Remembering the Nineties

Where has the hope gone?

My memories of the nineties are all about excitement, excess and freedom. I was in my twenties and although I had plenty of issues to work through and achieved almost nothing during that decade, I still remember them as the most fun and optimistic years of my life.

Of course, I did live in a privileged bubble and everybody has different perceptions, but to me it seemed as if people were on the right track and the world was moving forward to a better place. Sure, there was some suspicion that a calamity might be just around the corner- certain friends even stockpiled canned goods in preparation for Y2K- but we were somehow hopeful that after a necessary disruption a cleaner Earth would emerge, with less poverty, less war and greater equality and justice.

There has been a lot of nostalgia about it lately, but in my opinion, growing up in the eighties sucked donkeys’ balls. I despised the shallow music, the ridiculous fashions, the popular ‘greed is good’ ethos and worst of all, I was definitely not a fan of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Radioactive fallout and atomic half-lives haunted my dreams. The sheer stupidity of the arms race made me shake with schoolgirl rage. So by 1991, when the cold war seemed to be over and the Gulf War had been neatly wrapped up after only about six months, the world felt released into an unexpected peace at last.

Finally able to put national conflicts aside and concentrate on global concerns, over 100 heads of state came together at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to reach agreements about how to sustain life on our planet. In twelve days they created conventions to protect biological diversity, prevent climate change, preserve forests and wrote a declaration on sustainable development. I remember how happy this made me, but also that it seemed normal, just the next logical step we had to take.

There were more trivial liberations. I’ve never been very interested in clothes, and as the nineties progressed I discovered that for the first time in my life, I was free to wear pretty much whatever I wanted and nobody cared. On the other hand, I was interested in music, and the nineties exploded with one ground-breaking genre after another.

I missed hip hop until years later, but when grunge music reached Australia, the speakers pounded with all the authenticity and intense guitar sounds I’d been missing. It’s true that Kurt Cobain, as well as a few people I knew lost their lives in the first half of the decade, but that was a risk inherent with living life to the full and on the edge, at the death of the old millennium and the messy birth of a new way of being. It was sad, but it only made me more determined to enjoy life as much as I could.

After grunge, I turned the dial up to eleven and started listening to industrial music until a new scene hit Brisbane (we were always a bit behind). Rave parties arrived, and that was a true revolution for our big country town. We’d never seen anything like the rows of freaks dancing mostly with their forearms, dilated pupils fixed on the deejay, in clubs that only sold bottled water. One night and I was hooked and ready to give up on guitars.

My friends and I started going to ‘bush doofs’ at secret locations in forests or on beaches. We danced all night with strangers who quickly became friends. It may well have been enhanced by drugs, but the feeling of love on those dance-floors was genuine and the next day our cheeks would be sore from smiling so much. At these parties everyone was welcomed warmly and equally with no sleaziness and never a hint of aggression or violence. It was easy to imagine better times were on their way as we stomped away to those driving beats under the stars.

We had computers. We had the internet (sort of). I bought my first mobile phone for work in 1999. As mentioned before, we had the Y2K bug, so our lives must have been fairly well computerised by the end of the decade, but of course most of us did not use electronic devices for hours every day, as we do now. The potential of technology intrigued us and contributed to our optimism, but it was generally peripheral to our daily existence. We still had to arrange where to meet people and to be on time. We had to go to each others’ houses. We had to find our own dates through social activities. We had to talk to people. I know texting is easier, but does it make you feel alive?

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Me and my mates in 1998. (I’m not the one you think I am.)

I felt alive and I felt the energy of the nineties and by the turn of the century I was generally positive about the future of the world. Admittedly, John Howard had been Prime Minister of Australia for a few years, but I was confident we could overcome this setback at the next election and get back on track. I think it was in 2001 that the train started to seriously derail. First, George W. Bush became president of USA and everyone knows what happened on September 11. A few weeks after that our own government made the false accusation that refugees in boats were throwing their children overboard, in order to stir up xenophobia and get re-elected in November. It worked.

Chaos and insanity descended once again. We didn’t want war. Wikipedia says: according to the French academic Dominique Reynié, between January 3 and April 12, 2003, 36 million people across the globe took part in almost 3,000 protests against the Iraq war. The leaders didn’t care. Remember the old “Weapons of Mass Destruction” excuse? Truth, reason and science were increasingly dismissed as leftist propaganda. To be slightly overdramatic, the dark days began.

While the facts do show that the world is improving in areas such as poverty, education and health, the data on war and freedom is not so promising. Shouldn’t everything get better as we learn more each year? While far more people died in military conflicts in the eighties than in the nineties, the decade after that killed around an equal number, though it might have seemed higher because we were trying so hard to prevent the major wars that did start at that time. Unfortunately, so far in the present decade, the death toll has risen again to exceed nineties levels. Perhaps even more disturbingly, the Economists’ annual index measuring world democracies shows that global freedom has been on a steady decline for the past ten years.

The internet has undoubtedly enriched many people’s lives, but we’ve found that it can be also used to spread lies and hate with devastating efficiency. Maybe it’s only because it’s now so visible, but I can honestly say that in the last few years I have witnessed more hostility between genders, races and religions than ever before in my life. If only we’d known what was to come later, we may have been relatively content to have John Howard and George Bush in charge.

My point is that we don’t have to keep going down this path. Our prospects seem dire in many ways, but we can choose to change direction. Now, while many countries are still democratic and several have come out of poverty; now is the time to do something real for freedom, equality and peace for all humans and respect for our planet. A kinder world seemed possible in the nineties, and probably also in the sixties (I wasn’t there), and I really hope it still is today.

Australian writer, environmental activist, hang-gliding assistant & former sailor, journalist & clown. Debut poetry collection available now.

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