Masculinity and the Environment: A Double-edged Sword

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The latest Masculinity Research article looks at the connections between masculinity and the environment, originally published at The Good Men Project.

Trump, Populist Masculinity and the Paris Agreement

Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, with its disastrous consequences for our collective future, has been met with dismay by politicians and citizens from around the world. Of course, this decision comes as no surprise, not just because of his previous signaling on the matter, but because resistance to environmental concerns is a key value of the type of populist masculinity that underpins his presidency.

The connection between Trump-like masculinity and its perception of the environment is well known. A 2011 study in the journal Global Environmental Change shows that “conservative white males are significantly more likely than are other Americans to endorse denialist views.” The cast of populist masculinity celebrities that support Trump has also been keen to embody this view. For example, Alex Jones’ publication Infowars ran numerous articles such as Globalist Cucks Triggered After Trump Puts America Before Paris Agreement. The masculinity element is not just implicit here, but explicit, with the use of the emasculating term “cuck” and the fact that the article was illustrated with a picture of Trump giving a hand gesture indicating that someone has a tiny penis. Breitbart and other publications that platform populist masculinity views ran similar articles. Elsewhere, the likes of Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopoulos have thrown their weight behind Trump on this issue, as well as Mike Cernovich, who upped the muscular ante by asking, “How do these people know so much about climate change? These people can’t even lift, bro!”

While there is a danger of blaming everything on masculinity and being distracted from bigger geo-political culprits, it is fair to say that masculinity has a damaging effect on the environment. It’s not just Trump and the populist masculinity celebrities. More generally, stereotypical masculine values work against sustainability, whether it be violence, domination and exploitation of people and natural resources, or even connecting lifestyle choices such as eating less meat with being unmanly. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Stereotypical Masculinity for the Environment

There are also men in the public eye who look stereotypically masculine but who are working towards a more sustainable future. Soon after the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the exemplar of muscularity Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appeal to Trump to think again, using the logic not of tree-huggers, but job-creators. While Schwarzenegger may not have been an ideal governor for California, he did at least do his bit for standing up for the environment, and he did it with a certain masculine clout such as his famous facebook post, “I don’t give a **** if we agree about climate change.”

In a similar way, we can point to Elon Musk who stepped down from Trump’s advisory councils after the Paris announcement. Musk makes his money in some of the most stereotypically masculine things on the planet: sleek cars and phallic rockets. Yet at the same time it is arguable that between championing electric cars at Tesla, green energy at SolarCity and ultimately interplanetary existence with SpaceX, Musk is doing more for our sustainability as a species than any other business person alive.

We can look at Leonardo DiCaprio whose playboy lifestyle, complete with a penchant for supermodels, is the epitome of a certain type of stereotypical masculinity. But his environmental activism over the years has turned countless people on to this issue, and far outweighs the private-jet-hypocrisy snipes gleefully made by populist masculinists such as Paul Joseph Watson. And there are countless other men, both in the public eye and in private life, who may look in some ways like standard masculine climate change deniers, but whose values and behavior say something altogether different.

Both Remedy and Poison

In one of Plato’s dialogues between Phaedrus and Socrates, we are faced with the paradox of the “pharmakon.” The pharmakon is alternatively or simultaneously beneficent and maleficent; it is both remedy and poison; at once fascinating and abhorrent. This is an excellent way of thinking about masculinity in the context of the environment. Certainly, masculinity is one of the great drivers of environmental destruction, but it also has the potential to be one of its great saviors.

To date, whenever gender and environmental activism are put in dialogue, it is usually in the context of feminism. In particular, ecofeminism has drawn parallels between the way men dominate women and the environment. The analysis of ecofeminism is sound, but the zero-sum game perceptions surrounding gender politics mean that it is unfortunately unlikely that ecofeminism will ever scale to a point where it has a world-changing impact. We need a different conversation regarding gender and the environment.

This does not mean that ecofeminism should be discarded, rather complemented. In short, the environment needs to be turned into a “men’s issue.” Conservatives do not have a monopoly when it comes to masculinity and the environment. The binary between women tending towards environmental protection and men tending towards environmental destruction is false, in exactly the same way as the binary between femininity and masculinity is false.

The message needs to be clear: healthy masculinity requires a healthy environment. This does not even necessitate moving outside of the frame of stereotypical masculinity. Ensuring a healthy environment is logical as it secures existential survival; it means the environment must be protected and requires strength. Men need to champion this issue as if their lives and those of their families depended on it: because they do.