I have come to appreciate first world problems. I know, they are banal and pointless yet in some rare cases, when the victim doesn’t appreciate the irony and is genuinely sorry for him/herself, the comedy can be priceless.
There is also another way of looking at them and indeed most of the other more pointless difficulties that people in the developed world face. In a way one can measure the level of “progress” of a society by looking at the development of people’s worries over a span of time. For example, as Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler argue in their book, Abundance, poverty in the United States today is defined by drastically different metrics than a hundred years ago. Most people who live under the poverty line today (in the US) have access to necessities such as air conditioning, mobile phones and the internet – luxuries unimaginable even for the richest tycoons of the Gilded age*.
Sure, people will tell you that things used to be better in the old days but it is really difficult to judge such statements, especially if you have had no experience of the time in question.
In his book, The Birth of Plenty, William Bernstein makes the very important point that any sort of qualitative examination of history can tell us only so much. It is statistics and quantitative analysis that can shed real light to the lives of the past. Moreover, as Steven Pinker explains, the past should be in fact viewed as a completely foreign or even alien country to the present. It really was that different from this time and place. Just think of the “good old days” some decades ago, when the British society sentenced some of its greatest heroes to suffer unimaginably cruel punishments, only because of a person’s sexual preferences.
It’s also getting better from TB to teeth
I was listening to a news story the other day about a suspected outbreak of tuberculosis in a school in Southern Finland. I was delighted to hear that the reporter actually had to explain what TB was as most listeners were familiar only with the name of the dreadful disease.
And why would they be? True, the disease was a major cause of death before the invention of the pasteurization process as well as effective treatments a century ago. Yet today the greatest worry resulting from the whole outbreak was probably that some of the students in the quarantined school thought the universe was being unmerciful towards them as they had prepared for that big test for nothing!
On another note, I hit my thirtieth birthday last year. I had my teeth checked and eventually had few teeth drilled and patched. I dreaded every moment (although the experience wasn’t as bad as I had feared). Few days later I realised I had become a victim of first world ‘problemization’ myself.
A hundred years ago most people at the age of 30 had already lost their teeth and were using dentures instead. Not only did they have to use artificial teeth but they also suffered from chronic infections due to poor hygiene and constant rubbing. While certainly awkward, apparently those “irritations” often turned out to be quite lethal as well.
I have been smiling with my average teeth ever since.
I suppose it is only natural that people’s worries become less concrete the higher up the need hierarchy you get (see below with a first world problem twist).
The point, however, is to understand how immensely different our quality of life is to our ancestors and why it is so. It is easy to state how much worse things are these days but the evidence to support such statements should be somehow measurable. And by any metric an ever increasing part of humanity is better fed, educated and entertained than their predecessors. And our children will very likely beat us in this game as long as we make the right choices.
This isn’t to say that there are no problems in the world. But when talking about them it is important to put the discussion into a context – what does the general trend look like how is it measured?
I just hope that one day the biggest worry on this earth is what to do with first world rascals who don’t obey the rules.
*I am not arguing that today’s poor are somehow living in extravagance. They aren’t. I am only saying that definitions change over time.