(Illustrated by David Yambem for MPV)
| Amita Basu | The Argumentative Amita |

(This is the first column in The Argumentative Amita series.)

I’ve been chatting about the environmental crisis with friends and acquaintances for many years. Increasingly, our conversations have been infiltrated by a formidable enemy: Whataboutism.

“Whataboutism” entered public consciousness as a tactic used by politicians or business leaders who, when questioned about their own bad behaviour or dubious policies, redirect attention to somebody else’s errors.

Recently I’ve noticed Whataboutism being offered as an excuse for lack of sustainable behaviour. “Yes,” a friend tells me, “home-delivered groceries involve lots of plastic packaging, and I could reduce my footprint by buying from my local greengrocer… But what about a celebrity, who will take one trip in their private jet and nullify whatever savings I could achieve in my whole lifetime? And anyway, isn’t pollution mostly caused by big companies?”

Whataboutism, when deployed by politicians, is childish at best, often a permission-slip for a race to the bottom. Similarly, Whataboutism as an excuse for unsustainable consumption is a troubling phenomenon.

It’s true that many celebrities, business-owners, and other wealthy individuals live irresponsibly. But numerous famous people also engage in extensive, meaningful activism. Natalie Portman has been vegan-or-vegetarian since 2011, a lifestyle that extends to her clothes-shopping habits. Portman speaks publicly about her stance against factory farming, and offers easy, nutritious vegan recipes in outreach events. Leonardo DiCaprio has spent decades producing conservation documentaries and fundraising for wildlife-protection drives. Margaret Atwood has engaged with climate change through her fiction; she also personally supports responsible forestry and other green practices.

Many companies, too, are investing in sustainability. The growing ‘slow fashion movement’ pries consumers away from the super-trendy, badly-made, disposable clothing that’s inundating landfills around the world (including, and especially, India) in favour of durable garments. In an age when both tailors and layperson sewing skills are disappearing, and a garment even slightly damaged is designated for the rubbish bin, Patagonia offers longterm warranties for their apparel; repair centres worldwide make this promise a reality. Imperfect Foods corral perfectly edible but unphotogenic foods, which would otherwise be wasted, and matches them with consumers who believe beauty is more than skin-deep. Bigger companies like Nike and Adidas are also implementing green practices. We need a lot more, but change is slowly happening.

Numerous less-famous companies are implementing sustainable practices with less fanfare. During my B.A., I was doing a content writing internship at Nordson India. At this capital-goods manufacturing company, staffed mostly by engineers, I spent several days feeling like a fish trying to balance on a unicycle. Then I discovered that Nordson, a global company, have developed lower-impact dyes and glues for use in their machines. That day, I realised I did have something in common with these engineers whose language was Greek to me – we all cared about our home, planet Earth.

Further, India has a huge spectrum of non-governmental organisations and citizens groups working on sustainability. Green Foundation’s focus on organic, polyculture-based farming has helped both biodiversity and farmers’ finances. Goonj recycles used garments into menstrual hygiene products for marginalised women. Current Conservation magazine documents issues around biodiversity and sustainability. Environmental Support Group unites citizen volunteers to tackle issues from the garbage crisis to lake conservation.

There’s no question that we urgently need large-scale change from governments and companies. But individual action is also vital. In many sectors, individual action makes a huge difference to the problem at hand. Let’s take the problem of urban air pollution. ET Energy estimates that half of all CO2 emissions from the transport sector come from individual vehicles (travelling both within-city and long-distance). Data from Statista shows that 21 million vehicles were sold in India in FY 2022. And an IISc report finds that 32% of all emissions in Indian cities comes from the transport sector. Putting these figures together, we see the huge cumulative impact on urban air quality of the choices we make as individuals about how to get around.

Encouragingly, sales of electric vehicles, which have their own environmental impacts but are overall a much greener choice, are also rising. In FY2018-19, Banega Swasth India estimates that 760,000 E.V.s were sold. A big share of these are three-wheelers. When it comes to green transport, there are autorickshaw drivers out there who’ve put wealthier Indians to shame.

So, next time a smart-alec friend or ‘devil’s advocate’ acquaintance’ makes a Whataboutist claim that ‘everyone else’ is also living irresponsibly, play a Whataboutist move of your own and point them to the many celebrities, companies, NGOs, and rickshaw-drivers who are doing the right thing. With so many people setting a good example, What About we follow their lead?


Amita Basu, is the Columnist and Interviews Editor of MeanPepperVine. She loves Captain Planet, barefoot running, and George Eliot. If dozing in the sun all day were a viable career, she’d be a world-champion sunbather. Her superpowers are befriending any dog on earth, whistling tunefully (while being totally unable to sing), and combining five bright colours in one outfit. Five is the limit, though.


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