During this past election cycle, it was a bit surprising to see environmentalism embraced by both John McCain and Barack Obama. Of course, this wasn’t the classic form of environmentalism. Indeed, the rhetoric of global warming was all but abandoned as they couched their campaign promises of “going green” in terms of economic recovery plans and a growing fear of “dependence on foreign oil.” It tends to be Democrats that hold a monopoly on eco-conscious policy, but this election cycle suggested that a new era of environmentalism was underway. It’s important to note that it seemed like most of the general public was behind it, particularly when the issue was framed as an anti-terrorism measure. As President Obama continues his economic recovery plan, environmental sustainability and energy concerns remain at the forefront of public policy discussions.
This is a marked shift from previous characterizations of environmentalism. Far too many folks have associated the title “environmentalist” with stereotypical images of weak, overly sensitive, excessively emotional, and self-aggrandizing tree hugging liberals. To be eco-friendly, particularly among men, was to reject rugged individualism and other standard images of American masculinity. In other words, it meant accepting an emasculated identity.
I assumed the political rhetoric of equating eco-friendly policy with national security concerns would shift our national consciousness toward more left-leaning environmental policy. Judging from Volkswagon’s newest national TV ad spot, I think I was very, very wrong. Note the explicit, sexualized imagery, as the hybrid owner's limp hose is juxtaposed with the erect basketball hoop looming over the Volkswagon:
In the ad, the owner of the hybrid is ridiculed as less of a man based on the sound of his car’s engine. I know that this is a basic marketing strategy—I mean, just watch any Ford F-150 ad in the last twenty years. Still, I find this stereotype—measuring a man’s masculinity by the virility of his car—to be a little tired. I’m not sure what’s masculine about carbon emissions. Nor do I understand what’s masculine about global warming. And I just don’t see what’s masculine about overconsumption. I’d never try to dictate what kind of car another man drives, be it a truck, SUV, sedan or sports car. That’s fine. But what I won’t do is challenge a man’s masculinity based on how much gas his car does, or does not, waste. Why is environmental inefficiency a mark of masculinity?
Look, I can be a critic of many eco-friendly efforts, especially when they detract from more pressing concerns related to unemployment, housing, and access to public transit. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to mock an initiative to, say, plant gardens in urban neighborhoods. When I disagree with certain “green” policies (such as urban “shrinkage), it’s because I think they will have a negative effect on the lives of average Americans. When I refer to environmentalism as “political white privilege,” it’s because I think many environmentalists fail to acknowledge the privilege inherent in living eco-friendly lifestyles. While they debate the best way to get to work, far too many Americans—disproportionately of color—are without employment altogether.
But what I do not do is scoff at environmentalists for their lack of masculinity. Volkswagon has the freedom to make wasteful and environmentally damaging cars, but that doesn’t mean they can mock folks that choose alternative methods of transportation. To bask in your own wastefulness and wonton disregard for the healthy lives of others—as Volkswagon does when they mock hybrid owners—is to display a tremendous arrogance and selfishness.
I don’t think I’ll be buying a Volkswagon any time soon.