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The response to climate change is increasingly gendered, with inaction tied to a phenomenon called ‘petro-masculinity’. By Max Opray.

How the climate crisis and masculinity intersect

Participants in a global day of action on climate change in Melbourne last year.
Credit: William West / AFP

Growing up in the central Queensland coalmining town of Clermont, Daniel Bleakley never imagined he’d end up gluing himself to buildings and going on hunger strikes to protest about climate change.

“It was a rugby league town with a hypermasculine culture,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “A lot of my friends used to ride bulls in rodeos, get into fights at the pub. It was a tough cowboy culture out there, which impacts anyone who lives in those communities.”

Electric vehicles were not macho enough. Salad was dismissed as rabbit food – real men ate meat. Environmentalists were tree huggers and hippies.

“I wonder now if that culture happened organically, or if it had been seeded,” Bleakley reflects. “A lot of vested interests benefit from it.”

It was only when he got the chance to study in Germany at the age of 18 that Bleakley got to view the culture in which he grew up from the outside. “I made new friends in Germany who were talking a lot about climate change,” he says. “Living in Queensland I was not exposed to those same conversations.”

That experience set Bleakley on a path that would see him move to Melbourne and join Extinction Rebellion protests. In Clermont, though, his new life was not well received. Bleakley lost a lot of his old hometown friends because of his views.

Research shows that men on average buy more high-emissions products, eat more emissions-intensive food such as meat, vote for parties with weaker climate policies, and actively avoid green life choices, which they dismiss as effeminate.

American academic Dr Cara Daggett coined the term “petro-masculinity” to describe the confluence of climate denial and misogyny, in which fossil fuels become an expression of identity. In a 2018 study, she wrote: “It is no coincidence that white, conservative American men … appear to be among the most vociferous climate deniers.”

This plays out in politics, too, from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro boasting of the destruction of the Amazon, to Vladimir Putin declaring activist Greta Thunberg fails to understand the “modern world is complicated and complex” as he accelerates Russian gas exports, to Scott Morrison holding up coal in parliament.

“Political leaders who espouse hyper forms of masculinity fail to recognise our human vulnerability to global warming,” Deakin University masculinity expert Professor Bob Pease tells The Saturday Paper.

Even when espousing solutions, male leaders are more likely to promote a technological fix rather than fundamental reforms to reduce humanity’s impact, he says. “Masculinity is about a sense of invulnerability and a capacity to control – until we recognise our embeddedness in nature and our human vulnerability we will not act to address the climate crisis.”

One possible fix is simply to elect more women. In Australia, female independent candidates are challenging Coalition seats with calls for climate action. Climate 200 has raised millions to help support independents at the coming election. Of the 16 campaigns the organisation is “talking to or watching closely”, 14 are for female candidates.

Convener Simon Holmes à Court attributes this to a groundswell of discontent from women about not only climate change but the handling of sexual assault allegations and corruption. “They’re all passionate about climate, one of the number one or two issues on their platform,” he says, “but it goes deeper than just that, to a general frustration with the state of politics.”

Holmes à Court recalls that in seminars for independents run by former MP Cathy McGowan, roughly four out of five people in attendance were women. “It’s in line really with any community organising – go to any school fundraiser, sports club, the real work is 80 per cent done by women.”

Zara Bending, an associate at Macquarie University’s Centre for Environmental Law and a director of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia, sees a lot more women involved in environmental action groups, particularly at the volunteer level. In her experience men with political power dismiss women raising the alarm about climate change as “hysterical”.

Bending believes more women in power will help, but that men still need to contribute more on green issues to counter the development of another gendered workload left principally to women to address.

She attributes the gender gap to sustainability generally being marketed to women, as well as ingrained cultural perceptions. “It’s this idea of women as mothers and caregivers in the home, and the parallels of this environmental image of Gaia the earth goddess – the notion of caring for the planet is an extended metaphor for our home.”

To encourage more male engagement with green issues, Bending backs the elevation of positive male role models, such as the “infectious enthusiasm” of Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis, and to influencing children at a younger age in initiatives such as the Jane Goodall Institute’s rewilding school workshops and the Youth Climate Council.

A 2016 University of Notre Dame study found that people generally view green products as feminine but that men can have their minds changed by branding that appeals to traditional masculine traits such as power and strength.

It won’t be a simple task to shift attitudes, however. A survey by non-profit No Meat May indicated 73 per cent of Australian men would rather die a decade younger than stop eating meat. Co-founder Ryan Alexander launched a campaign to dispel masculine stereotypes about diet after noticing that at least 80 per cent of people who signed up to his program to abstain from meat for a month were female. In contrast, the people who heckled his organisation online were almost all men.

“We’re highlighting vegan and vegetarian men who are quite masculine, like this guy Forest Nash who has never eaten meat in his life, is built like a shithouse, goes to the gym, all that,” he says. “The climate crisis is the biggest issue of our time – if men are going to step up to the plate and do their bit, then we just have to engage with this stuff.”

Not everyone is convinced. Bob Pease believes that efforts to appeal to masculinity are ultimately counterproductive. “In response to the notion that ‘real men eat meat’, some vegans argue that ‘real men are vegans’,” he says. “But in my view, this is a dead end. If traditional masculinity is fuelling men’s environmental destructiveness … we have to encourage men to loosen their connection to that form of masculinity and embrace empathy, caring, compassion and concern for nature as part of what it means to be an ethical human being.”

Alexander agrees that a more profound interrogation of masculinity is important but feels environmental movements have to take both approaches at once given the urgent time frame.  “I’m a big fan of digging to the roots of the problem – rebuilding masculinity into something not fragile but based on taking care of the planet and others around you,” he says. “But we have time challenges with climate change. Sometimes, we just have to meet people where they’re at, and talk to them in their language.”

It is an approach tried by Bleakley, now an electric vehicle researcher with The Australia Institute in Canberra. In 2021, for the first time in years, he returned to Clermont to catch up with his family – including his brother Tim, a haul truck driver at a nearby coalmine.

Tim asked if he could drive his brother’s Tesla to work and show it off to the guys at the mine. Bleakley agreed but decided he wouldn’t go along as he felt that the other miners would be uncomfortable with his presence, so he asked Tim to film the drive.

The resulting video of a bearded coalminer delightedly slung back by the vehicle’s intense acceleration went viral online, prompting the brothers to produce a series on coalminers trying out Teslas.

Bleakley suggests the drives resonated with his home town in a way his other climate activism didn’t, as it was less about telling people what to do and more about sharing an experience with them. It also served as a way to engage with men who bond over car culture, and to dispel myths that electric vehicles lack power.

“A few guys who’ve been in the series are real car nuts,” he says. “There’s a guy called Gougie. In Claremont he always had the fastest car in town and was always working on his big V8 … so to see him enjoy that Tesla, well – that was really special.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Man and his petrols".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.