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Masculinity and Environmentalism: What it Means to Be a Man in America

What does it mean to be a man in America? According to the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, “components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness” are hallmarks of “growing up manly” in the United States. Men are encouraged to embrace their innate masculinity in America, so some men recoil from two descriptors that contradict stereotypical masculinity: femininity and homosexuality. 

Environmental consciousness, with its emphasis on collaboration, emotional connection to nature, and mutual interdependence, has been associated with femininity and male homosexuality. These two identities are often regarded as “counter-masculine,” stereotypically exhibiting more emotion, more empathy, and more community responsibility than their male counterparts. As such, environmentalism naturally “fits” these stereotypes because climate consciousness demands empathy, community engagement, and emotional connection to the larger world. Because of this, some men avoid environmentally friendly actions, fearing the social consequences of associating themselves with climate justice.

 

How can we measure men’s aversion to environmentalism?

In a 2019 study titled “Gender Bending and Gender Conformity: The Social Consequences of Engaging in Feminine and Masculine Pro-Environmental Behaviors,” three researchers sought to determine whether participants would label a person of unspecified gender as masculine or feminine based on their participation in certain Pro-Environmental Behaviors, or PEBs. The researchers presented fictional daily activities of average Americans, each performing PEBs in various amounts. They then assessed the participants’ likelihoods to view those fictional people as masculine or feminine, and heterosexual or homosexual.

At the study’s outset, the researchers listed fifteen potential PEBs and associated each of them with either masculinity, femininity, or neutrality. The masculine activities were donating to a waterfowl sportsman’s group, adhering to a vehicle maintenance plan, keeping car tires at the proper pressure, caulking windows and doors, and using online video games rather than purchasing video game disks. Potential feminine actions included line drying washed clothes, decorating a room with light colors that reflect daylight, recycling, buying new clothes from a sustainable designer brand, and using reusable shopping bags. Finally, gender-neutral activities included buying energy efficient CFL and LED bulbs, unplugging chargers (which draw current when the device’s battery is full), opening windows rather than using air-conditioning, using safety razors instead of disposable ones, and paying bills online. 

 

How were PEBs viewed by the participants?

The researchers concluded that, among participants, “a predominant view was that a person who engaged in PEBs was feminine.” Regardless of the activities the fictional American engaged in, any person who engages in PEBs –– male, female, or nonbinary –– was viewed by broader society as non-masculine.

This perspective is incredibly damaging to the environmentalist movement. Men make up half of the U.S. population, and without that half willing and ready to engage in environmental advocacy, it will be nearly impossible to mitigate the effects of human-induced climate change. According to a study published in the Journal for Industrial Ecology, men are responsible for 16% more climate emissions than women, meaning that encouraging men to behave in environmentally conscious ways is essential.

Additionally, the study assessed the perception of people as homosexual or heterosexual based on their environmental consciousness. The researchers discovered that when people engage in “gender-bending PEBs,” such as men engaging in any PEBs or women engaging in masculine PEBs, “observers become less certain of the actors’ heterosexual sexual identity.” When men of unspecified sexual orientations engaged in environmentally sustainable behavior, the people in this study –– stand-ins for the public at large –– viewed those men as more likely to be homosexual. 

The researchers later hypothesized that men might broadly embrace traditionally masculine PEBs (and therefore environmentalism) if it could further legitimize their masculinity, but that they are more worried about judgements concerning their sexual identity. This theory suggests that there is hope for men as vehicles of environmental advocacy, but that social pressures surrounding sexual identity and gender hold back their likelihood to actually engage in PEBs.

 

What does this mean for American men?

This is particularly troubling. The APA specifically cites homophobia as a core reality of traditional American masculinity, so some men avoid any behavior that could cast doubt on their sexuality. But when actions as innocuous as sporting reusable bags to the grocery store or simply recycling are feminized and associated with homosexuality, it can seem impossible for men to engage in environmental activities without taking a hit to their masculinity.

American men exist in a society of rugged individualism and “alpha male” theories about social hierarchy. Men are socialized to fill a dominant role, avoiding empathy and acting in their own self-interest without regard for the well-being of their community. Glorification of gas-guzzling pickup trucks and red meat consumption –– environmentally destructive activities –– rules American male-centric media, creating a culture of not just non-environmentalism, but anti-environmentalism. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research titled “Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption,” researchers noted that even the recollection of pro-environmental behaviors made men feel more innately feminine, and by extension, uncomfortable or invalidated in their identity. This connection is dubbed the “green-feminine stereotype,” and it influences men’s decisions about what to buy, what to wear, and how to behave in respect to the environment.

 

What is the solution to this problem?

Fortunately, there is hope for American society. The most realistic solution is to immediately increase environmental awareness through public education. 

In a review conducted at Stanford University of over a hundred environmental education-related studies, researchers concluded that environmental education at the K-12 level had many positive social benefits. Of course, those that were exposed to environmental education were more knowledgeable about climate change, more willing to engage in PEBs, and more likely to be civically engaged than their uneducated peers. Even more encouragingly, the inclusion of environmental education in K-12 curriculum leads to other positive social benefits, including increased academic achievement and critical thinking skills. The research also demonstrated that environmental education had a positive effect on confidence, autonomy, and leadership skills (essential traits of the “American male”) among all students –– male, female, and nonbinary.

For many years, men have hidden behind social pressures as justification for avoiding climate activism. If this goes unchecked, the exclusion of men from the climate justice movement will have disastrous consequences for the planet. Fortunately, there is reason to believe that things will change. By coming together as a global community, incorporating environmental education into public school curricula, and breaking down negative social perceptions about environmentalism’s relation to gender roles and sexual orientation, there is hope for a sustainable future for everyone.

What does it mean to be a man in America? An American man should be compassionate, willing to do what is right in the face of peer pressure, and consistently put his community first. If this is true, how could the American man not be an environmentalist?

 

Works Cited

 

“APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” The American Psychological Association, Aug. 2018, apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf. 

Ardoin, Nicole M., et al. “Environmental Education and K-12 Student Outcomes: A Review and Analysis of Research.” The Journal of Environmental Education, 29 Sept. 2017, tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00958964.2017.1366155. 

Brough, Aaron R., et al. “Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption.” Journal of Consumer Research , 1 Dec. 2016, academic.oup.com/jcr/article/43/4/567/2630509?login=true. 

Kanyama, Annika Carlsson. “Shifting Expenditure on Food, Holidays, and Furnishings Could Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Almost 40%.” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19 July 2021, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jiec.13176.

Swim, Janet K. “Gender Bending and Gender Conformity: The Social Consequences of Engaging in Feminine and Masculine Pro-Environmental Behaviors – Sex Roles.” Sex Roles, 18 June 2019, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-019-01061-9?_ga=2.56717226.1407420975.1565018121-427508109.1565018121#Sec9.

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