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DemCP colloquium - STEFAN COUPERUS (University of Groningen): "‘Grey Democracy’: The Post-War Democratic Imaginary and Environmentalism in Western Europe"

When:We 22-09-2021 16:00 - 18:00

Research colloquium of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Cultures and Politics

Stefan Couperus, University of Groningen, ‘Grey Democracy’: The Post-War Democratic Imaginary and Environmentalism in Western Europe


There is a rich (recent) scholarly and public discourse about post-war Western European democracy that frames it as the ‘Golden Age’ of democratic politics that is entangled with the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ or ‘ the Wirtschaftswunder’, let’s say the period of unprecedented economic growth across Western Europe. This particular understanding of democracy, which I will call ‘grey democracy’, aligned with a deep-seated social imaginary that was at odds with a burgeoning awareness of environmental issues since the 1970s. Though environmental policies were implemented, more radical interventions and agendas were thwarted and governing elites resorted to the tested methods of solutionism of ‘grey democracy'.

Ultimately, this project contends, environmental politics was structured and shaped at large by the social imaginary of ‘grey democracy’ in Western Europe since the 1970s, thereby cutting off a host of alternatives despite heightened awareness of environmental degradation and climate change throughout the same period. Moreover, ‘grey democracy’ still permeates debates about rethinking democratic thought and practice today, without always giving account of its symbiosis with natural resource-driven economic growth -- and thus the highly idiosyncratic and contingent conditions under which it materialized during the ‘Great Acceleration'. In this presentation I will discuss the premises of a research project in-the-making which revolves around a number of preliminary questions: First, how, in historical terms, has the persistent resonance of ‘grey democracy’ shaped environmental politics in post-war Western Europe? Second, how can we rethink ‘grey democracy’, taking into account its symbiosis with natural resource-driven economic growth and the historically highly idiosyncratic period during which it materialized? And, more normatively, what then remains of the potential of post-war consensual, limited democracy for adapting to the age of climate change?

About the speaker

Stefan Couperus is an associate professor of European Politics and Society at the University of Groningen. He previously worked at Utrecht University. His teaching and research are situated at the intersection of modern political history and political science. He published widely on the history of urban governance, planning and social exclusion in 19th and early 20th centuries’ European cities, the modern history of political representation and public administration in Western Europe, contemporary populism and illiberalism. He is currently preparing special issues on the (ab)use of the past and historical memory in political discourse by far-right and populist parties and actors across Europe. He is also currently working on a new research project that wants to investigate the relationship between democracy and modern environmentalism in post-war Western Europe, entitled: ‘Grey Democracy’ for a ‘Green Future’? Environmentalism and the Social Imaginary of Democracy in Western Europe.