By Cara Daggett
July 12 2022
In my last post, I wrote about petro-masculinity, or the connection between misogyny and support for fossil fuels, which is especially apparent in authoritarian movements in the U.S. and elsewhere. Petro-masculinity is particularly intense among White, conservative men. However, conservatives do not have a monopoly on toxic masculinities; techno-optimists and liberal centrists also possess their own toxic masculine styles, as do left and ‘deep green’ environmental movements.
Masculine identities, and the White patriarchal orders that they often support, are important for understanding (the lack of) political responses to climate change, especially in the global North. Sherilyn MacGregor, for instance, argues that environmentalism itself has become masculinized as a result of the dominance of science and security frames for understanding climate change. These “hardened” framings lead to a preference for “the kinds of solutions that are the traditional domain of men and hegemonic masculinity,” including a justification for military solutions in the global North, many of which recapitulate colonialist assumptions that pathologize the global South as a security threat.
Hardened framings also privilege technology and geo-engineering solutions over social interventions, leading to a “downgrading of ethical concerns” like justice, health, or economic equity. This was manifestly evident in 2021, when climate legislation in the U.S. was divided into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure bills in order to overcome conservative obstruction. The hard infrastructure bill – with funds for smart grids, public transit, EV charging, nuclear reactors, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – passed with unusual bipartisan support, but was stripped of many justice and equity demands. These were put into the softer, ‘human infrastructure’ bill, which made the case that a sustainable future required more funds for affordable housing, universal preschool, family leave, health care, and education. The soft bill failed to pass.
We can see such ecomodern masculinity at work in large solar and wind projects and mainstream green transition plans, most notably when private profits and property are elevated over concerns about justice, but also when challenges to existing land and labor regimes are dismissed as impractical or irrelevant to solving ecological problems. Ecomodern masculinity also appears in recurrent emphasis on job creation, often without due attention to the feminized care work that reproduces people and ecological communities. And although ecomodern masculinity may be less attached to fossil fuels, it is no less attached to energy. Ecomodernism shares with petro-masculinity the desire for endless, cheap energy, and the assumption that more energy is always a good thing.
When I’ve had the opportunity to speak about petro-masculinity with scholars, activists, and academics, the conversation often quickly turns to ecomodern masculinity, and to the question of its relationship to petro-masculinity. It is an important question, as both petro- and ecomodern masculinity dominate climate policymaking in terms of their political influence and funding in the global North.
This interest speaks to a widely felt hope that there are powerful elites who may not be as attached to fossil fuels, and who might therefore lead the way to a green transition. This hope was most recently expressed by the prominent environmental campaigner Bill McKibben, who highlighted a new report that estimates the carbon emissions of money in banks. The report suggests that Apple, Google, or Facebook have a much higher carbon footprint than they claim, as they are parking their assets in banks that then loan that money to fund fossil fuel extraction. McKibben sees an opportunity here: Big Tech could use its considerable wealth to pressure Big Money to turn against Big Oil, thus bringing about a ‘turning point’ in the climate crisis. That might look like Apple pressuring a bank like Goldman Sachs to stop financing new fossil fuel extraction, for instance. To what extent, then, are Big Tech and Big Oil antagonists that could be set against each other?
Partners in crime
Prospects for the transformation of fossil capitalism into a new, just and sustainable ‘solar’ or ‘wind’ capitalism are, I would suggest, extremely unlikely. But might Big Tech’s billions nevertheless provide an important tactical lever away from fossil fuels; big enough to be worth tolerating the troubling elements of Silicon Valley misogyny, racism, and anti-workerism?
In his piece, McKibben doesn’t mention masculinity, but Big Tech and Big Oil are doused in ecomodern and petro-masculinity, respectively. (The masculinities of Big Money are closer to ecomodern masculinity, but they probably deserve a separate post, if not their own book).
While the aesthetic styles of Big Oil and Big Tech, and the kinds of technology and politics they love, can therefore seem to be worlds apart – one touting fossil fuels and authoritarian strongmen, and the other embracing green futures and liberalism – they both share misogynistic tendencies, both approach the more-than-human world as something to be controlled, and both worship unlimited growth of profits and energy as sacrosanct.
Perhaps the best place to study these masculine styles in their purest form, and to see them in conversation with each other, is in advertising for pick-up trucks. New designs are emerging for Electric Vehicle (EV) trucks, usually marketed to reassure consumers that a traditional version of American masculinity can be not only preserved, but even augmented by an electric battery.
As with fossil fuels, trucks are not simply an instrumental means to get around and do work tasks. They are also powerful symbols, freighted with meaning, and attached to American bodies and identities like a carapace. For example, David Campbell writes that sport-utility vehicles (SUV) were popularized through their connection to military technology, helping to ‘re-masculinize’ American identity following defeat in the Vietnam War. With trucks and SUVs, Americans could get in touch with the outdoors, in a vehicle whose features suggested that nature was a risky place that needed to be dominated and overcome.
Campbell also points out that U.S. car emissions standards ironically led to decreased overall efficiency because, from the start, politicians caved to “a consumer politics of identity” and granted exemptions to ‘light trucks’ (which includes SUVs) based on their importance to American identity and workers. Car makers took advantage of those exemptions and built ever more, and ever larger, vehicles that would qualify for lower emissions regulation, and continued to market them through heavy references to American masculinity. By 2020, pick-up trucks were outselling cars in the U.S., making up about twenty per cent of new vehicles sold. They have also grown much larger in the last two decades, a trend that correlates to deadlier road collisions and a surge in pedestrian and cycling fatalities.
The new market for electric trucks has not challenged this trend; the Tesla cybertruck and Ford F-150 Lightning will also be huge. Elon Musk launched the Tesla cybertruck in 2019 with a media spectacle that is worth watching to get a feel for the emotional exuberance of ecomodern masculinity. What is fascinating is how petro-masculinity, or the attachment of hegemonic masculinity to fossil-fuelled things, haunts every second of this event.
The central concern of the launch is to make a favorable comparison of the cybertruck to gas-powered trucks, and this is done through hypermasculine tropes. The cybertruck is hyped as not just a permissible replacement for the traditional pick-up truck, but as far superior in terms of hardness, toughness, and power. Dramatic feats of strength ensue on stage, to include a brawny man with a sledgehammer, images of bullets fired into the trucks, and a ‘tug-of-war’ between the cybertruck and the gas-powered Ford F-150, a popular American truck.
The audience chuckles knowingly when Musk emphasizes that the metal of the militarized cybertruck is “very hard,” and men roar their joy when he belittles other trucks that dent beneath the sledgehammer: “you want a truck that’s really tough, not just fake tough,” Musk sneers.
The aesthetics of the cybertruck event shows the importance of techno-masculinity to men like Musk, who have inordinate power and popularity in climate and energy politics. Musk may be an extreme caricature, but his relationship to masculinity and his libertarian politics are the distilled essence of so much big green policymaking. Energy functions as both material and symbol in this project of saving the world with technology. It is both the fuel that provides movement, but is also a symbol of virility, of freedom through technological achievement (ecomodern), but also freedom through vigilante violence (petro).
At the same time, the need for an ongoing performance of masculinity reveals the insecurity of these identity formations in the twenty-first century. Just as anxiety lies at the heart of petro-masculinity, so too, the cybertruck launch event reveals a dreadful anxiety beneath ecomodern masculinity – the fear that one’s masculinity will be deemed ‘fake’. Ecomodern men may use new technologies, Musk argues, but these must be proven as superior in the same old values of toughness.
Beneath all the vaunted technological marvels, it is this commitment to the old, to the things that cannot change, that stand in the way of justice and sustainability. Therein lies the reason why Big Tech cannot save the world from Big Oil. White hypermasculinity is not accidental to this, no matter its style of expression. It is not something to be tolerated with an eyeroll, or fixed by adding more women and people of color to leadership positions.
Rather, these masculinities are telling symptoms. The enduring power of extractive masculinities means that some domination – those same old values – still remains out of bounds, and it is out of bounds because it is still doing important political work. These values have supported a global order that extracts property and labor from others, while justifying those actions through gendered and racialized hierarchies.
Advertising for the more prosaic F-150 electric truck, styled very close to its petro-masculine predecessor, asks, “Can a truck change everything?” It seems the answer is yes. Everything except what seemingly cannot change: militarized nationalism, the American yearning for ever larger pick-up trucks and ever more energy, and the importance of toughness in a world full of threats to White patriarchal orders.
Cara Daggett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech in the United States. She is interested in the politics of energy and the environment, feminist studies of science and technology, and histories of empire. Her book, ‘The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work’ (Duke, 2019), was awarded the Clay Morgan Award for best book in environmental political theory and the Yale H. Ferguson Book Award from the International Association Northeast. Her work has been published in journals including Environmental Politics, Energy Research & Social Science, Millennium: Journal of International Studies and the International Feminist Journal of Politics.