August 10th, 2006


Optimism moves east

The story so far: As Angrael turns into a paranoid alliance of embattled security states lashing out with ever-increasing violence against the very people who control their energy resources, dragging the West ever deeper into a vicious circle of hatred, reprisals against civilians, and the erosion of all legitimacy, any tender-minded and optimistic view of our future slips away into a bloody sunset.

Is it really just ten years ago that we were talking about long booms rather than mid-flight explosions? Our prosperity was going to continue and increase, and we were going to use our wealth to help the poor. Everybody was going to love us. Our children would grow up in a world that was getting better.

This diffuse, warm sense of well-being wasn't just a side-effect of the MDMA tablets everyone was taking back in the 90s. It was related to a sense that world trade talks (the same ones that have just collapsed at Doha) might bring global justice, that information technology was going to raise educational standards and democratize knowledge, that a new post-industrial economy was going to complement bricks and mortar business, and that the 21st century, just on the threshold, would be a wonderland where lifespan would increase and diseases be defeated thanks to gen-tech.

The images on this page show some short-lived kids' bookstore in groovy, optimistic 1990s London, Paris, Berlin, New York or Tokyo, don't they? It went out of business in 2001, didn't it, replaced by a store selling black, beige and cream clothes and fallout shelters? Actually, no. This "haven for little imaginations" is Kids Republic, a childrens' bookstore in Beijing, China. It's just opened.

The optimism, tender-mindedness and benign curiosity apparent in this store (something about its spirit and design reminds me of Oto Kinoko, the sound store in Kyoto I blogged about excitedly earlier this year, only to find it had already closed down) represent everything we in the West have lost in the last ten years; lost because of our clumsy response to 9/11 and Angraeli realpolitik. Who, in the West, would have children now? But it's nice to know that, somewhere, optimism about the future is still intact.

In 30 or 40 years, the Chinese kids in this photo will be running the world. It's hard to imagine them making a worse job of it than we've done.