When I think back to the 1990s it does seem like a more positive and hopeful time. I was a teenager and in my early twenties during that decade. For me, and for many of my generation, the 1990s began with two pivotal events. There was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. I remember watching this happen on TV, with my family, glued to the set in the living room as thousands of people broke free, climbed onto the wall or broke massive concrete sections down, singing and celebrating as they joined with their comrades and families from the other side. The oppressive form of Communism which had dominated eastern Europe for decades was essentially ended that night, and in the revolutions that followed. It felt like and was an incredible event. And it was peaceful. There had of course been violence for decades prior, both the Cold War and 'hot' conflicts, but it ended without violence, without conflict, without people killing or being killed, without shots being fired or bombs thrown. Seeing that happen, at a young age, was hugely influential for me, and was the time that I see as the beginning of my political consciousness.
Then there was the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. The freedom that he had long been walking to. As a new generation, along with so many others of every age, we witnessed the final piece of that walk, where he was set free. Again I watched that with my family around the TV, Mandela emerging into the sunshine from his prison after 27 years. I still remember how it looked, the fences, the people gathered to see this happen, Mandela himself. And while of course it could not wipe out the killings and horrors of decades of apartheid, it was in a way the end of apartheid, or the beginning of the end and the start of a new way of being for South Africa, and perhaps the world. That was the start of the 1990s. To me and to many others those two events set the tone for global affairs at that time.
Over the course of that decade, much less noticed of course, but alternatives began to gather steam and gradually to become more mainstream. The alter-globalisation movement became stronger and stronger, brought together people from the Global North and Global South and united a lot of disparate struggles into what really seemed to form a global consciousness and a global alternative to the neoliberal economic globalisation that was being imposed, often violently, worldwide. The Zapatistas staged their revolution in Mexico to mark the coming into force of NAFTA on 1st January 1994, and were so successful that they still run the state of Chiapas today. While initially violent, which I cannot condone, the EZLN did quickly lay down their arms, permanently. During the 1990s, killings and abuses by the CIA, oil companies and dictators in Latin American and African countries were appalling and were revealed to the world as never before, while the opposition, particularly by indigenous peoples in those countries, was globally supported as never before. The Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000 campaigns focussed attention throughout the 1990s on economic injustice on a global scale, and there was mainstream endorsement of the idea that impoverished countries should not be forced to pay crippling debts, particularly vast interest, to wealthy countries. The alter-globalisation (often known as anti-globalisation) movement that had been active in the Global South for at least two decades got the attention of the public and policymakers in the Global North on a huge scale with the 1999 Battle for Seattle, meaning the IMF and WTO could never again conduct their world changing, country-destroying political and economic business in secret. When direct action by protestors successfully shut down the IMF/WTO meetings in Seattle, preventing the next round of policies being agreed, it delayed and altered the course of the supposedly 'inevitable' neoliberal approach on a global scale.
More locally, there were significant achievements on social issues in Ireland – homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, divorce was approved by constitutional referendum in 1995 and went into effect in 1996, access to abortion information and the right to travel to another state to obtain an abortion were made legal in 1992, and even condoms belatedly became legally available to people under the age of 17, and easy to buy during the 1990s. It is of course shameful that homosexuality was not legal and indeed was still prosecuted prior to this date, that divorce was so long in coming, and that full reproductive rights are still denied to people in Ireland, but the 1990s was a marked improvement on decades before. The 1990s seemed a time of recognising the huge problems in the world and in Ireland, while working hard to challenge them and create a better world. And enjoying ourselves an enormous amount while we did so. Those alternative ideas were gaining popular support on an unprecedented scale, and it seemed for a while that together we might actually succeed in achieving 'rights for all', in 'making poverty history' and ultimately in creating 'another world'.
On a personal level, in the 1990s I was young and enjoying life, participating in everything to the fullest. I was making great friends with whom I remain close to this day. I was studying subjects I loved and doing plenty of literary and other extra-curricular activities. I loved the music and free party culture of that time and we made our own, often amazing, entertainment. I was directly involved in campaigns, protests and the hard work of creating a better world and manifesting alternatives, both on micro-local and macro-global scales. I was travelling the world as much as I could, going to amazing places and seeing incredible things and the amazing diversity of people and the planet. I was in good health – not something I thought much about at the time, as a teenager dancing and backpacking, but I later came to realise that my grandmother was right that your health is your wealth. It is the basis of everything else. I was certainly aware of global and local issues, and my life was personally good and enjoyable because it was bound up with tackling these issues and with creating fun and successful alternatives to the unhealthy, consumerist, environmentally destructive mainstream culture.
That's my perception now, twenty years later. I've worn glasses for around 30 years, but have they recently become rose-tinted? It's hard to say. Is it possible to objectively quantify what was happening globally and in Ireland then and now and compare them? Perhaps that's something I can research for another blog post. But perhaps it's impossible to say. How much of my feeling that things were better then and are worse now is a function of how I personally felt in the 1990s, as a young person, compared to how I feel today? I have a long term health problem now – a serious back problem and associated chronic pain condition, which have had major impacts on both what I'm able to do and my enjoyment of what I do. I'm twenty years older and I want and need different things – greater security, even stronger relationships, a decent place to live, probably more than a backpack's worth of stuff. I have more responsibilities. I have in some ways less financial security and would like more. I need decent healthcare and so do the people close to me. This would have always been the case but various health and non-health-related needs for me, and for others I care about, are much more pressing in the 2010s than in the 1990s. At the same time, my perception is that in many ways humanity and global society are not moving towards the kind of approaches and outcomes that I value or think are good ways to provide a decent life for everyone on our finite planet. There are some great advances being made, such as in gender justice issues, global communication, and awareness of and willingness to tackle climate change. But it is still far too little and the advances often appear fragile and are very limited in geographical and social scope. On the one hand we're bombarded with horror on a daily basis, and events and disasters that are traumatic due to their violence, unpredictability, scale and frequency. On the other hand we still don't hear enough about the catastrophes that unfold more slowly, such as climate change, ocean pollution, and the immense food crisis in Africa. These slow emergencies threaten us on a much deeper, more serious and more existential level and they are the intersecting crises that we need to be devoting ourselves to solving.
Whether or not things are objectively or just personally worse or better now than twenty years ago seems to miss the point. What is a greater contrast is between how we are doing now with how we could be doing. Our capacity to create not just a decent life, but an amazing life, sustainably for everyone on the planet, has arguably never been greater. Our awareness of the problems we face, and our access to alternatives, have never been greater. Our capacity to communicate on a truly global level and to collaborate on massive scales has never been greater. Our comparison should be to what we have the capacity to achieve now, not to previous times when things were possibly even worse or perhaps relatively better to today. In 2016 it is definitely within our capacity to create a great world, to meet the rights of all, people and non-humans alike, to maintain our planet as habitable, to live in abundance with enough food and clean water for all, to make peace and minimise violence, to have excellent healthcare and education for all, to enjoy diverse and vibrant cultures, in a social and environmentally sustainable way that can maintain humanity on Earth for centuries to come. In twenty years' time I hope we'll be looking back to reflect on how we achieved that world, together.