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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Are American and masculine identity compatible with eco-friendly living?

Uploaded: Oct 4, 2020
Oh boy. After a week of heat, smoke, COVID news, and a frustrated housebound teenager, not necessarily in that order, I haven’t been entirely excited to do reading on climate change. Plus while I had what I thought were some interesting questions, I couldn’t find much good information on them. (1) So this post has more questions than answers.

The two questions I have are related to whether there are cultural factors that are causing us to resist taking individual action on climate.

1. Do Americans worry that if we take concerted steps to address climate change, then we risk diminishing our national identity?

2. Do American men worry that if they embrace climate action, then they risk being perceived as less masculine?

Here is a bit more color on those questions...

I wonder if lowering emissions is harder in the United States because of certain deeply ingrained cultural values. We’ve seen how our belief in individual liberty, for example, has made it harder for many of us to adopt masks during this pandemic, with some even referring to masklessness as a Constitutional right. We see similar objections to environmental regulations needed to combat global warming, such as improved vehicle fuel standards. But I think it’s more than that, and this post is not about our anti-regulation vein, deep as it may run. In the absence of regulation, I wonder if our cultural values lead us to make poor choices when it comes to preserving the environment.

Americans have long enjoyed the benefits of a plentiful and robust natural environment. Perhaps as a consequence, there is a certain expansiveness about modern American lifestyles that flies in the face of conservative use of resources. When you compare our culture with that of Europe or Japan, for example, we are proud of our larger cars, bigger homes, oversized refrigerators, triple whoppers, and blasting A/C. We scoff at the modest cars, efficient kitchens, and clothes lines used in other countries. As a result, our per capita emissions are two to three times as large as those other modern, developed countries. A certain wastefulness is almost a source of national pride.


Refrigerator in a typical German kitchen

Is it un-American to drive a small car, to aspire to a smaller house, even to have a small trash can? And, particularly relevant in this area, can you be wealthy in America without being wasteful? What does an environmentally-conscious wealthy person spend their money on? It won’t be air travel, large homes and cars, new wardrobes each year, or steak dinners. Is there such a thing as an indulgent meal of beans? How do American culture and American wealth mesh with environmental awareness?



Related to this, I wonder about traditional masculine values. I am no expert on this for sure, but meat-eating, truck-driving, and “muscle cars” seem inextricably tied to some American mens’ self worth. Do men worry that being environmentally friendly by driving a smaller and more efficient car or eating less red meat will make them appear weak?


Men tend to buy larger and less fuel-efficient vehicles. (Source: cars.com, 2019)

Is there a “man's man” that is also environmentally friendly? What does that look like?


Many more men than women are buying EVs. Is it a tech and torque thing? Men’s reasons for buying an EV are in blue, women’s are in red. (Source: Consumer Reports, 2019)

It’s hard to shift culture and it takes time. I worry that we aren’t thinking hard enough about how to do this quickly. Are our popular shows, movies, games, magazines, and schools championing updated ways to be determinedly low-emission while retaining a strong sense of American and/or masculine identity? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do we have a cultural problem or are these notions of Americanism and masculinity already relics of our past? Are we moving quickly enough to change our culture? Where have you seen effective attempts to shift our sense of identity?

Notes and References
1. I would love some pointers to quality studies on this topic. Maybe it’s all buried behind paywalls? Where is the good social science to be found?

Current Climate Data (July/August 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

Sometimes readers ask how much of a difference the pandemic has made in our emissions. I find this graph to be very helpful. You can see the projected pre-covid emissions and the projections now, which are somewhat better. You can also see where we are relative to the Paris targets, and where we need to be to stay below 1.5C or 2.0C.


Our emissions reductions lag far, far behind where we need to be. (Source: CNN, 2020)

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Comments

 +   34 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 6:59 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>" meat-eating, truck driving and "muscle cars" seem inextricably tied to some American mens' self worth."

^ In many ways...yes, as this particular topic could also be referred to as the 'sociology of ecology'.

While 'self-worth' (as it pertains to car ownership) is a topic in & of itself, certain cars are perceived by a sizable number of men as 'men's cars' or 'women's cars' & your blog listing is very accurate.

In retrospect & to add a few earlier models that few heterosexual men would be caught dead driving at the time of their production..a VW Rabbit convertible, a Fiat Spyder convertible, a BMW 320i convertible, and a Porsche Boxter as these vehicles are often perceived as 'girlie cars' by men who drive 911s, Corvettes, Cobras, Vipers and costly Italian sports car like a Ferrari or Lamborghini...the Boxter is still in production for those so inclined.

And conversely, very few women opt to drive the more powerful, ostentatious, (and oftentimes gas guzzling) 'men's muscle cars'...for some reason.

This gender reference can even apply to motorcycles as a few Harley-riding male acquaintances have mentioned to me that the smaller Sportster model is generally reserved for women riders while the larger Softail & Fat Boy models are primarily riden by men (unless an LGBT issue or preference is involved).

Kind of ridiculous but some men apparently feel the need to preserve their sense of self and/or gender identity via the car or motorcycle they choose to drive.

BTW...I drive a 2020 Nissan Altima 3.5 (good mpg & overall performance) but I also keep a 1960 Corvette stored at my parent's garage for 'weekend getaways'.





 +   19 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 8:54 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

Many of these consumption differences are due to the historically higher per capita income in the United States compared to other countries, which was in turn based on our relative economic freedom. To the extent that ascendant progressive policies take away these freedoms, our prosperity will be reduced, and so will our consumption.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Common sense, a resident of Mountain View,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 9:23 am

Common sense is a registered user.

Related to Joseph Davis's comment above: Many of "those other modern, developed countries" you're alluding to also have grappled, for generations if not centuries, with a less comprehensive natural-resource bounty than North America enjoys; and in particular, lack of domestic fossil fuels. That was a huge factor even in the history of WW2; it was a motivation for Japan's attempted conquest of east and southeast Asia; it was a constant handicap to Germany's war effort and even motivated the direction of some of its campaigns when it was on the offensive. It is why France and Japan built vast nuclear-generation facilities in later decades, it is why cars in continental Europe have always been smaller on average than in the US. It is why, when I was in Europe in 1972, gasoline sold for the equivalent of a few dollars a gallon when in the US it was tens of cents per gallon. Some of that was deliberate taxation in Europe, not because of global warming (not a phrase yet) but to discourage reliance on what amounted to an imported luxury. So there is a lot of economic and resource context here, it's very very far from being mainly just "cultural."


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 9:33 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "...our prosperity will be reduced, and so will our consumption.

^ Overall prosperity in the United States has already been reduced to a certain extent but the mass consumption of non-eco friendly consumer goods & disposables has not kept pace...most likely because many of these items are competitively priced & relatively inexpensive to manufacture (if produced overseas).

And as far as bringing back the bulk of consumer goods manufacturing to the United States...as Dave Chappelle once noted, "Sure, but do you want to spend $9000 for a new iPhone?"


 +   16 people like this
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 10:28 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

I've driven Hondas and Toyotas since the 80s, and it has nothing to do with being popular among women, fuel efficiency, etc. The Japanese make a better product, and after having driven a few "fun cars" I realized I'm better off driving a car that runs well, and will last a long time.


 +   22 people like this
Posted by Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a resident of Stanford,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 11:07 am

Maria Goeppert-Mayer is a registered user.

Joseph E. Davis: "To the extent that ascendant progressive policies take away these freedoms, our prosperity will be reduced, and so will our consumption."

I heartily agree with this comment. Six months ago, I was concerned about progressive talking points such as the Green New Deal, defunding the police, reparations, higher taxes, [portion removed] and so on.

But these concerns pale in comparison to the incredible sadness I feel at the loss of so many of our civil liberties since last March. By the way, today is day #202 of our "15 day lockdown."

[Portion removed]


 +   13 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 11:22 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Common sense: Yes, policies (e.g., economic) differed, which led to different behaviors and what I would call national cultures or values. That makes it a harder ship to steer imo. As you can see from these comments :)

@Jennifer: I read in several places that women tend to be more practical (driven by their "head") when buying a car and men tend to be more emotional (driven by their "heart"). Here is one graphic from a small study done in the UK illustrating that. If you are a woman, then you would fit this model.


 +   19 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 11:23 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"...I realized I'm better off driving a car that runs well, and will last a long time."

^ Absolutely...'high maintenance' (whether a car or mate) gets old (as well as costly) once the allure wears thin.

That's why my Altima is my daily 'driver' while the Corvette is for occasional enjoyment.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a resident of Stanford,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Maria Goeppert-Mayer is a registered user.

Post removed, off-topic


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Aadi, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 8:49 pm

Aadi is a registered user.

Here is a study that demonstrates sizable gendered differences in automobile usage and support for sustainable transportation in Sweden: Web Link. Despite great differences between American and Swedish culture, men seem to contribute substantially more than women to climate change.


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 5, 2020 at 12:21 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"It's hard to shift culture and it takes time...Do we have a cultural problem or are these notions of Americanism and masculinity already relics of our past?"

^ They are relics of the past BUT until male-oriented outlets like auto racing (i.e. NASCAR, Formula One, and drag racing) switch to eco-friendly avenues, gas guzzling & macho-wheels will retain their allure.

On the other hand...watching stock electric Priuses & Tesla's on the racetrack leaves something to be desired.

No more roar of the engines, flames emanating from the exhaust pipes, and burning rubber...a potentially boring spectator outlet.

As Steppenwolf once noted in 'Born to Be Wild'..."I like smoke & lightning, heavy metal thunder..."

This is not going to happen with a bunch of electric cars circling a racetrack & if anything, this measure will provide an excellent cure for insomnia.


 +   14 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 5, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Alan is a registered user.

People get caught up in wasteful consumption due to self-image. Granted, some times a guy's sense of masculinity may be caught up in buying big trucks and muscle cars ... but women can pulled into conspicuous consumption in a stereotypical "feminine" way just as easily - perhaps by constantly adding to her wardrobe, or wanting a bigger home, or want jewelry that takes a lot of energy to be mined, etc., etc. Some women like huge vehicles because it makes them feel safe, whether that is actually true or not. Some women want a man with a "manly" truck. On the flip side, some men express their masculinity by biking to work every day, camping minimally, or any number of ways that don't have anything to do with consumption. Conversely - if you were to call crafts a feminine art, some women like to create beautiful things from what they have. The problem is using consumption to enhance self-image, not masculinity or femininity per se (and we won't consider how many men or women actually fall neatly into categories of masculine or feminine.) (We should also leave aside the fact that many people buy larger vehicles for practical purposes - not self-image.)


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 5, 2020 at 4:26 pm

Alan is a registered user.

For fun, from "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip: who is more masculine, Jef the Cyclist (Web Link ) or Over-Compensating Dude ( Web Link ) ( I didn't ask who was more annoying, I asked who was more masculine. )


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Oct 5, 2020 at 5:01 pm

Neal is a registered user.

I am 6' 5'' tall and I drive a Ford F-150 pickup. I can assure you that the cars popular with women don't have enough head or leg room for me. I also have a need to occasionally pull a trailer and the smaller cars aren't up to the task. I drive a pickup for practical reasons, not to showcase my masculinity. Size matters.


 +   25 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 5, 2020 at 5:04 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"People get caught up in wasteful consumption due to self-image...The problem is using consumption to enhance self-image, not masculinity or femininity per se..."

^ Excellent point as vanity, narcissism, & self-importance (most notably in modern industrial countries) are direct contributors to our global as well as local ecological woes. Add a ubiquitous reliance on certain 'conveniences' and the overall picture becomes self-explanatory.

The problem is...even in underdeveloped countries, countless inhabitants are enthralled by the allure of a materialistic & superficial 'western' world & actively aspiring towards similar commercialized lifestyles.

The long term effect & eventual result...Mother Earth is finished as there is seemingly no way of ever going back to an eco-friendly world & many counter measures currently being undertaken to stem the tide of pollution is akin to trying to put a band-aid on a hemorrhage.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by bkengland, a resident of Whisman Station,
on Oct 6, 2020 at 2:31 pm

bkengland is a registered user.

Leaving cars out of it (that's just one example), I find that both men and women in our culture are very bad in their green behaviors. More examples: Throwaway cups, single used bags, etc. are seen in the clutches of all, as if there is no tomorrow. Air conditioners and heaters cranked up to keep home temperature just so. Water left running and all the lights and devices on. Keurig coffee pods. So sad. We really should all know better by now!


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 7, 2020 at 10:31 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Ha, great comments!

@Lee: If you are looking for low maintenance, definitely consider an EV next time around. They are the lowest of the low. I love your point about the race track not working, though. There is just so much change, on little and big things. Maybe we need to race something else entirely.

@Aadi: Thanks for the pointer. I don't know much about that journal or the author, but I did read this a week or so ago and found it plausible, though it's a little different in focus. It's a more nuanced look at gender-based attitudes towards climate.

@Alan: That is such a good point. It gets back to our values. How do we go about changing them and seeing more value in less? I don't see a strong gender bias there either. (BTW, I don't know if you watched Community, but it's hilarious, and the most "manly" character in that show, Jeff Winger, only eats salads afaict. Like the Jef in your comic...)

@Lee: Short of declaring "Mother Earth is finished", how would you go about reducing the importance of consumption in the US? I can think of a bunch of ideas...

@bkengland: One thing I wonder -- is it easier to get people to switch from gas to electric heat, or to adjust their thermostat so they use much less energy? Yes, we should know better.

Thank goodness for the comics -- not a lot of hope here! Would love ideas on how to change culture, or where you see that already happening, and how it comes about. Policies? Popular media? Famous people? Leadership? I'd love to understand this stuff better... Anyway, thanks for all the comments!


 +   7 people like this
Posted by shukaduka, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 7, 2020 at 10:37 am

shukaduka is a registered user.

Great topic. Wild posts! Maybe more the psychology than sociology of ecology. USA was founded on a complicated process for self-ruling, with elections, division of power, and guarantees of press and mail. Since then business has morphed into a firestorm, and any attempts to stop it are "socialist". Business has developed its own ways of ruling, especially when persuading became so smart we don't even notice it. Associating communitarianism with femininity? Pretty in Pinko? Apologies to Molly Ringwald. I'm for Democracy. It is OK to have limited government, but not when we have unlimited power in private hands. Use the franking privilege to nationalize the internet. Get private business out of policing, imprisoning, and the military. These matters need checks and balances.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by ln, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights,
on Oct 7, 2020 at 1:12 pm

ln is a registered user.

I'm surprised that no one mentioned one of the main reasons for the differential in sizes in things like cars, homes, refrigerators, etc between the US and most of the rest of the world. Just start with geographic size of various countries coupled with density of people in cities. The US has always been blessed with wide open spaces and large stretches of land. Even our large cities (in comparison to most other large international cities) are blessed with much more space. Compare Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle, Boston with Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Paris. We have bigger refrigerators because we have more room for them. A Sub-Zero in your typical Tokyo apartment would take up over half the entire kitchen. Ford F-150s in London or Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur would not work due to the size of the roads, parking spaces, garages, and other infrastructure. I've met many people from other countries who were just as "masculine" as the article assumes American men are, but don't own large cars or trucks for very practical reasons. Ever take a road trip? In the US you can drive in one direction for days and days without having to speak another language, show a passport or have a change of currency. Try that in Europe or Asia. We're very different and have culturally evolved that way for lots of different reasons.


 +   20 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 7, 2020 at 7:03 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "...how would you go about reducing the importance of consumption in the US?"

^ Discourage the purchase & use of cheaply manufactured/eco-unfriendly goods manufactured in the PRC and various 3rd world countries.

Boycott these goods and buy American, Japanese, or European manufactured goods whenever possible...these products are generally better made & last longer.

There is absolutely no need for America to be held economically hostage by countries like the PRC.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 8, 2020 at 4:57 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@In, that makes a lot of sense. In part, we live large because we can. I guess what I'm wondering is, do you think there is a winning strategy in America to change that and, if so, what is that strategy? We know that smaller cars, smaller homes, smaller refrigerators, smaller burgers, smaller (or absent) ACs, etc, all work fine in other wealthy countries, where they contribute to much lower per-capita emissions. Is that a feasible future for America or is the desire for big/excess too embedded in our culture and sense of who we are? @Alan says that we consume in America because it enhances our image. Do you agree?

I worry about this. I think for all the reasons you mention, and others, we have gotten to this point where many of us are almost proud of how much we use and even waste. We supersize meals, live in big homes, and drive enormous SUVs. Many modern Americans seem to look down on Europeans and Japanese (for example) for living smaller. I'm wondering if and how we go about changing our "live large" culture.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 8, 2020 at 6:49 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

"> "I'm wondering if and how we go about changing our "live large" culture."

^ Far easier said than done but maybe consider embracing a 'Less is more' (aka minimalist) perspective as advocated by the noted architect Mies van der Rohe and apply it to one's everyday life.


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