The Significance of First World Problems
Overconsumption and inequality shouldn't be deemed as trivial.
First world problems DO exist.
The wealthy global north seems to have reached the pinnacle of development. We have it all: well-paying jobs, functioning institutions, access to education, freedom of speech and seven types of chocolate ice cream in stores. In comparison to less developed countries, we live a life of abundance. And judging from these whiny messages, our problems in the global north seem to be mere fleabites. “We are complaining on a very high level,” as a German saying goes. But is this necessarily right? In this short article, I want to take you on a little tour through the challenging problems of the so-called “First World” – our problems.
The blessing of the Global North
Throughout the last couple of centuries, societies around the world have undergone huge changes. This is particularly evident in countries like Germany, Sweden or the USA, where industrialization and especially hygiene and refrigeration have enabled people to live longer and more fulfilled lives. Today, we are living in societies that are able to supply us citizens with nutrition, jobs and recreational activities. We are blessed with an urban lifestyle that encourages individual choice, personal development and endless possibilities to consume. Aided by technological advancements and societal order we are living in peace and ever-greater wealth. And, despite some dystopian visions, this trend seems to persist. Life expectancy at birth is increasing, GDP growth seems almost unstoppable and general peace in our countries has become the norm. Everything seems unicorns-shitting-strawberry-rainbows great.
On closer inspection, however, there are in fact many challenges that we do face. Let's look at two challenges that are particularly pressing: overconsumption and inequality.
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 and 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.
This short trip into the troubles of our time in our cozy global north might be unsettling (and might even sound alarmist). We are facing a plethora of societal challenges in the global north and as time goes on, we will create new ones. Many of these societal challenges – like rebound effects and exporting pollution, mental disabilities and relative poverty – are not visible in our everyday lives and constantly worsening. But don't get me wrong. Problems are good. As long as we have challenging tasks ahead, we can look forward to solving them. And that is where First World Development might be a term that comes in handy by combining the efforts of organizations, politicians, activists and institutions that try to solve our local problems under one umbrella.
"That is where First World Development might be a term that comes in handy" Social Entrepreneurship and Social Business are some of the most valuable concepts that I have come across to solve these challenges ahead. There are of course others as well: Policies, NPOs and NGOs or good old activism. Social business stands out as it offers us one opportunity that others might not: we can still do what we, as part of our society, need to do: consume. If we are able to combine our necessity to consume (think air, water, food, etc.) with sustainable business practices (i.e. social, ecological and sustainable longevity) we might stand a chance to turn our societal challenges in the Global North into opportunities.
About the Author
Michael Wunsch has been working with and for social entrepreneurs for more than 5 years. As business developer for Cool Ideas Society, he has developed the ChangeMakerSpace, a weekend long workshop for social business ideation and creation. Michael tweets about social entrepreneurship on a daily basis.