Do we really have first world challenges?

I was recent in a trivia debate with a good friend discussing who invented the pie chart, honestly I looked completed at the ceiling when he said Florence Nightingale, I challenged him to the real answer which was William Playfair (22 September 1759 – 11 February 1823) – he was a Scottish engineer and political economist, the founder of graphical methods of statistics. He invented several types of diagrams: in 1786 the line, area and bar chart of economic data, and in 1801 the pie chart and circle graph, used to show part-whole relations.

We both discussed the challenges of that era, 1759 in Scotland was described as a period called the Enlightenment, a Golden Age in the arts, sciences, industry and commerce, so what was so different to the present day?

In 1759 we had the battle of Quebec, Guinness was first formed and James Watt invented the steam engine, today we have unsettlement and war in the middle east and an app and robot for practically any function and desire in life, were people so unhappy in the 1759 era believing they have 1st World Challenges and change?

According to urbandictionary.com, “first world problems” are defined as “[p]roblems from living in a wealthy, industrialised nation that third world persons would probably roll their eyes at.” There is even an entire website dedicated to highlighting the petty complaints and struggles faced by people in the first world.

This video named First World Challenge, gives some insight to the pettiness and struggles faced by people in the first world:

The people I hear using this phrase are usually relatively socially conscious. I think the intentions behind this term are probably genuine and rooted in the desire to check their privilege. Still, this term is half-baked in its intentions, and I think we can do better in this realm of social consciousness.

We need to examine the rhetoric involved in conversations surrounding privilege, the distribution of wealth, industrialised societies, and the global South. Specifically, I want to take this opportunity to consider the sorts of things that the phrase “first world problems” implies. As feminist and writer Laurie Penny recently wrote in her article, “Gender Neutral Language is Coming Here’s Why It Matters,” the terminology we use has a lot of power over the way we perceive the world around us.

It is a known fact that the way of life in our developed regions is having negative impacts on the environment. Although we are witnessing increasing levels of consciousness regarding consumption, we are still far off a sustainable mode of conduct. One person consuming on our current level might not have a wide impact on our nature. But billions of people make negative impacts of scale. You shopping a chocolate latte in a disposable cup might not be bad, but millions of cups make up for a complete landfill. Seemingly harmless choices multiplied by sheer quantity and automation potentially leads to tremendous negative results. Or to put it into another great German saying: ‘Small animals, too, create manure.’

But, changes are on the way, right? We are shopping the highest number of sustainable products than ever before and the invention of new efficient technologies is seemingly rising. Unfortunately, our efforts for more resource-efficiency don’t always work out. Fuel-savings in home heating technologies, for instance, has increased the size of homes people have built for themselves. This in turn has lowered the effect of fuel-savings, as less energy usage on more volume today equals more energy usage on less volume from before. In the end, we are still consuming the same amount of fuel. This principle is called the “rebound effect” and has had tremendous negative effects on our environment. It leaves us with a bitter truth: we might think that we are changing to a more sustainable lifestyle, while in fact we are consuming and thus wasting more than before.

To make matters worse, we are exporting our societal and ecological issues elsewhere. As most products are not made in Europe, North America or Australia, problems are accumulating in countries of the global south, where most production takes place. For us, this turned out to be the perfect mix. We crave cheap consumer products, but we are also asking for clean air, well-paying jobs and good regulation. By exporting most of the negative effects, we can easily live under the impression that we are consuming more sustainably, while others bear the burden. This leaves the global north with a huge challenge: we are unable to see our negative effects because we are very effective at hiding the real price of our actions, either through seemingly sustainable practices or through exporting our external costs.

There is one area, however, where we are able to see that our levels of consumption have backlashes: a rising number of diseases of affluence. Although it is quite clear, that a person living in poverty is more prone to diseases – especially to infectious diseases – our abundant lifestyle has had negative effects on our own health, too. In the global north non-communicable diseases, like obesity, asthma or cancer are on the rise. But it is the less obvious and less visible diseases that are most detrimental. Take mental illnesses as an example. In Germany, there is estimated to be between half a million to 1 million people with severe mental illnesses. Mental illness is a collective term for many different forms of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression or drug addiction.

These illnesses are called severe if they are persistent and constrain a person in their everyday-life. The cause of the constant rise of mental diseases since the 1950s in the global north is not totally clear, but it seems to be connected to isolation and personal overload. Our liberation from conservative systems, our ability to choose for ourselves who we want to be, puts us into a dangerous situation. We are constantly confronted with too many choices and inflated demands. Suddenly, seven different types of chocolate ice cream might be six too many. What is clear, though, is that people with mental illnesses have more troubles finding a job, often leaving them without an income and even more isolated. They are amongst others more prone to poverty and for failed marriages. With too few people talking about this huge societal issue – but with rising numbers of people with mental illnesses, the problem will become more pressing and there will be a search for more and better integration.

Income per household in the global north is rising constantly. This in turn improves our material quality of life. But this improvement is by far not accessible to everyone. The most marginalized (and seldom addressed) groups in Germany are still lacking access to some of the most basic societal services: hundreds of thousands of women over the age of 65 for instance live on less than 400 Euro a month – and the number is growing. These women are being punished today for having raised children in the past and putting family before their career. This problem will grow even further in the upcoming years and extend to all new retirees – female and male. By 2030, it is estimated that every second retiree will be living in poverty. On the other side of the trench, the German super-rich elite is on the rise – slowly but steadily. Looking at the rising Gini coefficient for wealth in Germany, it becomes apparent that less and less people own more and more of German assets.

Our society is growing more an more unequal. If this trend of inequality continues, we might get into serious trouble. Our society is built on a fragile equilibrium. Imagine the overall energy (time, effort, resources, etc) that is needed in order for our societal system to work. We are constantly busy maintaining the current state of our infrastructure and the social order we rely upon. All the gardeners, janitors, repairmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians and chocolate ice-cream makers spend most of their time just keeping the system running. Day in and day out they go to work to pull all the little levers so that you can drink your chocolate chai latte with soy milk “to go” every morning. This balance is, as improbable as it sometimes may seem, quite frail. We have to constantly fix and improve the status quo so that our society can prosper. The higher the developmental status of our societal systems, the higher its fragility becomes. Inequality might pose the biggest challenge for this societal equilibrium.

Using the third world as a means of noticing how lucky we are implies that value is in material things. It shifts focus from the fact that our own culture of consumption makes us not as good at counting our blessings as we should be. We are often so preoccupied with wanting more stuff and stressing over petty material things because our culture and our economy are so deeply intertwined with consumption. For a healthy economy, it is critical that we go on feeling this way. In citing “first world problems,” we focus instead on our relative luck over those living in some arbitrary “third world,” as defined in material terms. We are reinforcing the idea that there is inherent value in material stuff. To me, it sounds like we are suffering a case of idolatry

This video, I think puts life into prospective:

To be a White Whiner your complaint must convey, simultaneously, that you are both fortunate and irritated. Nothing gets people whining more than flying to an exotic location so they do not lose their holiday time at the end of the year. A study was carried out among 2,000 adults aged between the ages of 18 and 65, with alleged 1st World Challenges and the results are listed below:
• Earphones becoming tangled in your bag, Weetabix not fitting into a round breakfast bowl and weak tea have been named on the list of common British first world problems.
• Problems range from the trivial – the shop running out of semi-skimmed milk or remote control batteries running out – to the downright ridiculous.
• Some of the more absurd worries include: “Heel getting stuck in the decking of a boat or yacht” or “a neighbour using the same Laura Ashley wallpaper”.
• A spokesman for survey website, OnePoll, which carried out the study, said: “Sometimes we forget just how good we’ve got it.
• “While we enjoy a lifestyle much more fortunate than some parts of the world, we still find time to moan about those more trivial problems during everyday life.
• “Of course it’s frustrating that our earphones get tangled, or that some shops only sell cheap wine when you want to splash out a bit.
• “But when these moments occur, we should take a second and reflect on what aspects of our life aren’t so problematic”.

Meanwhile, we are also failing to acknowledge that it is the same system that brings us an unbalanced level of material wealth, which creates much of the poverty and exploitation for those living in poor countries. This is where we ought to put our focus. Having too much stuff to consume in our commercial culture is not psychologically healthy for anyone.

When we complain about how putting frozen water into our water makes it too cold, we should check ourselves. It’s important to feel gratitude and to not sweat the small stuff in our lives, to be happy with what we have and to appreciate when our basic needs are consistently met. Yet we should not do so at the expense of other people.

What we are actually doing when we exclaim ‘first world problems’ is projecting our white guilt onto people in the third world. Even defining first world problems as things “third worlders would probably roll their eyes at” is a projection. We are assuming this based on our own sense of guilt and Western ways of thinking. This is rather presumptuous because in actuality we have no idea how people residing in the third world would react to hearing our first world problems.

Finally, I feel we need to question the very ways we define what is poor and what is third world. We need to stop equating “first” with industrial output and consumption. We must realise that these labels don’t fit. There are many poor people in the industrialised, first world and there are wealthy, intelligent, wise, talented, and complex individuals living the third world.

A great quote by Lee Kuan Yew which rings reality to some of the alleged 1st World Challenges, he once said:

“What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work.”

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