By Cara Daggett

May 1 2022

Fossil fuels are a main driver of global warming, and they must be phased out quickly. But too many discussions of energy transition assume this is a matter of fuel substitution: unplug the bad fuel, and plug in a better one (solar or wind). This leads to a technocratic focus on cost, efficiency, and capacity, and a tendency to neglect the political struggle that will be required to dethrone fossil-fueled power.


The necessity for a political confrontation is evident in the fact that simply adding renewable energy does not necessarily displace fossil fuels. Indeed, Shannon E. Bell and Richard York found that, since 1800, new energy sources have mostly added to total energy expenditure, rather than replacing older sources, and this has been the case with the recent rise of solar and wind power, too.


Moreover, trillions of dollars are at stake for fossil-fuelled corporations and elites, who have inordinate influence over many global North governments, and who have generated and proliferated climate denial and obstructionism to protect their investments. Fossil fuel elites have also disproportionately supported new authoritarian movements worldwide, though they continue to give plenty of money to liberal technocrats too.


Climate obstruction obviously serves the interests of fossil fuel corporations and elites. However, coal and oil do more than ensure profit and fuel consumption-heavy lifestyles. Fossil fuels also secure cultural meaning and political identities, and this is what makes the struggle against fossil fuels so difficult.


In the U.S., conservatives mobilize around a petro-nostalgic fantasy for a mid-20th century America when White men ruled their households uncontested. Here, the desires of Americans (and not just those who identify as men) are yoked to racialised and gendered labour and housing, as well as to the unending supply of cheap energy that makes the dream possible. Paul Pulé and Martin Hultman use the term industrial/breadwinner masculinity to describe masculinities that are supportive of industrial capitalism, and are oriented around breadwinner jobs, cars, suburbs, and heteronormative, patriarchal families.


Multiple styles of masculinity circulate in a culture at any one time, some of which become more dominant, or ‘hegemonic,’ meaning they are granted more status and power in certain settings. Industrial/breadwinner masculinities have been hegemonic, but they are threatened by climate change, capitalist crises, and the advances of feminist and anti-racist politics. As I’ll be outlining in greater detail in my next piece, many Green New Deal plans have therefore made an effort to reattach industrial/breadwinner masculinities to ‘green’ technology and capitalism; an effort to switch fuels without challenging the reigning myths of patriarchy or modernity.


However, threats to dominant masculine identities will not always be metabolized so smoothly. Challenges can also be interpreted as breaches in the patriarchal dam, to be resisted at all costs, as is evident in the rise of far-right movements worldwide. In these movements, industrial/breadwinner masculinity are best understood as hypermasculinities, a term that Anna Agathangelou and L.H.M Ling adopt to describe a politicized masculinity that is different from “hegemonic” masculinity, as it is a more “reactionary stance. It arises when agents of hegemonic masculinity feel threatened or undermined, thereby needing to inflate, exaggerate, or otherwise distort their traditional masculinity.”


I proposed the term ‘petro-masculinity’ to describe the hypermasculine mode of support for fossil fuels in the rising authoritarian movements in the U.S. and elsewhere. In these spaces, fossil fuels can serve as potent conservative symbols that represent masculinity, autonomy, and self-sufficiency, even when they are not real economic interests for most of the public. In other words, fossil fuels matter to new authoritarian movements in the global North not only because of profits and consumer lifestyles, but also because privileged subjectivities are oil-soaked and coal-dusted. It is no coincidence that White, conservative American men – regardless of class – appear to be among the most vociferous climate deniers, as well as leading fossil fuel proponents in the West.

"Rolling Coal" by StreetShotzStudio is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Fossil authoritarianism

In the U.S. especially, there seems to be an especially strong connection between fossil fuels, White masculinity, and the desire for authoritarian politics. Misogyny and extractivism are both common features of new authoritarian movements on the rise worldwide, but they are usually analyzed, and resisted, as separate problems. The concept of petro-masculinity is a reminder that they emerged together and through each other, which means that gender anxiety now slithers alongside climate anxiety, and misogynist violence can sometimes explode as fossil violence.


This was evident, for example, in the recent Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, Canada and elsewhere, where flag-draped trucks driven by mostly White men circulated as key media images, with blaring horns and coal rolling used to protest Covid-19 vaccine and mask mandates. ‘Rolling coal’ means retro-fitting a diesel truck so that its engine can be flooded with excess gas, producing thick plumes of black smoke. Coal, which is not actually burned, functions as a symbol of industrial power expressed as pollution. The truck becomes its own mini-factory, complete with belching smokestacks; the driver becomes a coal baron. Rolling coal has long been popular in the world of diesel truck racing, but in 2014, the practice emerged on U.S. roadways as a conservative protest against hybrid cars, cyclists and, soon after, Black Lives Matter and other protesters.


In the freedom convoys, and the more general prominence of trucks and yachts in right-wing demonstrations, the noise of horns and engines, and the sickly exhaust of the occasional coal roller, represent hyper-masculinist practices in which the sounds, smells, vibrations, and pollution of fossil fuels – all connected to their spectacular violence – can serve as assertions of an identity that is felt to be under threat. In addition, scholars have pointed out that the widespread media coverage of the Freedom convoys represents yet another kind of hyper-masculinist noise: the attention the convoys received was disproportionate to the scale of the original, local protest, in large part due to dark money from U.S. conservative groups and amplification by the U.S. right-wing media ecosystem.


The freedom convoys illustrate that the violence inherent in fossil fuels is not always a matter of political shame to be justified or concealed. In right-wing movements, fossil fuels are sometimes embraced precisely because they are violent, bursting the constraints of liberal, Western hypocrisy. Here, fossil violence is celebrated, acting as a welcome respite from the guilt, resignation, and often paralysis that otherwise grip the West in the face of global warming. The circle of political concern has been narrowed, in a satisfyingly simple moral taxonomy, to the pleasures of the White paterfamilias, whether as authoritarian leader or head of household. Likewise, the freedom expressed by the combination of fossil fuels and anti-vaccination points to the desire for a sovereign body and property that is not accountable to, nor dependent upon, others. Fossil fuels are entirely consistent with this notion of freedom.

Climate refusal

We ought to distinguish this climate refusal from outright denial, or from simply ignoring climate change, which is what most people who otherwise acknowledge its reality do. Ignoring can be dangerous, but it is a passive disposition, often connected to emotions of frustration or confusion, or even fear. Refusal is active. Angry. It demands struggle. An attachment to the righteousness of fossil fuel lifestyles, and to all the hierarchies that depend upon fossil fuels, produces a desire to not just deny, but to refuse climate change, and a willingness to engage in authoritarianism to do so.


To describe fossil violence as misogynistic is not to claim that gendered norms offer a totalising explanation for fossil fuel consumption and the authoritarianism it underwrites. But gender identities do have something to do with the pleasures of fossil fuel life, and quite a lot to do with the more extreme versions of fossil authoritarianism. The concept of petro-masculinity alerts us to the possibility that climate change can catalyse fascist desires to defend these fossil fantasies.

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.