Toxic Masculinity and Climate Change

BY ETHAN OLSON


Toxic masculinity undergirds many terrible social ills — the radicalization of incels, the recruitment of young men into terrorist groups such as ISIS, and domestic violence in hundreds of millions of households across the world. Insecure male identities persuade men to uphold a sense of authority over others that is not only bad for society, but for the planet as well. Climate change is being inflamed by men who feel compelled to constantly remind others that they are, indeed, men. But where is this connection rooted, and how does it play out?


Photo by Serkan Göktay from Pexels


This past summer, I was working on a research project through an undergraduate scholarship program about the factors that go into determining how well countries perform in terms of climate change mitigation. A good deal of this report involved downloading heaps of data from sources such as the World Bank and respected international indexes, plastering the numbers on a Google spreadsheet, and looking for correlations between these factors and the scores of countries on the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI). The CCPI is an index produced by Germanwatch that evaluates how effectively 57 countries plus the E.U. are doing their fair share to mitigate climate change. The higher the score, the better. Factors that I compared these CCPI scores to include variables like coal as a percentage of total electricity production, land area/capita, and service sector size.


Some correlations were not surprising. For example, here is the regression line for the relationship between CCPI score and oil production:



Others were more unexpected - for example, there was practically no correlation between the index for education and CCPI score. But one correlation in particular struck me as uniquely remarkable: the link between climate change performance and masculinity.



The general slope of the line above did not surprise me. What did however, was the strength of the correlation. Of the dozens of variables I measured against the CCPI, few had a R2 value higher than this correlation. 0.142 is still a relatively small number; this is largely a result of the multitude of variables that go into calculating CCPI scores — no one factor can come close to explaining all the variation in the different national marks. However, the fact that masculinity, something not traditionally associated with common discussions about shifting to renewable energy sources or engaging in international climate conferences, out-performed most other variables in this way was eye-opening.


The masculinity index used here, from Hofstede Insights, defines masculinity as follows:


"Masculinity versus its opposite, femininity refers to the distribution of roles between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found. The IBM studies revealed that (a) women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values; (b) men’s values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and maximally different from women’s values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to women’s values on the other. The assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine’."


This being recognized, it appears that masculinity, or at least its pervasiveness in a country’s culture, has some impact on climate change.


Masculinity itself is not something to vilify. Like femininity, it is not something to be shamed or suppressed. Instead, it is the vile and extreme subset of toxic masculinity that must be addressed. Toxic masculinity is something we are all familiar with. Too often, we witness men yelling over their peers because they feel entitled to attention, casually dismissing women’s input during meetings, telling boys to “shake it off” because “crying is for girls”, or revving their cars (with custom mufflers) to obnoxious levels at stoplights. Further down the spectrum of toxicity, we see men beating their wives at home because they feel compelled to assert their role as the dominant authority of the household, or even engaging in rape because they believe their desires take precedence over the ethics of consent.


Toxic masculinity doesn’t only hurt women; it hurts males that engage in this disconcerting behavior as well. Over the past few decades, women have made remarkable ground fighting types of “toxic femininity” — one good example here is how there is now a greater understanding of why eating disorders arise in many young girls who feel pressured to look a certain “feminine” way. But for males, relatively little has been done in comparison.


The effects are glaring. As a whole, in the United States males have lower test scores, grades, and college graduation rates than their female counterparts. As children, they are less safe in school and at home. They have higher suicide rates, and are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and addiction. Although a myriad of factors go into these statistics, toxic expectations of and treatments towards males are persistent pressures that contribute to these societal shortcomings.


Toxic masculinity hurts women and men alike. It also hurts our planet.


At the core of toxic masculinity is a fragility surrounding men’s perceptions of themselves. Men who engage in toxic behavior are often, for a lack of a better word, obsessed with asserting their manliness and protecting their masculinity. Social and cultural pressures are mostly to blame. For centuries, most societies have venerated men and characteristics associated with them while dismissing more femine traits. These pressures have signalled to men that the only way to be validated as individuals is to reject traits that threaten their masculine identities.


In an effort to protect their masculinity, men are likely to engage in many behaviors that are detrimental to mitigating climate change. That is to say, when men feel insecure about their masculinity they will try to overcompensate by, for example, being apathetic about environmental causes, forgoing vegetarian diets in the wake of peer pressure, asserting their authority with gas-guzzling pickup trucks, or ridiculing climate change marches. These four examples fall in line with the primary characteristics of traditional masculinity as identified by the APA: stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression. However, there are many more behaviors out there that are driven by toxic masculinity.


One study led by Aaron R. Brough and James E.B. Wilkie finds that the psychological presence of a “green-feminine stereotype” largely explains why women behave more eco-consciously than men:


"Men may eschew green products and behaviors to avoid feeling feminine. In one study, we threatened the masculinity of male participants by showing them a pink gift card with a floral design and asking them to imagine using the card to purchase three products (lamp, backpack, and batteries). Compared to men shown a standard gift card, threatened men were more likely to choose the non-green rather than green version of each item. The idea that emasculated men try to reassert their masculinity through non-environmentally-friendly choices suggests that in addition to littering, wasting water, or using too much electricity, one could harm the environment merely by making men feel feminine."


Again, when men feel insecure about their masculinity, they try to push back by being overly masculine, to the point where this behavior can become toxic.


Meanwhile, studies of populations in the United States and Norway find that men, particularly conservative white men, are much more likely to deny climate change than women. Furthermore, conservative white men who claimed to have a high understanding of climate change were especially likely to deny the scientific consensus altogether. These aptly named “cool dudes” boldly reject the research behind climate change, despite the cacophony of evidence presented by the scientific community. Their stubbornness to concede reveals a toxic fixation on always being right and asserting individual authority over others.


This sort of thinking is often at the root of another common assertion by many individuals — that climate change, even if real, will not harm them personally. In wealthier nations such as the United States, there is a substantial gender gap in concern about increasing global temperatures. Men as a whole, are both less concerned and less willing to make lifestyle changes in the wake of climate change. This belief in their ability to overcome a crisis on their own, and the rejection of cooperative action (despite the massive scale of the issue) is yet another display of masculine identity reinforcement outcompeting rational problem solving abilities.


Dietary choices are another big problem. In the United States, men consume about 57% more meat than women. Since animal agriculture is one of the largest contributing sectors to greenhouse gases emissions, minimizing meat consumption can be a powerful strategy in mitigating climate change. However, many men hang on to their steaks, sausages, and bacon strips like their masculinity depends on it.


This article by Victoria Gagliardo-Silver provides excellent insight into the phenomena. Gagliardo-Silver notes how the American media successfully cemented meat as a gendered food option to boost sales of certain products, such as Carl's Jr. hamburgers. This gendering of foods has not only created incentives for men driven by an urge to reinforce their masculinity to buy more meat; it has also dissuaded many from choosing healthier and more environmentally-friendly options. Dainty salads are for women. The double bacon cheeseburger is for men.


According to research from the University of Hawaii, this cultural notion is so omnipresent that many men feel their masculinity is threatened when faced with the absence of meat on their plate. The research results state that “Men routinely incorporate red meat to preempt the negative emotional states caused by threats to masculinity.” This overcompensation to reinforce one’s masculine perception of themself, again, is a sign of toxic masculinity.



Solutions? Redefining Climate Action or Redefining Manhood


Since toxic masculinity poses a serious threat to mitigating climate change effectively, what should we do? Among climate change activists, little attention has been paid to engaging with toxic masculine males, and probably for the better. Direct confrontation with someone who modifies their diesel truck to emit more pollution, refuses to try soy milk because it's “unmanly”, or calls environmentalists snowflakes promises a very low chance of enlightening discussion. These men do not want to be told that climate change is real; they do not want to hear that increasing global temperatures will cost the world trillions of dollars and force millions to become refugees; and they do not want to listen to people who say they shouldn’t be eating so many rib eye steaks. Debating them will lead nowhere.


Considering this, there are two options. First, we can appeal to masculine preferences. We can shift how we talk about the climate crisis, how we market sustainable products, and how we talk about environmental problems to make them seem less “feminine.” We can try to snuff out the risk that helping humanity is apparently coupled with in the eyes of so many males: being viewed as less of a man.


Or, we can go to the root of the problem — which happens to not only be the source of obstinance towards environmental issues, but many other social issues as well — and confront toxic masculinity. We can challenge the idea that vegans are weak by showcasing powerlifters such as Nick Squires and Kendrick Farris. We can confront men who think establishing nature reserves are for pansies by reminding them of fearless conservationists like Steve Irwin. We can recognize masculine behavior that is good for our planet, and provide it as a counterpoint for boys and men who otherwise might veer towards extreme toxic behavior that rejects all hints of feminine influences. The point is not to disparage boys for wanting to be masculine, but to remind them that respecting and being in touch with feminine ideas does not make them any less of a man.


We must teach our children and our peers that you can be tough and kind, strong and gentle, resilient and compassionate, composed and emotional.


Saving the planet doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you more of one.



Conclusion


Climate change is a problem that will affect everyone on the planet, but not in equal ways. Women will be disproportionately hurt. As temperatures increase, droughts prolong, floods intensify, and tropical diseases spread in range, women — who make up about 70% of the world’s poor — will face the brunt of the impacts.


It is perhaps not surprising then that climate change activism is also disproportionately skewed. Women are the ones leading in the fight. You do not need to look as far as international stars such as Greta Thunberg or Isra Hirsi to see this — just look at university organizations. Women sufficiently outnumber men in sustainability and climate change related clubs. Here at The Climate Change Review, out of the 28 formal applications submitted, only 2 came from men.


Clearly, there is something gendered about climate change. Until we confront some of the contradictions and absurdities of toxic masculinity, little will shift that perspective. Concerned individuals, but especially men such as myself, should take it upon themselves to be extra diligent — to rebuke this toxicity whenever we see it, and ensure that we too are not upholding unhealthy norms of hypermasculine “overcompensation.”


Perhaps then, ever so gradually, more and more men can feel proud of fighting the good fight towards mitigating climate change.






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