Warning- the following contains rambling, nostalgia and a heavy dose of opinion. Just like everything else I write.
As things have gotten increasingly weird lately, I find myself drawn back to thinking about the long 1990s. A quick googling tells me that this term isn’t original, but I feel it is very appropriate for the 12-ish year decade that started in 1989 and ended between 2001 and 2003.
Decades are usually defined by things that fail to end neatly on the 10-year mark, and looking back, the long 1990s (in western Europe and North America, at least) were bracketed not by dates and arguments about the year 2000, but by huge political events, for this is the end of the cold war end of the century time from the fall of the Berlin wall to the American invasion of Afghanistan (and Iraq).
Looking back on it, I can’t help but be nostalgia for an era which, while not quite being " the peak of your civilization", as The Matrix had it, but an era that held a certain optimism,stability, and hope for the future that we certainly don’t share today. It was a time when things seemed possible. When techno-utopianism didn’t seem as silly and naive as it does today, when people could be legitimately optimistic about takling environmental problems, as the world actually did rally round and clamp down on CFCs, and acid rain, and the world made apparently easy cuts to CO2 production. You also got major, seemingly intractable world issues on the path to resolution. South Africa moved to democracy without bloodshed,Northern Ireland reached an uneasy peace, even Israel/Palestine made progress towards a peace agreement that seemed on the verge of falling into place.
Of course, this idea of the long 90s as a pleasant decade is very much confined to Western Europe and North America. The rest of the world, not so much- Eastern Europe got a very rude awakening as their hopes of democracy were met with the cold, ruthlessness of shock treatment and mass de-industrialisation, accompanied by plummeting life expectancies (This is also the source of a fair chunk of that unwarranted CO2 optimism. It’s fairly easy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, when you destroy an industrial superpower), followed by the long, slow death of Yugoslavia as ethnic nationalism ripped it apart. South America suffered a decade of recurring economic crisis and the unwelcome focus of the drug war, Africa suffered both the full brunt of the AIDS pandemic and the after-effects of the Rwandan Genocide which ignited the Congo wars. And China, of course, started the decade in blood, and continued with the offer that its people couldn’t refuse- no freedom, in exchange for wealth and security. Or else.
History probably won’t judge this era well. Even from a fairly close up vantage point, it seems like an age of complacency and disappointment. When the problems that we face now, could have been tackled, but were put to the side in a self-congratulatory bout of inertia and dissipation. Certainly, the prophets of the end of history and booming wealth around the corner have been shown up by events.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on our 90s selves. Ordinary people can be forgiven for just wanting to relax and enjoy the relative pleasantness of the era after they had just endured being at the sharp end of the neoliberal nastiness of the 80s, and who wouldn’t be relived, and maybe a bit hopeful at the receding threat of nuclear annihilation, which threatened to go hot at many points up until the turning point that began this era.