Cover image: There’s no such thing as a ‘permacrisis’

There’s no such thing as a ‘permacrisis’

How teachers can talk positively about challenging times

Written by Callum Mason, Reboot the Future

Yesterday, Collins Dictionary announced that ‘permacrisis’  was their word of the year. It means ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’ and in many ways it sums up our situation quite well. After years of Brexit, then Covid, the cost of living crisis, government chaos and climate change we have been looking for a word to encapsulate it all. It aptly describes that feeling of lurching from one disaster to the next with no end in sight. However, even if it does capture the prevailing mood, permacrisis is an unhelpful idea, especially for younger people. 

Climate activists and social theorists have been trying for years to sum up the collection of ecological, economic and social issues we are currently faced with. For example, ‘interlocking crises’ is a term you may have heard before. However, permacrisis implies these crises will go on forever - which is something of an oxymoron. ‘Crisis’ comes from the Ancient Greek krisis meaning ‘turning point’. Crises are periods of time in which dramatic change happens. Crucially, they are ‘points’ e.g. moments in time with beginnings and ends. This means that, by their very nature, crises do not go on forever. Permacrisis unhelpfully asks us to imagine otherwise.

Instead of permacrisis, Let’s instead think of this moment in time in terms of transition. Our lives are full of transitions: puberty, menopause, aging. So is nature: the seasons, caterpillars into butterflies, regrowth after a forest fire. Transitions have crisis points too. Moustaches, hot flushes, flowers and wings pop up out of nowhere, they can be disorienting and confusing. These little turning points form part of the whole transition and during them we often think: “When will this end?”.  But then there is always a moment where everything subsides. Like lake water calming after a rainstorm, we look up and realise the uncomfortable period has ended and we are transformed. This process is wonderfully described by Pat McCabe of the Diné (Navajo) Nation in her reflections on feminine transformations

Transformations are part of the ebb and flow of life. They mark periods in which the old ‘business as usual’ cannot continue and where, amidst all the chaos, the correct path becomes even clearer. During Covid the necessity of public health was reinforced; with Liz Truss’s resignation the desire for true democracy grew stronger; and, as the climate changes, we are forced to imagine a more ecological society. This time of discomfort is not just a hard period to struggle through, it is a time of growth during which the potential for transformation is strongest. It is, as the environmentalist author Joanna Macy calls it, ‘the great turning’.

This is the positive framing that is so essential for students. We can link this hard period with similar points in our own lives and in nature. Rather than give in to the pessimism of a permacrisis we prepare ourselves for the challenges and opportunities of transition. A great example to use here is the transition of caterpillars into butterflies. Tell this transition like a story with your class. For caterpillars it must feel like a strange urge, perhaps they are confused, they don’t know what’s happening. They feel compelled to weave a cocoon. Once they are inside they are surrounded by darkness. Slowly and without warning, they feel their bodies begin to change. After months of loneliness there is a crack. Light floods into the cocoon and as they struggle to move towards it they realise they have wings. Taking flight, they emerge into a vibrant new world full of opportunities and wonder. 

Next, use this story to highlight processes of change and struggle in your student’s lives. Puberty is a useful example, but so are the struggles of exams, or tough periods of mental health. Show that although these periods may be unpleasant, they are natural. They prepare us for a new stage of our lives and we learn many things along the way. 

Finally, we can compare these situations to the hardships we are experiencing on a national and international level. At this level, problems are caused by large collective forces like societies and states. Overconsumption, unchecked markets and imperialism are all unbalancing our world. These crises are about the world feeding back, our ecosystems, our economies are telling us we can’t go on like this. With every crisis point the case for change becomes clearer and the necessity of transformation grows stronger. As Arundhati Roy says: ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’.