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4 January 2018

No, we don’t need dark green canvas bags to explain climate change to men

A new study argues that the way forward for environmentalism is marketing products to men. 

By Sanjana Varghese

Last year was recently revealed to be the second-hottest year on record. The Guardian journalist Dana Nuccitelli noted that she’s been writing similar headlines each year for the last five years, indicating that extreme weather and environmental chaos may soon become the new normal. 

What can be done to stem the trend? Making green behaviour masculine again. At least, that’s what researchers Aaron Brough et al suggest in the conclusion of research they carried out on the association between green behaviour and femininity.

A write-up of their research was published in Scientific American in December 2016, a year after their original paper was published. The first experiment in the six part study established through association tests that both men and women are more likely to associate “greenness” with “femininity”. Other experiments demonstrated how far reaching those associations can be.

These perceptions are largely unconscious. One of the experiments demonstrated that men implicitly linked traditionally “green” behaviour, such as using a reusable canvas bag during a grocery run, with words such as “soft” or “gentle”.  Another experiment showed people judged others, and themselves, as more traditionally feminine after they had recounted their experiences of doing something good for the environment. 

The study is the first of its kind to explicitly demonstrate that eco-conscious behaviour tends to be associated with feminine traits. However, discussion of green behaviour has long been gendered. Some of this is based on data – women tend to have lower carbon footprints and recycle more. Yet it also taps into cultural perceptions of gender, with women thought of as more caring and altruistic. (Other research suggests men may view women and the natural environment in the same way – as something to be dominated.)

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“The attitude that ‘we should make the extra effort to save the planet or local environment tends to be more female biased,” says Professor Mark Maslin, director of the Environment Institute at UCL.  “The idea that we can make money or be the best at solar panels or making expensive green cars is more male biased. So green action requires a mixed bag of social pressure, competition, money saving and ‘save the world’ feel good factors.”

These ideas spurred on the now much-ridiculed eco-feminist movement of the 1970s (distinct from today’s environmental feminism). The original eco-feminists believed that women were more inclined to care about the environment, because of their shared experiences of oppression. As the natural world had been subjected to the cruelty of men, so too had women – this commonality apparently bred a sympathy for the natural world that men could not relate to. 

Even though eco-feminism might not be empirically useful, there seems to be some kernel of truth. Large swathes of evolutionary pyschologists have stated that the biological role of the man was that of a hunter-gatherer – in other words someone who slaughtered animals and exploited the environment. Some even argue that those instincts influence behaviour today. 

Certainly, the ultimate masculine archetype is that of someone who communes with nature, lives off the land, and wrestles deer with his bare hands. At the end of the day, he’s a “man” if he can tame the raging wilderness. Think Henry David Thoreau on steroids.

These examples abound in pop culture too, from Alaskan explorer Chris McCandless of Into The Wild, or John Dunbar from Dances with Wolves, to Leonardo DiCaprio’s bear-wrestling Hugh Glass in The Revenant. These outdated notions of masculinity prop up the view of nature as something to be fought and ultimately dominated, but those views may still be damaging our planet today.

The combination of toxic masculinity and anti-environmentalism is summed up in the figure of US president Donald Trump, who has long denied the existence of climate change. In particular, he exploited a comment by his rival, Hillary Clinton, about putting coal miners out of business. In doing so, he managed to rally an industry that has long been an icon of working-class masculinity. 

Of course, there have been changes in how men (if they were characterised as a homogenous group) relate to environmental issues. There’s been an uptick in how many men are self-identified vegetarians or vegans. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio have made it almost cool to care about the environment. David Attenborough and Bear Grylls, while environmentalists in vastly different manners, are household names.

Brough et al’s research argues that green behaviour should be re-branded as masculine. The study highlights how DIY home improvement enjoyed a renaissance after it became associated with suburban masculinity and craftsmanship. One experiment highlighted that men were more likely to donate to an environmental nonprofit if its logo was cast in darker colours traditionally associated with manliness, such as black or green, or with a name such as “Wilderness Rangers”, as opposed to “Friends of the Earth”. 

The paper was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, so its consideration of green behaviour in terms of potential purchasing decisions can be forgiven. But buying green products and making donations to environmental organisations can’t be the sole indicators of environmentally conscious behaviour. Indeed, reducing action against climate change to the consequences of personal consumer decisions removes responsibility from corporations, governments and international bodies. 

Government policy, in particular, tends to dictate a great amount of environmentally conscious behaviour. After a 5p charge was levied on plastic bags in England in 2015, despite criticisms of limited efficiency, plastic bag usage dropped by 85 per cent

Ultimately, the challenge to the environment requires a collective response – where eco-conscious behaviour isn’t gendered but viewed as a duty. Just ask the indigenous communities of Standing Rock or the environmental defenders in the Amazon pushing back against the construction of new highways or corporate landgrabs. Men deigning to buy a reusable bag because it is dark green and black will not clean up their land or water, and it won’t be sufficient to stop the oncoming years of climate chaos.

The earth, despite how it has been ravaged by humanity, is a common pool resource. The negative effects of climate change will eventually damage us all, regardless of gender. Catering to beliefs that climate change only matters insofar as it fits with an idealised gender image is an insult to both humans and the planet.