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I Wrote an Essay About “Petromasculinity,” and Conservatives Freaked Out

The knee-jerk panic some conservative men feel over fossil fuels isn’t just tied to financial incentive. It’s an identity.

Trump holds a sign reading "Trump digs coal" in front of a crowd.
Donald Trump holds a sign supporting coal during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 2016.

What is it about climate change and gender that so reliably gets under conservatives’ skin? Recently, I wrote a piece about data showing that users of OK Cupid find climate denial to be the top deal-breaker in a potential mate. Given past reaction to coverage of climate and gender (this TNR piece, for example, drew some right-wing ire), I knew this was going to be a sensitive topic. But still, the hackles it raised were impressive.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen tweeted the column, asking “Can you imagine being single right now? My god.” Fox News devoted a whole article to summarizing the column’s main points (thanks, guys!). Some commentators in the right-wing media seemed particularly offended by the word “petromasculinity,” which has been used by scholars in recent years to describe the well-documented emotional and cultural attachment of many white conservative males to climate denial, fossil fuels, and authoritarianism. Washington Examiner writer Nicholas Clairmont, in response to my article, called the term “one of the most absurd coinages I have ever seen.” Other conservative critics willfully (or hysterically?) misread the piece; a writer for The Post Millennial called petromasculinity “the left’s latest made-up reason to hate men,” although the point of the column was that the gender gap among OK Cupid users wasn’t that dramatic, and men seemed nearly as interested in rejecting the toxic politics of climate denial as women.

These reactions carried more feeling than typical disagreements over science or policy. And that’s not surprising: In fact, the term petromasculinity was coined specifically to explain why this issue is so emotionally fraught for some people: a potent overlap of financial and personal interests that, thanks to cynical politics and marketing, has turned into a full-blown culture war.

While the notion that fossil fuels could be central to anyone’s gender identity may seem like a stretch to some people, political theorist Cara Daggett—now an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech—explained the connection in an article for Millennium: Journal of International Studies back in 2018: The old order of cheap fuel enabled the family wage, the suburb, cars, the male-headed household, and many of its material comforts. That’s why Trump focused his 2016 campaign on a dying industry (“Trump Digs Coal”), not only to win votes in states where coal has a lingering economic significance but as a nod to the men for whom coal matters psychically. Trump used coal to signify that he was with the real men, against the soy boys and Democrats who worry that coal is the leading source of emissions dangerously warming the planet.

Daggett described how the declining coal industry, no longer able to promise economic benefits to Appalachian communities as it did in the past, still ingratiates itself through P.R. appeals to masculinity: images of the male provider, connecting coal to football and NASCAR, hunting and fishing. From a left perspective, climate politics should be a class war between people like Marc Andreessen and the rest of us. But Daggett’s analysis helps explain why a culture war surrounds fossil fuels and climate politics. As she puts it, fossil fuels not only make profits, they also “make identities” and “cultural meaning,” all of which is “oil soaked and coal dusted.” Fossil fuel use, she argues, offers “violent compensation for the anxieties provoked by both climate and gender trouble.” 

Despite accumulating evidence that coal, oil, and gas companies have long lied to and poisoned the communities they employ, workers in declining fossil fuel towns do have legitimate reasons to fear the upcoming energy transition. (This, incidentally, is a central point in the Green New Deal platform, which emphasizes the need for a “just transition” to ensure employment for these communities.) Others fear hardship if environmental policies imposed by indifferent elites raise gas prices (as happened in France to disastrous political effect in 2018). But the culture war over fossil fuels goes far beyond these specific, material worries.

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Daggett argues that as the old order—the family where dad ruled uncontested, fossil fuels, perhaps even American dominance—slips out of reach, some will fight it with a violent nihilism. Many conservative white men—let’s call them petrosexuals—love fossil fuels not despite their destructiveness but because of them. Daggett gives “rollin’ coal” as an example. This antisocial antic involves retrofitting a diesel truck to flood the engine with excess gas, producing clouds of thick black smoke. In 2014, it became popular as a form of right-wing protest of environmentalism; later, in favor of Trump; and most recently in the Canadian truckers’ “freedom” convoy. (Indeed, the practice was celebrated in a country music anthem released in January with a video of exuberantly smoky footage of the latter.) Coal rollers will blast smoke at the perceived enemies of petromasculinity: bikers, environmental activists, and hybrid cars, especially Priuses. Some drivers who do this sport bumper stickers reading “Prius Repellent,” like the one in this video who rolls coal while passing a hybrid on the road, laughing gleefully. A 2017 compilation video shows coal rollers targeting “Black Lives Matter, Trump Haters, Tree Huggers.” One driver yells, “Tastes like America, right? Make America Great Again!” This activity isn’t fun despite being bad for the environment, but because. The destructive sadism is the joy.

While many of Silicon Valley’s wealthy would distance themselves from this uncouth Trumpy identification with fossil fuels, Andreessen is a good example of how petromasculinity can operate in a white-collar context as well. Andreessen has flirted with the right as he’s gotten richer, as journalist Eoin Higgins showed in a 2018 analysis of the venture capitalist’s Twitter activity (though Andreessen supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 after Carly Fiorina dropped out of the Republican primary). His tweet about the horror of being single in an era when online daters care about climate change is simultaneously absurd and revealing. With a net worth of $1.8 billion, if his current wife (the daughter of a Silicon Valley billionaire real estate mogul) left him tomorrow he’d easily find a date—even though he’s almost as old as I am and no better looking—regardless of his climate change views, probably even on OK Cupid. For Andreessen to express concern about the troubles that a normal man would face in this arena is like Elon Musk fretting about gas prices.

Still, it’s plausible that Andreessen is threatened by the demise of petrosexuality in a material way: Climate denial, especially in its most aggressive, violent and political forms, is essential to profitmaking right now. Andreessen is a major investor, for example, in cryptocurrency, which has horrific effects on the environment. Bitcoin, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, uses about as much energy as the entire country of Sweden; the massive carbon footprint of crypto is due to the massive amount of computing power it requires, which makes it an extremely unfortunate tech bro fad for our current moment, in which we need to reach net-zero emissions by yesterday. Andreessen probably doesn’t roll coal, but business models like his need the guys who do, and the reactionary politics they represent.

The good news is the petrosexuals are in the minority (perhaps, other than pedophiles, the least sympathetic sexual minority ever). When asked in a 2019 Pew survey whether the government should prioritize expanding alternative energy or protecting the fossil fuel industry, Democrats were aligned on favoring alternative energy, regardless of gender, whereas Republican support for fossil fuels skewed male and ideologically hard right. The petromasculinists are overrepresented in our political system, which, through undemocratic institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College, gives white, conservative voters power beyond their numbers. Without that imbalance, plus voter suppression, and, just as important, the outsize influence on politics of cynical plutocrats like Andreessen, the petromasculinists could roll coal all they wanted but would have little impact on our world, eventually dying out.

And of course, without his wealth, Andreessen would be no more datable than a coal roller on OK Cupid. I like to think his anxious tweet was a nod to that future, one slightly less pleasant for Marc Andreessen and far better for almost everyone else.