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Nostalgia for the world (before it all turned to shit)

By Ethan Berry (he/him)

If you were in New Zealand on January 5th 2020, you’ll remember a surreal and apocalyptic haze of orange smog enveloping the skies - a by-product of the Australian bushfires. Looking back, it almost feels cliche just how much of a bad omen that was. It was a stark reminder that the climate is actually fucked. The orange smog made it painfully clear that climate change is no longer something to worry about in the distant future, it was happening right in front of us. If you kicked off the new year with a sense of optimism, it likely ended then and there, as Covid was officially identified within a week and arrived in NZ two months later.

So, we can all agree 2020 wasn’t such a great year. But it’s not just Covid that shook our collective psyche. Auckland faced severe water shortages the same year after a huge drought. And in 2021, we saw the other extreme with flooding right across the country, with thousands forced to evacuate their homes. The current geopolitical situation is looking pretty dodgy too. Russia is at war with Ukraine, China wants to invade Taiwan. It has all the makings of a second Cold War. These events are deeply alarming and we’re witnessing them in real-time, thanks to a 24-hour news cycle delivering us headlines around the clock.

The world has become a much scarier place since the beginning of the pandemic and it’s easy to get the feeling that the world as we know it is ending. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt nostalgic for the world before 2020. I certainly am. At its core, nostalgia is a longing for simpler times and since the orange smog, the world is infinitely less simple. If you’re studying right now, it has also coincided with your coming of age. Becoming an adult is already stressful enough. We’re confronted with new-found independence and questions of who we are and what we want out of our lives. It doesn’t help that we’re also questioning whether we’re going to be living in a cesspool of war and disease by 2050. Covid has shown us all just how fragile and precarious humanity is, making it hard to stay optimistic as we face these challenges.

Perhaps the last couple of years have made Gen Z extra pessimistic. Covid continues to mutate and spread and it’s entirely possible that a new, even more infectious variant will be announced in the news tomorrow. With no end in sight, does this mean that Gen Z is doomed to be more anxiety-ridden than any generation before? As any boomer will tell you, life has always been hard, and people have always had things to be anxious about.

There’s always been war, famine, disease and poverty. If anything, we’ve got it much better than previous generations. But all things considered, something tells me giving up avocado toast won’t fix this one. Even if generational anxiety isn’t unique to Gen Z, young people today have a lot more to worry about than recent generations.

Since the end of WWII, the world has had an unprecedented period of peace and a mind-boggling amount of progress. Welfare has improved tremendously around the world and technological progress has been astounding. From the 90s onwards, the outlook for humanity appeared especially positive - marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. It seemed like there’d be no reason to seriously worry about the future, at least in the Western world. There’s been several recessions and crises, but the last 30 years have also been marked by incredible prosperity. Every year there’s faster computers, GDP growth and a new iPhone, leaving us with the assumption that humans are on an unstoppable upward trajectory. It’s only been in the past few years that we’ve had any real reason to doubt this.

Whether Covid is just a bump on the road is yet to be seen. The world wasn’t a rosy utopia before the pandemic by any stretch and nostalgia tends to blur out the bad parts. But there’s plenty to be nostalgic for. Elements of the pre-pandemic world are beginning to return with sport, international travel and live music. But there’s more to be nostalgic about than not having to mask-up in public. The world since the orange smog has been far worse, if you’re going by the news headlines. Reading about the latest update from Ukraine, the newest Covid variant, or another ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ extreme weather event, instils a kind of pessimism that is difficult to overcome. Any existential anxiety before 2020 is likely to have reached a fever pitch since then. So if you’re anything like me, you’re probably feeling nostalgic for a time when news headlines were a little more tame, and it was a tad easier to feel hopeful about the future.


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