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Book review: 'Generation Dread' centers climate anxiety, hope

A collage of climate scenarios
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A collage of climate scenarios

Devastating droughts, wildfires, floods and hurricanes are symptoms of climate change we're already seeing. These dramatic events, as well as the slow changes to our environment, are accompanied with severe emotional turmoil.

Climate anxiety is the subject of the 2023 book "Generation Dread" by Britt Wray.

In "Generation Dread," Wray describes the feelings of helplessness, extreme distress and burnt-out apathy that climate change is spurring.

Uneasiness over the hazy, orange skies of last summer. A sense of loss over a historically warm winter. And panic — or maybe numbness — after hearing a top U.N. climate chief recently say we have two years to "save the planet." These are some examples Wray may use to describe how climate anxiety manifests.

Using interviews with psychology experts and climate advocates, as well as her own expertise as the director of Stanford's climate and mental health program, she weaves a complex portrait on how people respond to climate anxiety and eco-dread. She then explains how we can leverage these often-overwhelming feelings toward building a better future.

Wray frequently acknowledges how environmental impacts are not felt equally across the world and details the injustice of how the most vulnerable populations, particularly in the Global South, are disproportionately affected by climate change.

She writes about the "luxury of dreading the future while others acutely fear the present," yet describes the value of reacting emotionally to climate issues.

In addition to citing mental health research, Wray often reflects on her own personal climate-anxiety-induced crisis. She describes how her desire to start a family butts against her uncertainty about the future.

She concludes her book by calling on readers to not shy away from their feelings and instead embrace their grief though climate support groups or traditional therapy. And use their emotions as a source of fuel to become civically engaged.

"Generation Dread"
Teresa Homsi
"Generation Dread"

She writes, "mourning is an outward expression of grief. What we choose to mourn shows what we choose to value. Mourning carries enormous ethical and political weight."

I was skeptical when I first picked up "Generation Dread." I worried that in attempting to make readers feel better, the book would soften the science and under the guise of self-care, give excuses for people to disengage.

Instead, Wray addresses the real mental health effects of the climate crisis in a kind and empathetic way, while actively discouraging people from putting their head in the sand.

She is never dishonest about the realities, but still dares readers to be hopeful. She makes this clear when she writes: "if people don't have any way of envisioning hope for the future, then they will have no motivation to act, and so stories that imply our efforts are futile become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"Generation Dread" is different from other non-fiction books I've read in that it was very personal and caused me to reflect on how I've processed my own feelings on the climate crisis and areas within my own life that I've neglected.

I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, but you may benefit from reading "Generation Dread" if you're a prospective parent who is questioning the wisdom of having children or a teenager who feels like the world is ending.

In an accessible and compelling way, Britt Wray puts, what so many people may be feeling, into words and creates a space for productive introspection.

Britt Wray will be speaking at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Monday, April 22 at Central Michigan University. For more information about these events, visit the Central Sustainability Facebook page.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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