Three Ways for Men to Become Better Lovers…of the Natural World
Trust your values, even if they aren’t traditionally masculine. Act in the common good. Take less, and with permission.
We can’t save the Earth if half the people on it don’t want to.
Or are unwilling or unable to because they are trapped in mindsets and driven by lifestyles that are unsustainable.
At the risk of a massive generalization, men are the ones standing in the way of a cleaner, healthier planet.
The change required is far deeper than men needing to recognize that climate change exists. Nor is it limited to men taking even the most basic steps in daily life that considers a world — most especially the natural world — beyond and around them.
This not about a label nor an identity, but a mind-frame, a different way of being. It requires an introspection of modern American masculinity itself — and an honest reckoning with traits and manners of being that need to evolve for life on Earth to continue.
For men to get on board to save the planet, we need to identify, understand, and then dismantle these three characteristics of manhood that are a disservice to the natural world and the living creatures around us.
A Toxic Fear of Femininity
Society as a whole would be better off if we no longer pitted masculinity against femininity as if they were polar opposites. Gender traits are human-created phenomenon — and we have the ability to reconstruct them or let them influence us in different ways.
In our modern world, the one where species are going extinct at record rates and our climate is screaming for attention with stronger hurricanes, more intense and expansive droughts and wildfires, and death to ocean coral not seen before, we all, but men especially, need to tackle our perceptions of and relationship to those gender traits so we can prioritize care-taking of the natural world.
We’re not on the plains anymore fearful of saber-toothed tigers, while men hunt for meat and women watch over children in caves.
It’s naïve and perhaps foolish to say there are no innate differences between men and women. But regardless of our biological wiring, we can change our behavior.
We cannot be afraid to adapt, and we can’t be afraid to take on behavior perceived, wrongly and dangerously, as feminine.
What makes a man?
I’m no less of a man because I recycle.
My masculinity is not threatened because I bring reusable bags to the grocery store — and put the biggest one over my shoulder as I walk to my car.
Avoiding plastic and eating less meat does not revoke any childish man card.
But many men are loathe to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviors out of defense of their masculinity and shame of appearing feminine.
For men to become better stewards of our planet, the first and most important step is not using fuel-efficient cars or energy-efficient appliances (as smart and wise as those things are).
It’s removing any form of stigma of engaging in behaviors perceived as feminine. Call it what you will…emotional labor, emotional intelligence, striving for gender equity.
What matters is stripping away psychological avoidance of feminine behavior
If we did that, we’d all be better off, and that includes the planet. It’s no secret women are experiencing hardships from the pandemic at much greater levels than men.
Men, as a whole, still do less house-work, less planning of house-work, less cooking and cleaning, and less schooling of home-bound children than women. Men think they do their fair share, but doing a bit more than before does not add up to equality.
This is where the change starts. This is where men need an attitude adjustment.
Even if certain activities or the values attached to them are feminine (and I’d argue helping to raise children should be a mutually-shared value), there’s nothing about those qualities that men should avoid just because they are perceived to be feminine.
We shouldn’t juxtapose masculinity as the opposite of femininity
Once men become comfortable being themselves, and feeling masculine, even as they take on attitudes once thought as feminine, not only will we become better humans (and probably more resilient and mentally tough), we can engage in the behaviors that will steer us, as individuals, as families, as communities, into a way of living more aligned with the natural world.
What does fear of appearing feminine have to do with men adopting environmental values?
As Scientific American explains, “it’s not that men don’t care about the environment. But they also tend to want to feel macho, and they worry that eco-friendly behaviors might brand them as feminine.”
Pause for a moment to think about that. It’s not that men don’t want to recycle, or litter (although men do recycle less and litter more).
It’s that men don’t want to seem like girls.
Men will act against their own environmentally-friendly leanings just to avoid the perception they are anything like a woman.
Take away way the fear of being seen as feminine, and you open men up to a new world of behavior: not just those bending towards gender equity, but one that foster a more tender relationship to all living things, including the Earth.
(By the way, it’s not just men that need a recalibration here. Again from Scientific American: “participants of both sexes described an individual who brought a reusable canvas bag to the grocery store as more feminine than someone who used a plastic bag — regardless of whether the shopper was a male or female. In another experiment, participants perceived themselves to be more feminine after recalling a time when they did something good versus bad for the environment.”) Then again, if there’s no problem appearing feminine, it wouldn’t matter. In an ideal world, care-taking of the Earth, like care-taking of children, would be gender-neutral.
Tell me again…who is the weaker sex?
Why are men so fragile? According to that same Scientific American study, although “men are often considered to be less sensitive than women, they seem to be particularly sensitive when it comes to perceptions of their gender identity.” It goes on to offer the suggestion that we market eco-friendly products and practices as masculine in order to get more men to engage in them.
I suppose that mind-trick would work, but it’s not holistic, and neither does it go far enough in holding men to account for their behavior.
My message to men is, if you want to feel like a man, stop worrying so much about how other people see you.
Don’t be afraid of the things women do.
Have the strength of your convictions that saving the planet is of greater value than your masculine identity — and that your masculine identity should be sturdy and open-minded enough to take on traits that you know are worthwhile and valuable, regardless who acts on them.
Is that not the kind of strength that we would want to associate with masculinity, and that both genders would find appealing?
Excess Individualism (aka Selfishness)
If we can’t be bothered to stay at home for four weeks, if the government can’t summon the will to support us while we stay at home for those four weeks, if individuals will stake a political and personal identity on not wearing a mask, what hope do we have to collectively respond in the manner required to fully combat our changing climate?
The problem, of course, is liberals.
We want to take away your freedom, your choice to do whatever it is you might want to do.
I want to take away your ability to drive a gas-guzzling SUV. I want to take away your red meat.
I wan to make it so your houses can be only so big, to cut down on energy used for heating or cooling a space that you must admit is bigger than you need. I want to put a cap on how many flights you can take per year.
Everything I’m for means fewer choices for you.
Can you tell I’m being sarcastic?
Masks: The next frontier of reusable bags
Much of what we’re seeing in America’s reaction to the pandemic is positioned as a stark battle between individual freedom of choice versus political (or governmental) authority.
And in both tone, language, structure, as well as individual, societal and governmental response, including but not limited to debates not just of what is science but how much to let it dictate or influence our behavior, this reaction mirrors how we’ve responded to climate change as well.
A not insignificant portion of Americans believe the government does not have the right to implement much less enforce a mask mandate. And complaints about shutting down non-essential businesses are rampant as well.
How dare the government deprive bar and restaurant owners a way to make a living while a pandemic rages that takes away people’s health and actual lives?
(A sane response would be the government paying people to stay home for about month, just to get the virus under control, and to take away the fake dichotomy between saving the economy and fighting the virus.)
And it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise where opinions fall on this in terms of gender.
I mean, really, do you think the kind of person who refuses to bring a reusable bag to a grocery store is going to be OK with being forced to wear a mask in public?
When it comes to the basics of behavioral changes to fight Covid, like mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing, it “appears that women are more likely to be following these steps to a greater degree than men.”
Which doesn’t work out too well for men, since we’re more likely than women to die from Covid if we get it.
Not everything is about you
The pandemic provides a convenient showcase to the limits of individualism. No individual can provide enough protective equipment for health care professionals, nor can one person alone research and develop a vaccine.
And one person, however much they give to charity, cannot create a safety social net for the millions who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
When lockdowns started in March, there was a sense of interconnectedness, that feeling of, we’re all in this together. Because we were. And, unfortunately, we still are.
There just hasn’t been a large enough collective effort to do what needs to be done to stop this virus, and equip and secure those to take the actions needed so they can do what needs to be done.
In fearing the total collapse of our societal systems, we’ve kept those systems strained to the hilt, to the point, when, without massive government assistance, those systems could crumble.
Instead of modifying our behavior, we waited for science to create a vaccine. And a vaccine for Covid is here.
But there is no vaccine for climate change.
One for all, all for one?
It’s easy for liberals to use this moment as a judgment against the right’s obsession with individualism, and to argue, as I just did, that “individualism can’t stop the virus — only collective action can.”
Some decry “the members of America’s cult of selfishness” who think “we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest.” Cult are not, it seems accurate to say that “many on the right are enraged at any suggestion that their actions should take other people’s welfare into account.”
And this is the crux of the problem: taking into account not just other people, but something much bigger than yourself. Something as big as the planet, which is straining against higher temperatures and pollutions of noise, air, water and plastic.
We’re living in a world with decreasing amounts of empathy
And this is where I must stop and catch myself. I don’t want to throw stones at people with different political perspectives than me. There’s been much debate, post-election, about how liberals should treat Trump supporters: with disdain, or with compassion.
I argue for a middle ground. We should never tolerate intolerance. And we can’t accept moderation while our natural home burns and disintegrates. I’m not willing to sacrifice either of those two positions.
At the same time, if we are going to act as a collective, that collective will include those with whom we disagree. We must increase our empathy towards others. To do the opposite is to lead where we are now.
In a study on empathy and its expression within the medical field, it was found that “mistrust of others continued its 40-year increase into the first decade of the 21st century…the same period saw a 40% decline in empathy among college students just as social anxiety regarding multicultural pluralism as a social motivator was becoming evident…Lower empathy levels were linked to prejudice against a range of stigmatized targets; conversely, higher levels were associated with lower prejudicial attitudes toward different stigmatized groups.”
What does this mean? It means, as a whole, we care less about other people. And worse, the younger generations (younger than me, anyway) are caring even less at a greater rate.
And yes, men, generally, are less empathetic than women. I’m not sure how much we can change, but I know men can do better.
If you want to have a cheeseburger for dinner, I’m not going to stop you. But if you’re going to continue to live a life and argue for a society that ignores or worsens the climate crisis, I’m going to ask you to stop and reconsider.
The Father’s Dilemma
Have you ever driven a car while a hungry, tired toddler cries in the backseat? Have you been in a situation where your significant other, with her baby sleeping in the back, just wants you to drive everyone back home, safely?
Have you ever thought about a trip, or your next home, perhaps, and wondered, how will this hotel or potential house work for all of us? Have you ever thought about the upcoming holiday weekend, and wondered what to eat, and considered the youngest one really just likes hot dogs?
In those moments, a man will do whatever needs to be done to take care of his family. I don’t want to stand in the way or argue against that, both because I can’t, and because I empathize with it.
But this is why we need systemic answers to systemic problems. We need more fuel-efficient cars and we need more meat alternatives so that people don’t feel their individual choices are in conflict with the greater good.
Our natural instincts are to survive. And to help a kid who is crying, and to keep your family safe and secure. That kind of individualism is OK…as long we work together to develop solutions to society’s problems that don’t come at the planet’s expense.
That sounds hard, and it is. But it’s worth it. It’s why we don’t, or shouldn’t, litter at a park — only on a planetary scale.
Why should we bother? Why should we set aside our individualism for the sake of the common good?
Because “these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. All persons, for example, enjoy the benefits of clean air or an unpolluted environment, or any of our society’s other common goods. In fact, something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access.”
An Ethos of Rapaciousness
If you are anything like me, when the pandemic began and stay at home orders were issued, one of your first concerns was how you were going to get your stuff.
There was a period of self-reflection: what do I really, truly need, and what is the priority of those things?
I know I wasn’t alone, hence the national run on toilet paper.
And even though some of the panic has subsided, it is still difficult to get things. Mason jars, for instance, are tough to find, and even today when I go to my local drug store, the shelves for paper products and cleaning supplies are far less full than they used to be.
People are buying beyond their immediate needs, and it goes beyond just stocking up.
I’m guilty of it, too. Several summers ago there was a perceived gas shortage in Central Texas after a hurricane took some oil refineries out of commission. I filled my gas tank each time I passed a station, even though I was hardly driving around anywhere.
I didn’t much care about anyone else. Same when I bought toilet paper in March. How much does one single man living alone need? But I bought beyond my needs, because I could, and because it gave me a sense of security.
This attitude has been drilled into Americans. And so too has a mindset of always being able to get what you want whenever you want it. For there to be shortages of anything is a shock to most Americans.
On-demand consumerism is a defining trait of the American identity
This ethos began centuries ago, while the country was young and still taking shape. There was an expanse of land and wilderness so vast that the white settlers, colonists and pioneers couldn’t grasp what it offered in terms of size, and wildlife, and beauty — as well as in oil and arability.
To many, their purpose in this “new” land was to take advantage of it, as if they’d been endowed with a bequest. As Duke University professor and author Jedediah Purdy explains in his book “After Nature,” the philosophy at that time did not bode well for ecological preservation. The founders of this country saw nature as having a purpose, one that would benefit mankind and the new nation:
“Nature was meant to serve human ends, which the labor of clearing and farming should secure; wilderness was the mark of failure. This is the common ecological premise of disparate strands of American thought, rhetoric and law. All paths led to the same destination: the vision of North America flourishing under settlement. All arose, too, from the same root: a vision of nature as calling out for development through work and discipline.”
We’re now centuries removed, and as of this typing, an outgoing administration is attempting to hold a fire sale of our country’s last, largest pristine landscape, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Why let oil lay underground, beneath layers of permafrost, when instead it can be extracted to be burned in our cars so oil and gas companies can (theoretically) profit?
Ad infinitum, to every plot of land, rural and urban, especially urban, where vacant city blocks are nothing more than virgin real estate potential.
From the Sears Roebuck catalog, to the evil geniuses of the Mad Men era, to the expert manipulators at software companies who can trigger our impulses with digital notifications and sell off our attention spans to the highest bidder, we have a long history of tying the American way of life to consumerism.
In the days after the worst terrorist attack on the mainland in our nation’s history, our president told us it was our duty as Americans to carry on — by going to Disneyland and the shopping mall and keeping our economy humming.
Amidst a pandemic that has taken more than a quarter million American lives (and counting), we are told we must do all we can not to fight the virus, but to save businesses.
Our inclination towards defining success and stability through financial means leaves us morally bankrupt — and tears through the natural world. We measure ourselves by our possessions, we find worth in others by their labor and production, we orient ourselves by finding stability in acquisition — and place upon men the expectation for them to provide for their family, with those provisions taking the form not of love, security, sustenance and education, but property, wealth and status.
The ethos of rapaciousness is what leads to looking at the natural world’s bounty and instead of seeing inherent value, seeing instead value of how it can serve us.
It’s not just what we take, but who
When one sees the world in a manner of taking and having, it’s not just limited to plots of land. It also applies to other people.
Rapaciousness takes many forms, from exploiting the natural world to using and abusing others for their labor and bodies.
And of course it can also mean a taking of a more pernicious, criminal kind — that of sex without consent.
When men talk of sex, we often use possessive language: having sex, getting laid, taking her. Sure, there are power dynamics within sexual relationships that can be fun and titillating to explore. Within a consensual relationship that is healthy.
But we’ve seen the destructive, violent results of men who feel they haven’t “gotten” what they deserved from women. This is not a new phenomenon. Through the ages marriage was nothing more than a contract, a business relationship, and women were property.
We like to think we’ve evolved past that and of course to a great extent we have. But not far enough — and men too frequently can look at sex as something to attain in a way no more meaningful than any other piece of merchandise.
There is a difference between wanting and desire, the urges and needs that drive us biologically, and then the taking to fulfill those needs that leave half the people on the planet fearful of walking down the street or leaving the house at night to do nothing more than take out the trash.
Women are not ours to take. Sex is not something to get.
Men can argue, this is who we are, we are at our most natural selves when we are hunting and gathering. But there is a difference, no doubt, between that, and seeing the land, possessions and other people (men, women and children) as things to own and put to your service.
That is not hunting and gathering. That is plunder and exploitation — and it’s wrong.
If we are to be better men, better significant others, better citizens, better people, we need to start and continue a life-long journey of redefining, for ourselves and others, the elements that comprise masculinity.
We need to be open-minded to the positive traits of others, and welcome them as our own so as to learn, grow and improve.
We need to consider those others in all we do, realize, as the pandemic has shown us, that we areinterconnected with other people and the natural world, and to see ourselves as one of many, not one of one.
And we need to take on an ethos where enough is enough, where nothing is ours to take beyond what we need. Some might say, we are wired to chase, to get, to catch. Perhaps — but there are ways of acting on those urges without damaging other people and the natural world.
Maybe all this is too much to ask. But I’m asking anwyay, of you, and of myself.
And also for you, for myself, and for everyone else.
Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.