The cosmic clock: a look back at the biggest events of the last 50 years.
It was David Bowie who asked: ‘Is there life on Mars?’ back in 1973. While the answer still eludes us today, in 2023, (although it is not for the want of trying, given the five rovers NASA has sent to the Red Planet) let us imagine for a moment that there is life out there. Not necessarily on Mars, but further away. A precise 50 lightyears away from Earth. That life, in whatever form it may be, could look back at Earth and – given the physical laws that contain the speed of light – effectively watch the events of the last 50 years unfold. While that privileged position is out of our own reach, and we are instead confined to the realm of reflection, let us also look back at some of the most defining events of the last 50 years.
The Swingin’ Sixties may have been as dead as some of its most prolific stars but 1973 was all about new beginnings. For Warwick students, there was a new arrival to campus. The Boar was born, with its founders Godfrey Rust and Kasper de Graaf providing students across campus with the opportunity to dabble in student journalism for the first time. Amplifying the voices of Warwick students for decades, as well as acting as the first stepping stone for the successful careers of many journalists, The Boar has more than proven its worth to the student community at the University of Warwick.
But outside of the Warwick Bubble and across the pond, in the United States, 1973’s theme of new beginnings was equally as strong, with the women’s rights movement not just making ripples, but making waves. While the second wave of feminism pioneered the professional woman, allowing her to seek work in stereotypically masculine fields such as engineering and mechanics, women were still lacking in personal autonomy, especially of their reproductive systems. 1973, however, delivered a fresh start. The Roe vs. Wade trial culminated in the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision to grant all women the right to access an abortion. As a result, millions of women could pursue greater educational and employment opportunities, enhancing the personal lives of women across the nation.
The events of the 1980s often struck a more sombre chord.
Decisions with seismic consequences were also being made around the world. The relatively new European Economic Community (later the EU) welcomed its newest member, Britain, marking a new era in Britain’s unsettled relationship with Europe, while in Southeast Asia US troops were departing from Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords ended direct US military involvement (although, the Vietnam war did not come to an end until Saigon fell in 1975).
An energy crisis (caused by a drop in oil production during the Iranian Revolution), inflation spiralling out of control (8.3%), and a winter of mass industrial action. You might be mistaken in thinking that we were talking about 2022. But this was also the economic reality in the UK in 1978. 4.6 million people took part in the strikes of the Winter of Discontent, causing the UK economy to grind to a halt, reducing Callaghan’s Labour administration to ashes. But rather than a phoenix emerging, 1979 saw the fire-breathing Margaret Thatcher lead the Conservatives to victory in the General Election, becoming the UK’s first female Prime Minister. Her election saw the dawn of a new era – neoliberal and neon, the Eighties had arrived.
While it was the decade of synth-pop-induced dreams and tasteless fashions, the events of the 1980s often struck a more sombre chord. In December 1981, the first case of HIV was identified in the UK, and in the following year Terrence Higgins was named as one of the first victims of AIDS. Growing into a deadly epidemic, those who were diagnosed with AIDS had a life expectancy of just a few months or weeks: when Professor Jonathon Weber began a study on 400 gay men in London that displayed early symptoms of the virus, 399 later died. But with the illness spreading, and primarily affecting gay men, so did the stigma affecting the gay community with terms like ‘gay plague’ being widely used. The UK government’s intervention with the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign, which appeared in 1986, only entrenched this stigma further, terrifying the population.
Europe got to see the Cold War start to thaw.
While this was happening, the UK government had been busily intervening abroad after Argentinian President Leopoldo Galtieri decided to take control of the Falklands Islands in 1982. Thatcher authorised a military operation to retake the islands, simultaneously deploying all branches of the British armed forces, resulting in a 74-day-long conflict that caused over 900 casualties.
Elsewhere, missions of a military scale were needed as the nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded in 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear power accident. Three years after the disaster, the world, and in particular Europe, got to see the Cold War start to thaw. The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised the lifting of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between the East and West, and ultimately the end of the Cold War, which culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Communism was coming under similar pressure over in China, with an estimated 1 million protestors descending on Tiananmen Square to demand greater political freedoms against China’s Communist rulers. But these protests were met by fierce repression: the Chinese government pushed back by opening fire, crushing and arresting the demonstrators. The Chinese government would later report the deaths of 200 civilians, while UK documents, released in 2017, claim that the figure was closer to 10,000.
While clearly victorious for some, 1994 was tragic for others.
Having proved itself as a decade of big hair and even bigger global events, the world needed relief from the excess of the Eighties. But Pandora’s box had long been open, and the rush of global events, both good and bad, continued to be relentless. Yet, we had reached the Nineties, and fortunately for us, Pandora’s box turned out to be heart-shaped.
Change was palpable in the Nineties and victory hung in the air – especially in South Africa. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island Prison, where he had served 27 years for his use of violence in opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He was then elected as leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1991, before leading the party to victory in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
While clearly victorious for some, 1994 was tragic for others. In April, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana, was found dead at his home in Seattle, after committing suicide. Having been credited with creating grunge, the flannel-wrapped and rebellious zeitgeist of the Nineties, Cobain’s death marked a cultural earthquake with an impact equivalent only to that of Nirvana’s eruption into the mainstream. Grunge died alongside the complex icon, and millions of people across the world felt like they had lost the only person who had ever truly understood them.
Three years later, tragedy struck the world again when the ‘People’s Princess,’ Diana Spencer was killed in a car crash in Paris, alongside Dodi Fayed. Having captured people’s hearts through her humanitarian work and love of pop culture, Diana’s death evoked a national outpouring of sorrow amongst the British public. Although her death caused the crown to quiver only slightly, it had crushing consequences on the young princes who had lost their mother. Consequences that are clearly still having an effect today, with Prince Harry’s book Spare extensively detailing the trauma that haunts him.
As the end of a decade, century, and millennium, the transition into the year 2000 should have heralded a visionary new era.
As with 1994, tragedy and victory balanced against one another like Yin and Yang. Labour’s rebrand under the leadership of Tony Blair, into New Labour, saw the party claim a landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. Labour won a total of 418 seats in the election – that’s a majority of 179 seats – making it the largest victory in the Party’s history. With Blair as Prime Minister, public spending on healthcare and education increased, and a national minimum wage was introduced, alongside more Conservative commitments like not increasing income tax.
As the end of a decade, century, and millennium, the transition into the year 2000 should have heralded a visionary new era. After all, mankind is typically fond of taking advantage of its fresh starts – it’s why we make doomed New Year’s Resolutions year after failed year. But as the decade of hot pink and velour tracksuits, the Noughties had clearly left vision at the door.
So too it seems had its political leaders. Rather than pioneering a new millennium of peace and progress, the 2000s were dominated by terror and war. On September 11, 2001, the terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial aeroplanes and then deliberately crashed them into the Twin Towers, in New York, the Pentagon, in Virginia, and a field in Pennsylvania. 2,977 people from 93 nations were killed with the death toll in New York standing at 2,753 following the complete collapse of both the North and South Towers of the World Trade Centre.
Matching the political instability of the early 2000s, 2008 saw the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.
In a speech that followed the attacks, President George W. Bush declared that: “Any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Given that al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, where they operated training camps with the support of the Taliban, followed by the Taliban’s refusal to hand over the terrorists, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ was launched a month after the attacks. This was the start of the Afghanistan War and both U.S. and UK troops became heavily involved.
With the vulnerability that the Twin Towers attack created in the psyche of the American population, combined with Bush’s determination to combat any state that was supporting terrorists, the U.S. President turned his attention to Iraq. Iraq allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration believed Iraq was supporting terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. With the support of Blair and the British Armed Forces, the Iraq War began in 2003.
Matching the political instability of the early 2000s, 2008 saw the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. The Financial Crisis was caused by low-interest rates, particularly on mortgages, which allowed people with questionable credit histories (subprime borrowers) to borrow large sums of money and obtain mortgages that they ultimately could not afford. Losses caused by investments in these subprime borrowers then began to cause a strain on the global lending system which culminated in the bankruptcy of the Wall Street giant, Lehman Brothers, and the start of the Crisis. While the government response successfully stabilised the stock market, people that had lost their houses and were facing unemployment felt that bankers were being rewarded for their recklessness.
2016, however, saw this tide of positivity turn.
The 2000s had not been the shining start to a new millennium that they could have been. The dust of a complicated decade finally began to settle in 2008. Running as a Democrat, Barack Obama led his party to victory in the 2008 Presidential elections in the U.S., becoming the first African American President of the United States. A historic moment for obvious reasons, but Obama’s victory will continue to make history, having forever changed black America’s conception of themselves, inspiring a new generation of black people to pursue aspirations that they previously thought lay outside of their reach.
Efforts to ‘Inspire a Generation’ continued into the 2010s. In 2012, London hosted the Olympics for a third time (having previously done so in 1908 and 1948). With the debut of women’s boxing at the Olympics, and every sport containing female athletes for the first time, the Olympics were met with praise and enthusiasm. One year later, there were yet more positive events happening in the UK as gay marriage became legal, allowing same-sex couples to marry (prior to this, only civil partnerships were allowed).
2016, however, saw this tide of positivity turn. Populism reigned supreme as the Vote Leave campaign was successful in the Brexit Referendum, winning 52% of the votes. Meanwhile, later in the year, Donald Trump, the controversial businessman and television personality was the shock winner of the U.S. Presidential election. Both political events carried with them colossal consequences for the world, from making European travel more difficult, to removing the second-biggest carbon polluter from the Paris Climate Agreement (2014).
But the 2020s have thus far been anything but roaring.
Solidarity came to be a defining theme of the latter end of the 2010s. In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, in late 2017, actress Alyssa Milano posted an open letter on Twitter calling for victims of sexual abuse to share their stories using #MeToo. The campaign was successful in drawing attention to the magnitude of the problem, with more than 2.3 million #MeToo tweets from 85 countries.
After much unrest throughout the 2000s and 2010s, people treated the arrival of the 2020s as the lodestar to a brighter decade, drawing upon the gilded glamour of the 1920s for inspiration. But the 2020s have thus far been anything but roaring.
Firstly, Australia became an earthly hell with the 2020 wildfire season being declared Australia’s worst, with approximately 3 billion animals being affected by the devastating fires.
Then came covid-19. The virus, originating in Wuhan, China, quickly developed into a pandemic, penetrating every country and community. Faced with such an unprecedented threat, with little knowledge on the virus, countries quickly went into lockdowns. Schools delivered lessons online, shopping became a potentially deadly task, and the NHS almost buckled under such strain. This once-in-a-century challenge blindsided governments and populations, leaving us isolated and fearful.
Amid this fear, people never lost sight of the importance of fighting for justice. In May 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in the United States. His wrongful death sparked an upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement and protests rapidly followed all around the world. In the UK, this led to the removal of the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol, and encouraged uncomfortable conversations about Britain’s racist systems and past.
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of the on-going Russo-Ukraine war.
As lockdowns continued to fatigue the nation, hope was needed. And this hope was delivered on 8 December 2020 when Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a Covid vaccine. The subsequent vaccine rollout in 2021 allowed us to move past the seemingly endless lockdowns and some semblance of normality began to emerge for the first time in over a year.
And this leads us to 2022. Last year, unfortunately, did not mark much of a change from the shocking start of the 2020s. In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of the on-going Russo-Ukraine war, which first began in 2014. Not imagining such a fierce Ukrainian force, Russia has found the invasion increasingly difficult. But it has not just been the two warring countries that have struggled.
With Russia and Ukraine, combined, providing the world with 34% of its wheat supply, and Russia supplying Europe with 40% of its natural gas imports, the war has caused a steep rise in inflation, which has since been called the cost-of-living crisis. For many families, the essentials such as food and heating have become too costly.
In the space of two months, the UK saw three different Prime Ministers.
In times like these, strong leadership is needed. But 2022 proved that needs aren’t always met. In the space of two months, the UK saw three different Prime Ministers. Johnson was ousted for his untrustworthiness. Truss for her incompetence. Sunak managed to hold on for power a little longer, although the UK’s rampant industrial action is proving to be an uncomfortable thorn in his side.
Talking of leadership change, in September 2022, HM Queen Elizabeth II died, aged 96. This monumental passing marked a complete break with the past as the country came to realise that the ever-present figurehead, who was a constant over the rapidly evolving world, would no longer be at the helm of the British monarchy.
50 years is not a long time on a cosmic clock. Considering 437 years make a cosmic second, it is not even a cosmic nanosecond. After our whirlwind tour of the last 50 years, I think we can agree that hardly any time is needed for such colossal changes to occur.