If you ask people what they remember most about the financial crisis of 2008 you are likely to hear phrases such as the subprime bubble, toxic assets, Bear Stearns or Northern Rock. As an environmentalist, the main focus of my recollections is slightly different. What I remember most vividly was the desperation with which central bankers and politicians sought to immediately chart a path that would lead us out of economic recession and back to economic growth. It appeared that, regardless of the financial, social and environmental costs associated with unfettered economic growth, the primary political priority was to return us to the collective safety and prosperity that only growth could secure. The subsequent lowering of interest rates, quantitative easing and reductions in value added tax rates were all devoted to increasing consumption, stimulating production and re-growing the economy.
The unthinking pursuit of a 'V-Shaped' recovery from recession back to growth is a feature of the prevailing neo-liberal assumption that the expansion of the economy is the sine qua non of a happy and affluent society (Jackson, 2003; Peck, 2010). The financial crisis was, however, utilised by some to critically think about our collective devotion to growth. In July 2008, just as the economic crisis was beginning to unfold, the New Economics Foundation proposed a clear-sighted and inspiring vision of a Green New Deal (2008). As an ecological equivalent of Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Green New Deal suggested that the economic crisis represented an opportunity to build a new type of economy, within which the creation of economic prosperity was not senselessly decoupled from environmental issues (cf. Mauerhofer, 2013; Spash, 2012). But 2008 also witnessed the re-emergence of a broader socio-ecological movement that was mobilised around a critique of the growth ethic itself. In April 2008 academics and activists gathered in Paris for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity Conference. The declaration that followed this conference called 'for a paradigm shift from the general and unlimited pursuit of economic growth to a concept of "right-sizing" the global and national economies' (Declaration of the Parties, 2008). This conference helped to establish and popularise the notion of degrowth, and laid the foundation for an intellectual, political and cultural movement that has become a prominent feature of radical environmental politics.
Despite its formalisation in 2008, the political and intellectual antecedents of degrowth stretch back at least as far as the 1970s. It was during the mid- to late-1970s that the word Decroissance (the French word for degrowth) was first mentioned in the work of writers such as Andre Gorz and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. The word was not, however, utilised as an activist slogan until after 2000. While there are many definitions of degrowth, according to the Research and Degrowth association 'Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet' (2012). On these terms it is important to note that degrowth is predicated on...
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