Monday, December 21, 2009

Mired in the One-and-Twenty

I don't remember the 1980s - not really. Born as I was in 1982, and at the tail end of it, what I recall of the decade is isolated flashes, swatches of darkness and light, events that were significant to a child but none that give me perspective today. My first strong memory of the greater world outside of home was Operation Desert Storm, the opening of war against Iraq in January 1991. But I can look back at what was produced at the end of the decade, and when I do, I take from 1989 a sense of optimism. The Cold War had ended, the future seemed wide-open, and technology would transform the world for the benefit of all. Fusion, cold or otherwise, tended to crop up as one of the big game-changers.

Ten years later, in 1999, the West was flush from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing vacation from history which was the 1990s. The world was getting more prosperous by the day, it seemed, and liberal democracy had built a foundation that would weather any storm. The twenty-first century was upon us, and through it anything would be possible. I mean, look at it! It's the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY! It's where all the hoverboards and robot buddies and starships and dashing hero captains live! We'd made it fifty years with nuclear weapons without reducing the world to a cinder! Aside from a bit of existential dread about Y2K, I remember 1999 as a time to be optimistic about the way ahead.

Today, in 2009, the game is different, and I don't think it's just me. TIME Magazine called the last ten years the Decade from Hell - I prefer "Decade of Broken Dreams," even though some people think it's an excessively purple term. We've seen the twenty-first century, and been blinded by the glare; tasted its fruit, only to have it turn to ashes in our mouths. I can't think of another decade that's ending on as sour a note as this one; of the future ever seeming so dark, I'd have to wear night-vision goggles.

For decades, the twenty-first century was implicitly the great beyond, the city on the hill, and there was no alternative to it being a good and decent place where technology would work miracles and all our petty twentieth-century problems would be solved. It was the gateway to the Grand and Shining Future. After all, the crew of the Enterprise didn't have to worry about nuclear war or STDs or poverty in Africa. This was supposed to be the time where we made the first steps toward solving the problems that have bedeviled humanity since the beginning.

Ten years, and we've hardly started. What these ten years have taught us is not only that things are worse than we thought, and getting worse faster than we thought they could get, but that people don't even believe things are getting bad - as if the slow death of the Arctic ice cap or the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the ticking timebomb that is the tens of billions of tons of greenhouse gases in melting northern permafrost is on the same plane as the question of whether or not the Shroud of Turin is genuine. Then again, it's hard to care about the environment when you've been fired or laid off or made redundant or what have you and you don't know where you're going to find money for food or rent.

For me, the promise of a better future seems, for now, to be hollow. Maybe in 2019, we'll have found new reasons to hope for a better tomorrow.


  1. Hi Andrew,

    I almost wrote this on Randy's blog, but I'll go straight here instead. Hope you don't mind.

    This post gets the popular atmosphere of the late eighties and early nineties entirely wrong. By inventing a reality that didn't exist, it discredits its own argument and the pessimism behind it.

    The early 1990s were not an optimistic time. It was the time of books titled "America, What Went Wrong?" It was when Canadians worried about a multi-year recession and a permanent decline in their standard of living. It was when grunge music and gangsta rap arose and dominated the airwaves.

    This isn't simply my recollection. The single best book that captures the era is Michael Elliott, The Day Before Yesterday: Reconsidering America's Past, Rediscovering the Present.

    (Canadians were even more pessimistic, and for good reason. The prolonged economic meltdown was far worse than today's.)

    Was there a big decline in optimism between 1989 and 1994? Not really, not on this side of the Atlantic. Doonesbury had a lot of fun satirizing the lack of celebration with the end of the Cold War. Why the lack of celebration? Well, Americans worried about crime and racial tensions --- both worries seem almost quaint today --- and "declinism" ruled the intellectual waves. Living standards had been stagnant, the fear of deindustrialization (at the hands of the Japanese) was very real, and there was a sense that the nation was falling apart.

    Of course, all that shows up in the science fiction of the time. Maybe not quite as depressing as the 1970s, but depressing. Jack Womack would be my favorite.

    I understand what you're trying to get at: you're pessimistic, you're more pessimistic than you were ten years ago, and you're pessimistic mostly about the environment. That I understand. And it is true that the late 1990s were quite the optimistic age.

    But it is wrong to just invent a zeitgeist for the late 1980s and early 1990s in order to reinforce your point. It actually discredits it, and it makes you seem a little, well, young. It is never a good idea to conflate your own idiosyncratic attitudes with the zeitgeist (great word, that) unless you're positively sure that you've got your finger on the public pulse.

    All the best,

    NM, from Randy's blog