Have you ever heard of the term ‘whataboutism‘? While you might not have heard of the phrase before, you’ll definitely have seen it play out in real life.

The idea of whataboutism is that when an accusation is made, it is met with a reversal accusation, arguing that the original person is guilty of something worse. In practice, you might have seen this used recently against environmental campaigners who are criticised for having smartphones, or driving non-electric cars. There are many ways this can play out, but it’s definitely having a heyday in regards to the environmental movement at the moment, as anyone who tries to speak up can be labelled a hypocrite.

This can be frustrating because it misses the point that wider systemic changes are needed to mitigate climate breakdown. But, on top of this, a lot of the arguments I’ve seen used aren’t actually very good arguments. So, today I decided to try and break down some of these arguments and debunk them once and for all.

The smartphone argument

This argument has been growing alongside the school strikes movement, and is particularly leveraged against young people. I have seen scores of people saying that if young people really want change, they better be willing to give up their luxury smartphones, otherwise they’re basically hypocrites. Here are some counterpoints.

Firstly, just because you see someone with a smartphone doesn’t mean you can know for sure that they have ‘bought into the system’. There are so many ways to acquire things, it should be obvious that you can’t judge simply from what you can see. Someone with a smartphone could have had it handed down to them from a family member (as mine were for years) or they could have acquired it secondhand (as mine is now).

But more importantly, ethical phones do exist. Fairphone has been around since 2013. It’s £420 up front or £21+ per month (a fair amount, but cheaper than a new iPhone) and the company commits itself to sourcing conflict-free materials, paying workers a living wage and a modular design that means each individual component can be replaced. This design is deliberate, with the aim of promoting circular economy principles, reducing waste and doing away with planned obsolescence in favour of long-lasting tech. It’s not the best phone on the market in terms of performance (although this definitely depends on your priorities when it comes to phones), but to act as if the technology does not or cannot ever exist is misinformed at best.

Beyond this, phones can also be made slavery-free, if the will is there. The Fairphone model is the closest we have right now, but the entire industry has the capacity to change if those in charge decide to. IJM has regularly received funding from corporations that want to remove slavery from their supply chains but don’t have the means or expertise to do it themselves. With these resources, IJM goes to countries where slavery is prevalent, sets up on the ground and collaborates with local justice systems to identify issues and make them better. In areas where IJM has done this, they’ve seen slavery drop by huge amounts. If phone manufacturers and the industry as a whole chose to work with organisations like IJM to remove slavery at the source of the problem, this could create widespread systemic change, which is ultimately the right way to approach such complex, globalised issues.

The criticisms regarding materials within phones are justified; massive unregulated expansion of extractive industries could be disastrous for the environment. But, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential options available to us. For example, there are large amounts of old technology containing metals currently sitting unused in people’s homes. There is such an untapped wealth of resources in this area that Japan was able to create all of their 2020 Olympic medals from metals taken from old electronics, including old phones. If the phone industry worked with an organisation like the Ellen MacArthur foundation to implement circular models they could potentially develop a buy-back scheme where phones are used for the metals and components inside. They could then shift to a circular model where components are infinitely replaceable and materials can either be sent back to manufacturers for reuse, or utilised in another industry to eliminate waste streams altogether (we can see this in models such as Pela Case).

Finally, right now companies deliberately incorporate planned obsolescence into their models and designs. They intentionally create locked in phones that are often impossible to repair and don’t allow users to replace broken parts. If manufacturers were all forced by law to create modular designs, and it was illegal to create obsolete products, this couldn’t happen. Companies could still innovate better cameras and other improvements, but phones would need to be traded back to the company or parts switched out, making the producer responsible for eliminating waste rather than the individual who can’t help but exist in the system around them.

As you can see, it’s already more complex than a simple ‘don’t own a smartphone’ argument. And what does this non-exhaustive list of potential ideals all have in common? The need for system changes. Policy changes. Corporate changes. Changes need to be made above the level of individual consumption to have any chance of impact, and therefore shaming someone for owning a phone or saying they shouldn’t advocate for the planet if they have one, is just plain silly.

The car argument

This one can go both ways, either people are criticised for having an electric car because of the energy used to create it, or they’re criticised for driving a car that is contributing to emissions. So, some facts.

If we compare emissions from the entire life cycle of an electric car, from production through to disposal, it will create less emissions than a fossil fuel counterpart. That being said, it will, of course, be more energy-intensive to create a new car if you have the option to utilise one that already exists. It’s the same as how organic cotton is better than conventional cotton, but the best option is to not buy anything and wear what you already have. Considering how many people were quick to jump on the energy required to make the yacht Greta Thunberg used to travel to America (which, may I remind you, ALREADY existed and was just offered to her as an option), it’s easy how this argument gets forgotten when it comes to getting angry at people who don’t have electric cars.

This isn’t to say that I’m now advocating for more diesel to just be used willy nill forever, because that can’t be a long term solution, but to get angry at people who often can only afford to source a secondhand car, live in areas without access to electric vehicle charging or public transport, or may have had a non-electric vehicle passed to them from a family member, is once again oversimplifying a more complex set of structures.

So again, instead of shaming individual people for the car they have, this energy could probably be better focused on public transport laws. One recent positive example is the closure of 14th street in Manhattan: from 6am – 10pm no cars are allowed on the section of 14th street between 3rd and 9th avenue, the result has been faster bus commutes and reduced emissions. Now, imagine if this became an inspirational example for the infrastructure of other cities and towns. Where nearly all cars are removed from centres but replaced with huge numbers of efficient, affordable and accessible buses (or other public transit like trams), which can also provide jobs that drivers can transition to, better international and intercity rail networks, and bigger and safer cycle lanes (I have a feeling cycling would increase in many cities if there was less risk of accidents with vehicles and less issues with air pollution). Also, people may argue that more buses/trains isn’t helpful if your grid isn’t decarbonised, but don’t forget that both of these can already be powered by hydrogen (I’ve ridden the hydrogen bus myself) so, again, it’s silly to make an oversimplified argument.

When it comes to transport, circular models are again vital. If manufacturers started taking cars back to reuse materials and parts alongside designing modular vehicles where engines can be switched out as green technology advances so rapidly (especially as hydrogen vehicles are likely to become more feasible in the future), then this will make transitioning to decarbonised transport more and more achievable.

Ultimately, anything that requires individual combustion of fossil fuels will be the last things we deal with fully. The lowest hanging fruit is to focus on cleaning up the grid (and probably decentralising it) by ending subsidies for fossil fuels and massively investing in renewable technology and hooking as many things up to the grid as possible (including cars, public transport, trains etc). Once this is done, we can also work on retrofitting homes with solar panels and energy-efficient insulation, alongside funding the replacement of gas cooking and boilers with electric options. 

At the same time as all of this is going on, we will need to focus on drawdown too. By working to shift British agricultural models to regenerative ones we will sequester vast amounts of carbon. If we also focus on rewilding, restoration of peat bogs, and biodiversity protection, this will do even more.

Basically, when it comes to transport and emissions, there are a lot of factors to consider, because we’re dealing with multiple individual sources of combustion. But none of those factors can be completely fixed by simple individual choice alone. In the same way that if China completely stopped emitting tomorrow it wouldn’t be enough, individual choices will not be enough at this point.

Hopefully, the above paragraphs can at least demonstrate the complexity we’re dealing with here, which also requires thorough systemic solutions. We exist within systems, and many of us have limited choices because of this and our own stations and situations in life.

And this, in my opinion, is the worst thing about whataboutism. Never mind the fact that it often oversimplifies and attempts to push things into binary ‘right and wrong’ categories, or the fact that it often presumes solutions don’t exist beyond individual choice, when they absolutely do. Regardless of any of this, it’s just not intersectional at all. Whataboutism isn’t willing to consider that there may be multifaceted intersecting elements of a persons life that leads them to their choices, or sometimes lack thereof. It’s blind to the realities of the world, and therefore hinders us all from making any real, effective progress,

Basically, if you say that someone must be perfect before they can challenge the system then, honestly, you’re deluded. Perfection doesn’t exist, but trying, learning, and advocating do. And that’s what we have to work with right now.