens that the person starts the seeing through.
This means that they might make major changes in their life, their relationships. You know, if couples are contemplating whether or not to have a child, one wants to do the other one doesn't because of the climate crisis. This can cause a rift, but when we get to the severe level, it's not anxiety, it's terror. Someone might not be able to work or play or be in relationships or concentrate or sleep.
They might be suicidal and there are young people who are attempting suicide because of their climate anxiety. This is happening already and it is documented.
ANNA: As you were noticing how you were experiencing these feelings and then studying. How practitioners and experts were describing the way others experienced these feelings did you, did you think at times like, oh, I just must have like underlying anxiety and this has become a way this is my intrusive thought. Is it if we are feeling climate anxiety, is that because we are experiencing anxiety and if it weren't for the data on climate, it would be showing up in different ways in our lives?
BRITT: So I never identified as an anxious person. I felt pretty easy going and laid back about a lot of scenarios that I know anxious friends react differently to, so for me, it was never this pathologizing thought of, okay, this is just my mind doing what it does. And here it has a different object of attention. And, and yet at the same time there were questions of, okay. is there something wrong with me? I mean, why is my reaction so significant and the aha moment for me looking at that sequence of feelings. The spectrum of eco anxiety for me was that I saw clearly I was in the significant bucket. Hadn't yet tipped over into severe. I was nowhere near self-harming or unable to work. I could still function, but my defenses were breaking down in the biggest way. And it was a very, very dark mindset that I was seeing things through.
Coming up, Britt tells me about the time she gave a remote talk to high powered energy executives, and what happened when the Zoom got awkward.
Hey Anna here off a mountain and in her usual studio for a minute, and right before the pandemic we posed a question to listeners similar to what Britt and I are talking about in this episode: When you take a minute to slow down and force yourself to focus on climate change, what do you think about? How do you feel? And then, what happens next?
- We both like kids, but we agreed that this is not the world that we want to leave them, and is very awkward to even have a conversation with my parents about how they're not going to have grandkids.
- It breaks my heart because I have a three-year-old who has never seen snow, really not more than an inch or two, not like what her older sister has seen. And every day it breaks my heart. And I feel like I'm the only person around caring.
- I have four nieces and nephews all under the age of eight and I just feel like they're doomed and I don't feel like I can do anything about it.
- For me climate change is all I can think about is not just something I, I sort of retrieve or think about on the side. It's all there is because it is, it is something that looms in the future of my generation.
- Um, I feel a lot of jealousy towards people in other generations. They had kids at a time when they really felt like the future was going to be better than the past.
Thank you for your stories… climate grief falls squarely in the Death Sex and Money ethos: something we think about a lot, but is still extremely hard to talk about. If you’re listening to this episode today, and nodding along… you feel the agony of climate anxiety but don’t like to share that burden with others, check our show notes for links to climate anxiety talking groups.
If there’s more you’d like to add email us at email@example.com – and we’re still collecting your stories of estrangement for an upcoming episode – from single relationships or from communities that you’ve decided to distance yourselves from. You can send your voice memos to us about that at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is Death, Sex & Money I’m Anna Sale
ANNA: So I want to make sure I understand, As you were contemplating, whether to become a parent. Did you end up having a moment of clarity of, yes, we're going to do this and here's why.
BRITT: Well, when boiling it all down the decision to not have a child felt like a commitment to. And then on the flip side, deciding to have a child felt like a commitment to joy in the face of all this. And really by that point, when we decided I had moved out of this really black and white thinking around the crisis where it was all doom, or it was all pretending it's not happening, and the shock of first putting on the climate trauma goggles is not at all the way that I'm feeling today, and I can see lots of possibilities. I can see lots of potential for love and care and connection, even amidst horrible truths, and that feels like a way better way to spend the time that I've got on this planet.
But other people I think have really good reasons. As to why they don't have kids in the climate crisis that aren't rooted in foreclosure of the future in fear, and they make a lot of sense. They just, weren't the ones that were resonant for my decision
ANNA: I feel like once you there's like a choice to decide, to try to become pregnant, that's pretty like, is this on or is this off? And then there's, uh, how do I feel about being a parent and how do I feel that this child is here? That, um, is a much more complicated set of feelings that are constantly evolving. And so have you found being a, being a mother, holding your child? When you do have moments of thinking about the climate crisis and your child is looking up at you, like, um, does it feel clear, the decision?
BRITT: I had pictured, what it would be like to be in the company of my child, and have those thoughts and what that might feel like to be holding them and maybe be overwhelmed with sadness or a thought of, I am just so terribly sorry, but it's much more about celebrating this amazing, funny, cute human. Um, he's also something that then cements me to this work. You know, there's not a day where I can't have my eyes open to the crisis and it just makes me really resolved and convicted to working with others on it, and knowing that his life is meaningful, no matter what may come.
ANNA: I was interested in your work, you surveyed young people in a number of countries about their own feelings and emotions around climate and what you found that it wasn't just anxiety about what was happening on the planet? Like what, what are the different ways that you've found that it's manifesting for people, for young people in particular?
BRITT: Yeah, so it's not just that young people who are feeling climate anxious are feeling bad because the environment isn't doing well. We found that this distressed is significantly linked to feelings of being betrayed, betrayed by governments and lied to by leaders.
When young people are thinking about the climate being distressed by it, observing the news, seeing the lack of action, despite all the talk, all of this is incredibly injurious to a young person who feels like the adults have left the building. They're not being cared for, rght? And this complete lack of trust and faith and others' ability to do the right thing is traumatizing iin tself.
Meaning also that, you know, if action were to be taken, if solidarity were to be found, if adults were showing up in a way that made young people on the whole field connected, cared for, protected, that a lot of the distress would be eased.
ANNA: Will you, uh, you, you write about, uh, a talk you gave to a group of energy executives yeah from Nordic countries, correct? And, what happened at the end of your talk? Will you tell that story?
BRITT: Sure. Yeah. So I had this rare opportunity to speak to a bunch of executives working in coal oil and gas, and I gave them, uh, fireside chat about the history of denial in the fossil fuel industry.
I focused on, you know, what their industry has done in terms of the corporate malfeasance and the widespread irresponsible behavior, you know, cherry picking data, planting fake experts, that sort of thing to knowingly confuse the public outright denial in order to protect profits. So...
ANNA: So you present this in your talk, is it in person?
BRITT: It's not, unfortunately it's on zoom. There's 50 people, almost all of them men. I'm much younger than them. I'm a woman I'm talking about all this tough emotional stuff and at the end of the talk, I invited questions and I really was hoping to meet them heart, to heart as people, rather than as representations of a corporation
ANNA: So that was interesting. Okay. So then what happened?
BRITT: Really, really thinking, okay, this might, this might lead to some openings. Cool.
Um, total failure, the Q and A was completely silent. And I mean, painfully silent. It took a long time until one guy courageously said, I think it's very painful and difficult for us to be reminded of the horrible things we do. So it did feel like a personal attack. And then another man said, I think that I am of the age where I will not die of climate change, but that does not bode well for my children.
Wow. Yeah. So they were getting to the heart of it, but I was then reacting, you know, I was so uncomfortable. It was so awkward that I was failing to facilitate well, and then the host of the meeting very abruptly adjourned it. And we all logged off on this terribly tense note.
ANNA: So how did you feel about it after?
BRITT: Awful, awful, awful, awful. I felt like I had just abjectly failed to do what I said I was going to do. So I debriefed with a colleague of mine who is a climate aware therapist, psychologist to say, what could I have done better? And she said, you are taking on these executives’ emotions as your own. That's emotional transference, and what if you reframed what you would just done? What if nothing about what you just did needs to be changed? What if it was actually perfect? But it was after, you know, I think it was later that night I got an email from one of the participants who said, you know, sorry that that didn't generate more conversation, I've heard from many people. It was just extremely overwhelming to watch that presentation.
ANNA: I want to talk with you a bit about, um, the coping mechanisms that you came across and then found yourself integrating into your own life.
I want you to narrate about when you have an uncomfortable feeling and what you think would be helpful for more of us to do when we encounter uncomfortable feelings around climate. Because I think that that discomfort is probably why I don't read till the end of articles. It's probably also why, um, you know, I do like put a lot of faith into technological salvation. Um, what should I do instead?
BRITT: Well, I think that we can all slow down when we feel the emotions as a first step. So, I mean, when you start feeling your personal anxiety trigger, whatever it is, you're skipping ahead to the end of the article, you start thinking about carbon capture technologies, whatever…
ANNA: They keep talking about it, it’s gonna happen, right?
BRITT: Um, to be self-compassionate by allowing yourself to, without shame. Be curious about the feelings and start to orient yourself towards them. There's a big fear that they're going to overwhelm us and take away all our joy, but then from experiencing them, you will learn, hey, okay, you can live with them. So it's an incredibly simple thing to just say, sit with your feelings, but it's actually really, really hard for a lot of people to do.
ANNA: And what's, what do you feel like has been the consequence of that? Like my emotional response writ large, like what has that meant that you just can't take it in because it's too big?
BRITT: Well, it allows a lot of people to turn away from the crisis by not letting the feelings and by offsetting the distress in a belief that there's something coming to save us. And that takes away the parts of ourselves that can be responsible right now and tend to the problem, stay with the problem in the present moment, rather than turn away out of self-preservation, and that's challenging when it's so emotionally difficult–to have our eyes both open to the crisis, but it's also hugely strengthening knowing that we're doing it in mass collectives of people, so these abilities to sit with the emotions and allow them to be there is actually really crucial to climate action at all.
ANNA: Um, speaking of children, I have preschool pickup in Berkeley, so, oh gosh, I better get going. It's a long drive. Yeah, let's do it. Thank you for coming out to the Santa Cruz mountains. Yeah, it was really good. Did you hear an owl behind us. Right. I hear that too.
That’s Britt Wray, author and researcher studying the mental health effects of climate change. Her book is Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Anxiety.
Death, Sex and money is a listener supported production produced by WNYC studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay and Afi Yellow-Duke.. The rest of our team includes Julia Furlan, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Gabriela Santana special. Thanks to Nick VanDer Kolk for his help on this episode. The Reverend John DeLorean and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. We have a link to that in our show notes, along with some other resources to find out more about mental health support and community specifically around climate.
And Britt told me on our walk back down – that talk she gave to the energy exec’s? She heard later that they all gave it unanimous positive reviews. Sometimes being made to feel uncomfortable…is just what we need.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.