First World Problems

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I had an old thought, half-forgotten, about the popular first world problems internet meme. For those of you who are unfamiliar with “first world problems”, it is type of internet joke in which a problem or complaint is dismissed as trivial due to its exclusivity to people living in developed countries. It’s funny, but there’s something that has been eating at me about it. Here’s an example of “first world problems”:

The joke being that in many developing countries people do not have the opportunity to watch movies in the first place or to access a Netflix subscription, so to complain about not being able to find a given film is a second order complaint–in order to have this problem, you have to be significantly better off than a large portion of the world’s population in the first place. It is both funny and it reminds people in developed countries not to take themselves or their problems too serious–after all, they could be hungry, or have cholera, or some such thing.

I was an early enthusiast for these jokes–much of our society fixates on trivial things and ignores wider social problems in both word and deed. However, I have more recently had misgivings about the philosophical implications of “first world problems”. This misgiving is, to some degree, encapsulated by a derivative group of memes, the “1990’s First World Problems“. Here’s an example:

Here the humour is compounded by the fact that the problem is a retro one which we no longer have today. But, were I writing this in the nineties, this very well would fall into the same category as the first example I used. This brings me to the thing that’s been rubbing me the wrong way–while it’s all fine and good to tell individuals who are whining and failing to appreciate their relative affluence, there’s a larger social implication to the “first world problems” memes, which is that first world problems aren’t worth solving. There are people starving, dying of disease, and so on, and you want us to focus on separating the internet from the phone line, or enlarging the size of Netflix’s library?

The trouble is, if we accepted that first world problems were not worth solving, developed countries would not bother with pushing their own technology and standard of living forward. The ways that the internet have grown and developed since the nineties have been impressive and very beneficial. Yes, that benefit has been confined mostly to wealthy parts of the world that were already significantly better off, but that doesn’t make the benefit non-existent or meaningless.

I don’t see people in the developed world willing to give up their cars, computers, internet access, smart phones, and so on in order to redistribute wealth to poor parts of the world to actually tackle the troubles of the developing world. When Apple or Microsoft come out with something new, we do not condemn them for not spending their profits on fighting world hunger; we embrace them for making our lives that little bit better. When we pay taxes to our governments, we expect that money to be used to defend us, to provide for superior health care and education, to make our lives better. There are lots of problems we take very seriously that are “first world problems”. Cancer and heart disease are first world problems. People in developing countries do not generally live long enough to get them. Should everyone doing cancer research stop and start funnelling the funding into poor countries? If they have a moral imperative to do it, they aren’t acting on it, and none of us seem to be pressuring them in that direction.

On top of that, pretty much every problem except the very most basic and most severe was, at one point in time, a first world problem. I ran across this version of the meme that applies it to the 19th century:

Surely we do not think that people in the 1800’s shouldn’t have bothered with spending their time, money, and energy developing indoor plumbing or central heating on the grounds that, in the 19th century, there were lots of other people in the world who were even worse off. It is not reasonable to expect global progress to proceed at the pace of the slowest civilisation. The expenses we have invested in building universities and training physicists and philosophers all could have gone to helping people in poor countries die less often during the various eras in which those investments were made.

The ultimate consequence of “first world problems” as a philosophy is a complete halt in the forward development of advanced economies and countries in favour of solving the “third world problems”.  It is not as if third world countries inherit none of the benefits of this progress, either. To the extent that developing countries have electricity, cars, trains, some of the basic infrastructure developed during the first and second industrial revolutions, it is because developed countries chose to invest in creating those technologies rather than directly attempting to help them in times past. And when the developed world has embarked on “civilising missions” to bring modern agriculture, transportation, and other technology to the developing world it has been accused of profiteering off of that process through imperialism and violently ejected for the imposition of “foreign cultural values”. When technology is deemed an imposition of a “foreign culture”, how are its benefits to spread?

The technology exists to solve third world problems, but the third world nations themselves have to get behind its use. Take the Tuareg rebels in Mali–their grievance was two-fold. On the one hand they resented that their territory was not being economically developed, but at the same time they resented the imposition of external cultural values that encouraged them to give up nomadic lifestyles and embrace economic activity that was more productive. The unfortunate truth for the third world is that one cannot have the economic benefits of industrialisation without industrialising, and industrialising necessarily changes the nature of all cultures that engage in it. If one looks back in the literature of the European economies during their own industrialisation periods, there is much concern expressed that the traditional European culture was being destroyed or lost in the process. Nowadays we typically say that it merely evolved; we pay no attention to how, at the time, reactionary elements within European society were just as opposed to industrialisation as many traditionalists in the modern developing world presently are.

We aren’t going to solve the third world problems for the third world. We do not have the will to do it, and the third world does not desire to see us do it. It will have to come from the third world countries themselves, from their own people. They must desire to implement the social, economic, and cultural changes necessary; we cannot make them. That is the lesson of the imperial period. The best we can do for the third world is to continue to push the boundaries of our own first world problems, to seek new technologies so that, when a third world country does begin to make great strides, it can move faster than we did. The Chinese did not have to develop and invest in the automobile; we did that work for them, and now that China has begun to really develop, its people can buy them faster and with greater ease than they otherwise would.

We should figure out great new technologies so that when those countries that trail us begin to catch up, they do not have to endure the first world problems we have had to endure. We should work to develop clean industry, to eliminate the first world problem of pollution. We should work to develop cures to cancer and heart disease, so that they are available when the third world countries begin to increase the life expectancies of their own people. We should seek to create paradise in our own lands, so that the fruits of that paradise can be exported and shared when others decide they wish to try them. Instead of dismissing first world problems as trivial, we should take up the challenge of eliminating them. Every time a human being experiences suffering, no matter how seemingly minor, there exists some problem that someone could solve. We should not refrain from solving the problems that result from our past successes merely because others have not yet experienced those original successes. We should push the boundaries of technology, knowledge, and progress everywhere, and at all times.

Note:

One caveat to all of this–none of this is an excuse for screwing over developing countries by pillaging their resources via transnational corporations, taxing their products, or subsidising our own at their expense. The obligation to refrain from intervention in developing countries is not permission for the screwing over of them.