The planet is, quite literally, on fire: a third of humanity is now exposed to deadly heat stress. Nearly a million species are facing extinction, and a global pandemic still lingers. Extreme weather is increasing in frequency and intensity, and the future is looking even more dire: UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.
Small wonder, then, that eco-anxiety is on the rise, particularly among those young enough to know that they—and their children—are heirs to a damaged and diminished world. Last year, Caroline Hickman, a specialist in the burgeoning field of climate psychology at the University of Bath in the U.K., reported on a study she co-authored that surveyed 10,000 youths aged 16 to 25 across 10 countries. Half reported feelings of anger, helplessness and shame—emotions exacerbated by the belief that their governments were lying to them about delivering on green and humane policies. Some are outright refusing to plan for a future preordained to be nasty, brutish and short. As for their so-called “eco-reproductive concerns,” the results were jarring: 40 per cent of respondents expressed a reluctance to have children.
At 35, Britt Wray, author of the new book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, falls outside of Hickman’s respondent pool, but she, too, has heard the warnings and witnessed inaction her whole life. Wray’s book is an extraordinary exploration of the emotional and psychological toll environmental chaos is already exacting. It’s also a road map out from under that burden, made all the more compelling by the way it tracks her own journey. Born and raised in Toronto, Wray earned a Ph.D. in science communication at the University of Copenhagen. She is now a cross-appointed postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Stanford University in California, studying the implications of the climate crisis on mental health. She knows the existential angst—and its corrosive effects—intimately.
These fears once buffeted Wray badly, leaving her feeling isolated, despairing and uncertain of the wisdom and morality of bringing children into the world. Now, she’s realized that there is still an opportunity to mitigate the worst outcomes. She’s able to visualize a better future for herself and, above all, for her seven-month-old son, Atlas—a child of our times in every conceivable way. “Researching and writing this book brought me to a position where I could have him,” says Wray. “There is a direct line from the radical hope my findings gave me to Atlas. If I were left up to my own ruminations, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to dig myself out of that hole and see having him.”
Growing up, Wray was as attuned to climate crisis projections as any millennial, but far from obsessed. That changed rapidly after she enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in 2004, majoring in biology. The sixth mass extinction, the ongoing annihilation of habitats and wildlife—whose populations have dropped by more than two-thirds since 1970—is inextricably linked to human resource extraction. It was a crisis impossible for a biology student to ignore. “A lot of my courses were focused on conservation biology and ecology,” she recalls. “Through it all, I was constantly bearing witness to more data about population decline, species decline, anthropogenic effects on wildlands—these were my first environmental stressors.” Wray was soon fixated on climate change, immersing herself in the literature and becoming less interested in doing science than developing innovative ways of spreading news of its discoveries. “I wanted to bring a creative storytelling angle to what I was learning,” she says.
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In 2015, during her doctoral studies in Copenhagen, she met her future husband, Sebastian Damm Wray—not through her climate activism but in an equally modern way: on Tinder. Denmark, of course, was particularly attuned to the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit to effect meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. As a result, Wray moved ever deeper into climate worry. She read one IPCC report after another: most were concerned with the planet reaching tipping points that would destroy food and water supplies. All of them insisted that humanity was running out of time to avoid the worst outcomes.
In 2017, when she and Sebastian first started talking about having a child, Wray’s response was a visceral one. “A deep sense of grief and despair came crashing over me when I considered what it would mean to deliver a child into this world,” she writes in Generation Dread. Desperate to see what her peers felt, Wray started reaching out to experts and, via social media, to ordinary people, parents and non-parents alike. There, she found a well-established—if largely underground—river of thought on human conception, one that was rapidly devolving under the pressure of eco-anxiety.
This kind of anti-natalist thinking isn’t new: there is a long-running tradition of it, found as far back as Ancient Greek philosophy and early Christianity. It argues that life always ends badly and should be stopped from even beginning. (Babies, as the second-century Christian Encratites put it, were merely “fresh fodder for death.”) Since the 1990s, proponents of voluntary human extinction have proclaimed that the only way humanity can save life on this planet is by a slow-motion mass suicide, protecting the biosphere by ceasing to procreate. Academics have pointed to the effects environmental degradation is already having on involuntary human infertility: sperm counts in Western countries have dropped by half since 1973, which correlates with rising pollution and heat levels.
More pertinent to Wray were the women of childbearing age who delayed having children due to contemporary socioeconomic factors: the end of job security, high housing costs and lengthy educations. All of these markers of adulthood were being affected by climate change. Wray took note of how the label “selfish”—once levelled at adults who didn’t have children—was beginning to apply to those who did. There was one main consideration upholding child hesitation among the climate-aware: the pressure every new child puts on the environment. In the emissions-pumping Americas, the answer is, a lot—the average American child adds more than 9,000 cubic metric tonnes of carbon to their parents’ carbon footprint, while a Bangladeshi child adds only 56 tonnes to theirs.
Wray, meanwhile, was considering a different question: what havoc would a deteriorating world wreak on the health, happiness and security of a child? During her research, she found many who shared that fear. She spoke with a young mother who had waking nightmares the whole time she was pregnant with her son. “I had all these catastrophic images in my head,” she said. “Of me running with my child and having nowhere to sleep, or of us starving, or him experiencing his parents dying.” Wray also spoke with teenagers who were angry that their parents had brought them into a world spiralling downward. “What haunted me was the possibility that if we had a kid, they’d grow up and become aware of what’s happening. That they’d turn to us one day, understanding that we knew all of this was coming, and yet still chose to put them here . . .” says Wray, trailing off. “Would the situation ever become so oppressive that they would really rather not have been born?”
The contemporary, climate-driven movement broke into popular consciousness when BirthStrike was founded in Britain in 2018. Its founders were a group of millennials who, as much as they wanted children of their own, believed reproduction was both dangerous for children and immoral given our collective environmental situation. A year later, BirthStrike changed its name to Grieving Parenthood in the Climate Crisis, or GPCC, in order to distance itself from “populationism,” the belief that too many people were the root cause of climate deterioration. The GPCC wanted to be clear that its members’ child-bearing hesitation is linked not to the size of the world’s population, but to individual carbon footprints. In that way of thinking, they were not alone: a more amorphous school of thought known as GINK (Green Inclination, No Kids) is now flourishing. Even prominent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have gone on record asking, “Is it okay still to have children?”
Wray says she was particularly affected by perspectives of people from historically marginalized groups—populations who are already on the front lines, whose lives and culture are intimately linked to land and water. Indigenous peoples around the world are disproportionately threatened by climate change. Yet Anishinaabe author Waubgeshig Rice, author of the climate-crisis thriller Moon of the Crusted Snow, told Wray he didn’t know of anyone from his Wasauksing First Nation, 250 kilometres north of Toronto, who’d decided against having kids for environmental reasons. In his community, Rice explained, children are essential, both as a means and living symbol of cultural continuity. It’s being able to say, “We are still here—the future includes us.” It was a message echoed by Black women Wray interviewed, including her friend, the anti-racism activist Rachel Ricketts. While expressing compassion for Wray’s personal dilemma, Ricketts pointed out that anxiety was nothing new for her people. “Welcome to having to worry about the livelihood of your children,” she said. “My mother had to do it, my mother’s mother had to do it. My ancestors had their children stolen from them and sold.”
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Hearing that message of certainty from communities whose children have been taken from them—in living memory, no less—and who are still seeking their unmarked and lost graves, had a powerful effect on Wray. She realized how much of her fear arose from a place of privilege. “Those who have had secure, comfortable lives, it forms their benchmark for existence. That can be very fundamentally shaken by climate awareness,” Wray says. “So, okay, middle-class white girl is afraid because the world doesn’t feel safe anymore. It is good to realize that many people—people who have not had the luxury of feeling secure, who know the world is full of tears—they find ways of cultivating joy amidst the tragedy.”
Wray still wasn’t sure. At first, her conversations with other climate-aware people—and the hope they provided—barely balanced out the emotional toll of her everyday communications work: “It was eight-plus hours a day of paying attention to new reports on the climate crisis and to the lack of effective action.” Her eco-anxiety remained high and, at times, crippling. She was beginning to realize she couldn’t even talk about a shared future with Sebastian, the person she loved most, without applying what she calls “a filter of apocalyptic possibility.”
In one intense 24-hour period in Denmark, Wray engaged in an emotional late-night talk with friends about the magnitude of the climate crisis, burst into tears with another friend at breakfast the next morning, and dined with her father-in-law as he made polite but insistent inquiries about grandchildren. She followed that with even more tears on the train ride home. When Wray read Caroline Hickman’s four-stage “eco-anxiety conceptual framework”—a list of increasingly intense symptoms that allows therapists to place patients along a spectrum—she easily saw herself in the “Significant” group, the last stage before “Severe,” and the first where people choose to forgo having children.
And yet Wray’s longing for a child grew over the years, even as her existential dread remained immovable. Almost all the pressure she felt was on the pro-child side: her own desire; Sebastian’s desire; the expectations of both families; helplessly watching two clocks simultaneously tick toward midnight (the entire planetary ecosystem and her own fertility). She came to believe that a child represented “skin in the game,” providing an ever-urgent incentive to fight for a better world.
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In 2018, the Wrays moved to the U.S., first to New York and then later to California, when Sebastian, a diplomat, took a role as the chief strategic advisor to Denmark’s tech ambassador to Silicon Valley. Wray took up the Stanford portion of her fellowship. The biggest shift, though, was in her consciousness, prompted by the research she gathered and internalized while writing Generation Dread between 2017 and 2020. Gone are the breakdown crying fits she once had. “I found not only the coping tools,” she says, “but just as importantly, others who mirror my feelings and validate them, when once I thought I was really alone. That’s what makes you feel like you’re crazy.”
In the end, there was no eureka moment that pushed her toward motherhood. Wray’s mindset changed as she researched, gleaning insights and advice from climate therapists, and full of admiration for the hard-won resilience of the historically marginalized. Eco-anxiety is more than understandable: it is justified, she writes. We ought to mourn the coming losses to the natural order—and to human civilization. At the same time, we should do what we can to save what’s left: by 2020, she and Sebastian simply decided to have a child, and in January 2021, they laughed and cried over a positive pregnancy test.
If Generation Dread has one overriding theme, it’s that community saves, and that trust and mutual care are its foundations. “I learned to get a grip on my own emotions and develop much more flexible thinking around my child-bearing dilemma,” says Wray. “The basic question changed from, ‘Is it okay to have a child?’ to ‘What’s required when one decides to have a child today?’ How do we parent in the climate crisis?” Now that her book is done, there is time for Wray to probe that question in day-to-day life. “We’re sleep training,” she says. “Atlas is smiling and laughing and bringing a lot of joy.” Good news for our turbulent world.
This article appears in print in the May 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Earth mother.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.