First World Problems: The Occupy Movement

September 17 marked the one year anniversary of the initiation of the Occupy Movement. But how successful were the demonstrations and what did they do to curb inequality?

In my opinion, very little. There is a whole host of issues relating to inequality in the world and the Occupy Movement only highlighted a fraction of them – the ones which made life a little bit harder for people in already developed, modernised countries.

There is no doubt that the Occupy movements were a nice idea in that it was the first time in the affluent developed world that a concerted effort was undertaken by a large group of people to criticise socioeconomic inequality and the extent of corporate impunity which saw the very rich allowed to maintain control over markets and the rules which governed them and exploit the masses accordingly.

It was also the first time, at least in The US, that people began to thoroughly question and critically reflect on capitalism and not take it for granted as the perfect and ideal economic system. And, most importantly, the protests have left an undeniable impact on political discourse in America, as expressed by Stephen Zunes from Harford Business.com:

“Until last year, mainstream political discourse did not include nearly as much emphasis on such populist concerns as rising income inequality, tax policies that favor the rich, growing influence by large corporate interests in elections and the reckless deregulation of financial institutions that resulted in the 2008 crisis. It is hard to miss them now.

These concerns still impact 99 percent of Americans. Even if Occupy protests have petered out, the movement has affected the political narrative in our country.” [1]

However, I believe that the Occupy movement is just a mass political demonstration of people complaining about their first world problems. In case you don’t understand this colloquialism, first world problems are what Urban Dictionary describes as “problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at” .

The irony of the whole situation is that the Occupy movement was initiated by “the 99 per cent” of Americans citizens complaining about the dominance of “the one per cent” of Americans, when in actual fact they consist of approximately four per cent of the world’s entire population, and themselves live affluent and high-consuming lifestyles generally at the expense of large parts of the Global South.

Consider the following two tables from the United Nations Human Development Report of 1998, which – although they are a bit outdated now – exemplify the West’s misguided priorities when it comes to global inequality [2]:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780
Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13

The US consumes almost a quarter of the world’s energy, which is theoretically around six times more than its fair share. The average American consumes 8.35 tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) energy and the average Canadian consumes 8.16 TOE (when Canada was the biggest mainspring for Occupy demonstrations outside of the US). To put this into perspective, according to Mindfully.org, one American consumes as much energy on average as 128 Bangladeshis, as 307 Tanzanians and as 370 Ethiopians. All in all, each person in the Global North uses as much commercial energy as 10 people in the developing world.

Moreover, Americans eat more than 815 billion calories of food each day, which is roughly 200 billion more than they physically need to, and hypothetically enough to feed 80 million more people; along with this, they throw out an extra 200,000 tons of edible food daily. Contrast that over-consumption with the global hunger epidemic, which sees 925 million people – or 14 per cent of the entire global population – undernourished, according the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Human Development Index (HDI), an attempt at finding an indicator of countries’ standards of human wellbeing, analyses their performances in health, income and education. The United States ranked 4th out of 187 nations on the HDI in the 2011 Human Development Report, but dropped to 23rd when internal health, education and income inequalities were factored in (exhibiting how bad inequality is in the States).

But it is the Sub-Saharan nations, who occupy the lowest rungs of the HDI with low life expectancy, low literacy rates and lopsided income distributions, which really get the bad end of the stick, yet they did not partake in the movement. The African countries which became involved, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia, did not come from the region and were among the most well cared for nations in the continent.

The reality is, people who have the time and freedom to protest about their dire financial, social or political problems are still comfortable and well-off enough to enjoy the time and freedom to protest in the first place. Compare the relatively peaceful Occupy demonstrations in the West with the violent uprisings in the Arab Spring, including the ongoing conflict today in Syria which has pretty much turned into a Civil War. Compare people’s inability to protest their dire economic fortunes in Sub-Saharan states because looking out for their mere subsistence and survival is their way of life, with people’s relative comfort in protesting their income inequalities in the States and Canada.

Don’t get me wrong, the Occupy movement was a huge, momentous step forward in addressing and tackling issues of social inequality – however this is only the case in the industrialised world.  And it’s not just The US which is culpable when it comes to global inequality and maintaining self-serving priorities – the whole of the Global North has to look at itself and reflect on what is right and just for the rest of the world’s citizens. Perhaps people in the Global North need to focus on their own backyard before looking outwards to address problems with global stratification.

However, at the end of the day, looking back at the movement makes me think that it was just a hugely politicised objection to first world problems. And these, after all, are only a small, and least severe, sample of the problems facing the world today.


[1] Zunes, S (2012), Occupy fizzled, but made 99% a force, Hartford Business, accessed on 25/09/2012 at <http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120924/PRINTEDITION/309219970>

[2] Shah, A (2010), Poverty Facts and Stats, Global Issues, accessed on 25/09/2012 at <http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src31>

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