A Look Back on Life in Permacrisis

Words by Alexandria Herr


Permacrisis, defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity,” was named word of 2022 by Collins Dictionary. But within every crisis lies the potential for a better future.

In the fall of 2020, amid the highest death rates yet in that point of the pandemic and an environment of dread in advance of the presidential election, I was the teaching assistant for a class focused on environmental politics. At the end of the course, I received an email from a student, who said that learning about these issues made her feel depressed and disheartened, and asked how I coped emotionally with such heavy topics. At first, I didn’t know what to say. Did I really have a way of coping?


Two years later, and much of what made 2020 so overwhelming lingers. 2022 has been another year marked by crisis; the mounting death toll of the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, the flooding that devastated Pakistan, the tightening grip of inflation, the steady creep of carbon emissions and warming temperatures. Among the mounting list of tragedies, it’s no wonder that the word “permacrisis” has been named the word of the year by Collins Dictionary (among a list that includes “vibe shift” and “quiet quitting”). The term, which is defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity,” was coined in a 1975 essay by Stephen Cohen, and has slowly gained in popularity over the last decade. After all, permacrisis “sums up just how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people,” Alex Beecroft, head of Collins Learning, told the BBC.


If the rising popularity of words like permacrisis reflects their social and political contexts, perhaps another layer might emerge when we grab them by the root. Earlier this year, in what was perhaps an optimistic assessment of my time, I enrolled in a workshop taught by poet Bernard Ferguson. In one of the first sessions, they put the words “climate crisis” on the main slide of the Zoom presentation. What can we learn about the climate crisis, they asked, by understanding the origins of these words?

“Permacrisis sums up just how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people.”

Alex Beecroft
head of Collins Learning

Geographer Mike Hulme, in Why We Disagree about Climate Change, notes that the word “climate” can be traced back as far as the sixth century BC, to the Greek word κλίμα– literally meaning “slope, ” when philosophers like Parmenides used the term to denote different zones of the globe at different latitudes. Hulme notes that this was one of the first attempts to describe not just the Earth’s weather, but its climate. And though it’s far from today’s satellite imagery and supercomputer models, it reveals that understanding the climate has always been in some sense a philosophical endeavor: an attempt to make the unruly Earth intelligible through the measurements and equations of mankind.


If we turn to “crisis,” things get even more interesting. The term “crisis” is rooted in the ancient Greek word κρίσις and the Latin term crisis, meaning to decide. In the 16th century, the word took on meanings in pathology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, crisis referred to the tipping point of a disease that can lead to either recovery or death. In the 17th century, the word was used in the context of astrology: the Oxford English Dictionary notes that it denoted the “conjunction of the planets which determines the issue of a disease or critical point in the course of events.” The latter feels particularly relevant when describing 2022. With climate change, alongside other ongoing crises, we are at a critical point.


This critical point carries the question: will we continue to normalize death—from COVID-19, extreme heat, hurricanes—or will we choose recovery? Within every disaster, there is a decision to be made. And within every crisis, Ferguson noted, there lies the potential for a better and a different future.

Within every disaster, there is a decision to be made. And within every crisis there lies the potential for a better and a different future.

Alexandria Herr

The answers to our overlapping crises don’t rest in any conjunction of the planets, but in ourselves. We can, at any point, decide to forge a new path. Just as the origins of the words “climate” and “crisis” stretch back through our history, the climate crisis itself is rooted deeper than just in modern emissions—its origins lie in the systems of extraction, colonization, and racism that created the conditions for catastrophe. The permacrises that we face today are much the same: many heads of the same dragon that lurks just beneath the surface.


The roots of “perma-” in “permacrisis” are also revealing. The prefix “perma-” is rooted in Latin’s permanent, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: meaning stable, unchanging. But it can also be traced to the present participle, permanere—to go on, persist, survive. Indeed, that is what so many are doing in the face of this year’s turbulence: enduring, deciding every day to plant the seeds of a better future. This year, activists in St. James, a parish located within a stretch of the Mississippi River commonly referred to as “Cancer Alley,” succeeded in blocking a massive petrochemical facility that would have brought carbon emissions and pollution to a community already overburdened by environmental justice issues. In California, decades of grassroots organizing finally paid off when the California state Senate passed a bill instituting a setback between oil wells and communities. In the wake of Hurricane Fiona, communities kept each other fed through mutual aid networks formed in the aftermath of Maria. Across the U.S. and around the world, communities put their freedom on the line to stop fossil fuel development.


Permanere: persisting, surviving in an age of permacrisis requires us to remember what helps us carry on. I think of the question my student sent me two years ago often, never really sure if I would have had a better answer. These days, when I revisit the idea, I think of one of my favorite movies, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, coming back to it every time the world feels overwhelming. The film takes place against a backdrop of destruction—the characters dodge deforestation, war, and finally the killing of the guardian spirit that serves as a protector of the forest. But amidst chaos, the protagonists travel through a lush and beautiful landscape, come to trust each other, and fall in love. It’s filled with tragedy, but also tenderness and joy. In the proposal for the film, Miyazaki writes: “even in the midst of hatred and killings, there are things worth living for. A wonderful meeting, or a beautiful thing can exist.” Ultimately, in the film and in our world, that beauty is what allows us to dream of different futures—to live on.

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