Sunday, August 01, 2010

Welcome to the Tangent Universe

In 1988, at least with hindsight, there were three big, political stories:
  1. The Soviets finally gave up in Afghanistan, and Gorbachev disavowed the Brezhnev doctrine (which had officially claimed Eastern Europe as part of the Soviet Union-administered, wider empire of international socialism), thereby in principle allowing the countries of Eastern Europe to go their own ways. 1989 would put all of that into shocking, explosive practice, and triumphalisms of various sorts (‘The end of history’, ‘We mujahadeen can defeat and destroy empires’) emerged fully-fledged by mid-year, and were commonplaces by the time the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunified in November/December.
  2. The first round of ominous data about climate change led to the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was tasked to produce its first report by 1990. (Al Gore held the first US Congressional hearings on the topic in August 1988, but was really more interested in his abortive Presidential primary run.)
  3. Japan Inc. appeared to be winning at everything, and was buying up large chunks of everywhere on the strength of its asset prices, etc.. See Die Hard (1988) for a representation of the fear that provoked, although Mitsubishi's purchase of Rockefeller Center in NYC in 1989 was probably the high-water mark of the unease (and Japan's asset bubble continued to inflate for another couple of years).
2010 feels much like 1988 (although maybe 2011 and 2012 will bring us closer still), only now:
  • It's the US playing the role of economically-troubled-at-home-exhausted-loser-abroad in Afghanistan
  • Averting massive climate change seems quite impossible (without truly staggering scientific breakthroughs in carbon sink tech) given how little progress has been made so far and how much worse the terms and conditions of any solution will be after adding another 2 billion+ people ('another 2 Chinas') to the planetary pop. over the next 30 years. The richest people on Earth probably can make things a little less bad globally than they'd otherwise be, but that's about it, and achieving even that much seems likely to require near penetential falls in living-standards: compulsory vegetarianism, small, sealed-up houses, minimal private transportation, minimal travel, and the like, i.e., much less economic activity and life generally, e.g., as summarized here)
  • China is the rising power, the one with the gold making the rules (the real golden rule)
In sum, the US is the new USSR, China is the new Japan, and climate change, always a bear, is now most definitely the bear that eats us.

Right in the middle of this 1988-2010 period, Donnie Darko (2001) nicely captured or expressed some of its spooky, 'only the labels change' stasis. DD is set at the end of 1988 and tells of the formation of a tangent universe/alternative reality, which we see collapse at the climax of the film. The real world in 2010 does indeed feel a little like a formed-in-late-1988, tangent universe. The notable exception to 1988-2010's loopy, through-the-looking-glass-and-back stasis is the seemingly Millennial rise of the internet/networked economy and culture (which, of course, have their own temporal rhymes and structure). Maybe only the internet is preventing some underlying wormhole from collapsing, revealing that there's still all to play for in the 1988 Presidential election. Tell 'em George. 28 days... 6 hours... 42 minutes... 12 seconds.

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