Climate change, carbon-heavy masculinity, and the politics of exposure

University of Texas at Arlington

The final weeks of the 2016 U.S. presidential election have become a lewd circus. Complex, urgent issues such as climate change have been upstaged by rude outbursts—“you’re a puppet!,”“such a nasty woman.” It is difficult to imagine these scenes could have anything at all to do with climate change or other environmental crises, and yet the mode of masculinity on display, is, I would argue, a “carbon-heavy masculinity,” a gendered style that contributes to increasing CO2 emissions. This exaggerated form of masculinity is recognizable in the U.S. as a familiar type of tough-guy bravado, but during a time of concern about terrorism, immigration, and economic inequality, the style—which can be performed by people of any sex or gender—is not just individual but political, even nationalistic, with wide-ranging implications.

After 9/11, during a transitional time when the majority of U.S. citizens finally began to believe that global warming was real, modes of carbon-heavy masculinity intensified. Living in Texas, I’ve noticed trucks and SUVs getting bigger and bigger as they tower over my Prius. Many trucks now sport aggressive front grilles and threatening weapon-like cones jutting out from the wheels. I’ve laughed at the spectacle of large metal “testicles” strapped to trailer hitches and have spotted a few jacked-up trucks “rolling coal”—spewing extra and extra black exhaust from their oversized smokestacks. Just last night, driving on an already hazardous freeway, we were enveloped in dense smoke that made it impossible to see where we were going. Rolling coal enthusiasts defy the EPA, the “liberal climate change conspiracy,” and government regulations in general, as they spend thousands of dollars to produce smoky spectacles. Coal rollers delight in a sense of libertarian freedom injected with a bit of violence. While women, as well as men, may inhabit these mammoth vehicles, YouTube videos such as “Rolling Coal on Hot Babe” display misogyny, as they revel in covering a woman in a bikini with black smoke. One meme illustrated with a picture of a Prius on the top and a picture of trucks on the bottom says, “You keep your fuel mileage. We’ll keep our manhood.” Even stroller pushers can hold on to their manhood with the colossal “vRS Mega Man-Pram.” While these particular modes of carbon-heavy masculinity might seem extreme, they exist on a spectrum with more “normal” sights—freeways lined with giant SUVs and suburban “hummer” assault vehicles, gated communities, and McMansions functioning as fortresses for families that can afford them. The reaction to a more frightening world is to aggressively shore up borders—of the nation, the home, the vehicle, and the self. Domestic militarism involves not only arming oneself but armoring oneself with layers of protective gear. The climate change implications are obvious, as larger homes and larger vehicles leave bigger carbon footprints.

Many environmental movements and feminist movements, on the other hand, occupy a sense of the self as exposed to environmental and other harms. When the already infamous video clip of the presidential candidate discussing how he grabs women’s genitals was released, women on social media told their own stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment, exposing these incidents as a mode of political solidarity. And terrific cross-species memes exploded—with furry and fierce feline images: “Pussy grabs back,” “Pussy Votes,” and more. Against carbon-heavy masculinity, which asserts a tough exterior and strong borders, would be what I call “insurgent vulnerability,” in which we occupy a queer permeability as a potent political stance. Refusing to tow the line of capitalist individualism in which each citizen is expected to purchase the proper accoutrements for their own protection, some people search for a more collective and ethical sense of embodiment.

Environmental justice, environmental health, climate change, plastic pollution, and other movements stress that the human is “trans-corporeal,” inseparable from substances and materials that cross through bodies and environments. Thinking of oneself as utterly exposed to toxins and climates makes environmentalism something that is always as close as one’s own skin, something that is not optional, as no amount of armor can shield us from carcinogens or hurricanes. These exposures are terribly differential, however, as money can buy some protections—the most economically disadvantaged are almost always the most vulnerable to environmental risk and harm. Yet to occupy or perform exposure—even when exposures are unequally distributed—can be a form of political alliance. To occupy exposure as a political or ethical stance entails tracing how we are implicated in global systems of injustice, inequality, and what Rob Nixon has called “slow violence.” Even the most ordinary activities of daily life in industrialized countries—using a cell phone, driving a car, drinking bottled water—are part of global systems of extraction, production, pollution, and disposal that affect countless human lives, animal lives, and ecological systems. To occupy exposure is to directly engage in less harmful practices and to demand large-scale change.

Cartoonish versions of carbon-heavy masculinity would seem to invoke a gendered binary where women pose as the “angels in the ecosystem,” in Val Plumwood’s vivid phrase. Any one, male or female, can occupy those modes of masculinity, however, and anyone, male, female, or genderqueer can engage in modes of being that are less gender normative and less harmful to the planet. People of all sorts of genders delight in improvising alternatives to aggressive, carbon-heavy hypermasculinity. But it is also important to credit the long legacy of feminist and queer art, activism, and thought that have critiqued dominant modes of masculinity and have created so many rich, lively, dazzling alternatives.

Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasure in Posthuman Times features surprisingly playful, parodic, humorous, even psychedelic modes of occupying exposure as an ethics and politics, such as La Tigresa who—barebreasted—shouts poetry at loggers to persuade them to stop chopping down the old growth forests. In various demonstrations around the world “alphabodies” place their flesh in contact with ice, snow, or scratchy fields to spell out “No War,” “No GM” or other slogans. One Plastic Pollution activist video features a plastic bag gone rogue, rambling across the landscape accompanied by plucky tunes, provoking us to think about the material agency of discarded objects (“The Ballad of the Plastic Bag“). Another video stages a romantic beach scene where lovers feed each other a plate of seafood that happens to be filled with crunchy and colorful plastic bits (“Plastic Seduction“). Artist Marina Zurkow’s haunting animated video, “Slurb,” shows human, aquatic, and hybrid beings immersed in a post-apocalyptic watery world. The human and humanoid creatures in this video are painted the same aqua hue as the water that surrounds them, stressing the human enmeshment with the flooded, post-climate-change environment. Other visual renderings of aquatic lives include the stunning black and white video of a pteropod shell revolving as it dissolves, dramatizing the effects of ocean acidification. This short but entrancing video recalls the popular icon (think dormroom posters and headshops) of mind-altering practices—the spiral. Psychedelic traditions can be embraced as means of imagining the scale of human effects in the Anthropocene, exposing one’s consciousness across unimaginable depths, rather than enclosing it. To occupy an insurgent sense of exposure means to dwell in the dissolve where “the environment” can never be imagined as external. Rather than shoring up boundaries and borders, environmental consciousness, activism, and the practices of everyday life can begin with the recognition that humans and all other creatures are enmeshed with and exposed to the rapidly changing multi-species world.


Stacy Alaimo is professor of English and director of the environmental and sustainability studies minor at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is author of Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times, Undomesticated Ground, and Bodily Natures; editor of Matter; and coeditor of Material Feminisms.

“Accessibly written, lucidly argued, and capacious in its ambit, there is so much in this book to savor, to be inspired by, and to provoke.”
—Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman

“In addition to the descriptions and analyses of imaginative activism, strange agencies of non-human entities, and the politics of place, Alaimo develops compelling theories of self, action, and being human along the way.”
—J. Jack Halberstam, University of Southern California

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