The surge of oil and gas was an accelerant to civilization for global superpowers. We never took our foot off the pedal. We floored it. Fossil fuels became more than just a source of energy. They became an identity, now dubbed “petromasculinity”.
What is Petromasculinity?
Petromasculinity is a term that examines the intersection between our identities and fossil fuels like gas and oil. Virginia Tech political scientist Dr. Cara Daggett coined the term in 2016. As fossil fuels became woven into society, now receiving over $1 trillion in subsidies internationally while making $4 trillion in profit, petromasculinity identifies how our energy policies have manifested into ways of being that make energy transition work more difficult. As a result, the world becomes increasingly unstable.
We’re dealing with a polycrisis, or overlapping crises that compound one another. For those hoping to alleviate this in any way, make a difference, or reduce suffering, it can be helpful to understand the ways in which they overlap. In the time it took for us to socially deem fossil fuels as a problem rather than a solution, ideas have taken hold that are not compatible with safe, equitable, and symbiotic futures. These are the ideas we must disband with better memes and ideas of our own.
One of these ideas…
is that the use and availability of fossil fuels isn’t treated solely as an inanimate energy source meant to be utilized. If we were seeking out the cheapest, cleanest, most reliable energy sources, we’d have shifted to renewables decades ago. Fossil fuels remain dominant in part because of their cultural links to power, status, and control, and those that benefit from these systems guard them fiercely.
The widespread adoption of fossil fuel infrastructure is still a relatively new development for global society. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the United States saw much use of them, besides some coal mining in Pennsylvania. New trade routes eventually increased the supply of coal enough for it to become commercially viable. The impact of this was noteworthy. Coal went on to begin transforming society.
City populations grew and the influence of fossil fuels grew alongside them. We can observe the early controlling elements of petromasculinity here, within the resistance against coal barons. Even in a predominantly male industry, rich men in the coal industry were conspiring throughout the late 1800s and onward to prevent worker protections, better pay, and anything challenging their control. Fast forward to today, where the world’s international climate conference hardly mentions phaseout of fossil fuels, and we can see this power and influence hasn’t gone away. It intensified.
We often examine fossil fuels as a commodity, but this one dimensional approach is too reductive. When we examine how these symbols intertwine with privilege and what happens when others threaten that privilege, we can learn much more. This is what petromasculinity names. This complex intersection of fossil fuels, gender, climate anxieties, and authoritarianism, preserves existing harmful power structures. What does that mean for us?
The historical narrative of fossil fuels as symbols of power, dominance, or strength are traits traditionally associated with masculinity. What comes to mind? Can you see the handsome young man with a sports car? The rugged outdoors type with a mud-splattered truck? The adventurous trailblazer packing up their hatchback before a weekend excursion? These marketing tactics are just the surface.
Petromasculinity can certainly manifest in a sense of pride toward fossil fuel usage. Car ownership has become woven into the American identity. This offers some a source of pride, a metric for maturity, a sense of freedom, and perceived value. These norms and values are being packaged and sold to us by an industry driving planetary destruction – and it works.
Deeper than that
Petromasculinity documents a culturally reinforced disregard for the environment. What do we mean by that? In an era defined by unprecedented global warming (and the fossil fuel use that caused it), this is about more than men owning cars. This is about how the relentless pursuit of dominance and power associated with fossil fuels and masculinity has repeatedly led to the exploitation of natural resources. These values have been prioritized over human health and the sustainability of ecosystems. We’re trying to make progress toward sustainable initiatives, but despite ecological and economic benefits to clean energy, we haven’t overcome the cultural barrier present. When it comes to climate denial, and climate delay (perpetuated by primarily white, wealthy males), it’s disproportionately coming from white conservative cis men.
Our gendered framing of the climate crisis allows us to peer into the societal hierarchies that led us here. In 2014, researchers first documented that those defending harmful industries were often also climate deniers. Why might that be the case? It’s probable that since white men tend to benefit from our systems today, they have a direct vested interest in maintaining those systems. When individuals conform to traditional masculine ideals (such as those exhibited by petromasculinity), they can also gain not just profit, but community or approval. Despite how negative these gender norms might be, they offer something deeply rooted in the human psyche: a need for belonging. Our challenge is not only to facilitate a shift from fossil fuels, but to help provide people with an equally powerful sense of belonging from an ecological paradigm.
Overcoming the toxicity of petromasculinity:
Taking on fossil fuels from this perspective helps us demasculinize climate action as a whole. Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor has noted that the dominance of science and security also hint at masculine frames for climate change. Ethical concerns for health, wellbeing, or justice, get downgraded as a result. When we, especially as men, embody the diversity of masculinity, we weaken the connection between fossil fuels and help push this dial back. What if masculinity was not about power and control, but instead, about resilience? About how well we can support our communities and ourselves? What if it was about how deep our knowledge of and relationship with the natural world could become?
Toxic masculinity and related concepts like petro-masculinity showcase a misguided direction for masculinity under a global capitalist culture. Traditionally, masculinity is sacred. It has worthwhile traits to be embodied in community roles and is a non gendered energy. It is where we celebrate our strength, fortitude, and protection of others, in all of our identities. This is the direction we must imagine for ourselves. A colonial world has created the dangerous masculinity we see today.
Women and Climate Change
Women, trans women, femmes, and non-binary folks are at the frontlines of crises. For example, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement ties into the climate crisis. Women play a fundamental role in understanding the land and the complexities of water, food, and living systems. Indigenous women face the highest murder rates, more than 10 times the average. Extractive institutions like fossil fuel, mining, and logging are placed and working in Indigenous territories. These industries end up building temporary “mancamps” that bring different workers from rural areas that are not Indigenous to the land. These areas also see an increase in violent and sexual assaults.
We must understand why men cause the depletion of the land and the disappearance of marginalized women trying to protect their environments. Analyzing petromasculinity and its connection with violence and colonialism helps us do that. Climate justice recognizes the need to put an end to toxic masculinity before it ends us. It recognizes that feminism is not exclusively for women but for all people to recognize that our oppression and resistance is interconnected.
Men from all spectrums of identities must come to terms with the structure we uphold in the patriarchy and how we’ve allowed industries and corporate individuals to perpetuate petromasculinity.
As a queer man in the climate space…
I recognize the privileges I have compared to other genders. It’s important that we continue having conversations around the redistribution of power and encouraging full autonomy for women to be leading spaces, movements, and organizations while ensuring their labor is not co-opted or taken by men.
We must challenge our heteronormative male friends who are being subjected to toxic norms through media and mainstream culture. We must reexamine our lifestyles to ensure the liberation for all genders is included. From advocating in our friend groups, to mentioning the names of women in climate spaces, and reinvesting our dollars to support women-led organizations and businesses, we can ensure an inclusive and just future. We as men have the power to change how we show up. That begins with examining our behaviors and beliefs for how they’ve been influenced by a society heavily focused on extraction, degradation, and domination of the land and people.
None of this will be an easy matter. Petromasculinity embodies a complex blend of cultural, social, and environmental factors. Its toxicity lies in how it reinforces harmful gender norms, slows our responses to environmental crises, and exerts unrivaled influence on societal structures. Navigating our way through this phenomenon means reevaluating our traditions of masculinity, shifting to sustainable practices with this in mind, and facilitating systemic changes at various levels. For our trans men who are also at the forefront of climate impacts done by cis-men, we must also understand that trans men play a key role in illustrating petromasculinity. It does not exempt them from upholding their own toxic masculinity either, but it also further illustrates how cis-heteronormativity plays a huge role in the depletion of the planet and people.
The more we know
Terms like this that explore cultures are important to understand. We live in a world that extracts trillions of dollars from our economies in exchange for systems that cause asthma, birth complications, cancer, disease, heart conditions, and premature deaths. This happens more commonly in Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities. Global warming and climate breakdown driven by fossil fuels are threatening people worldwide, impacting the most vulnerable first, but set to affect us all.
Despite these consequences, there’s a sustained focus on continuing, even developing, fossil fuel usage. This is about more than energy or business. Fossil fuels have a cultural and psychological influence beyond profit and it cannot continue. We’re witnessing how threatening this identity causes authoritarian tendencies to emerge. Achieving a clean, democratic, and equitable future will inevitably depend on how well we understand the cultural influences that are slowing the transition.