Manly Coal vs. Feminizing Solar

There’s a cultural component to energy opinions. Coal seems a masculine endeavor, whereas solar/wind is feminine. Coal is masculine because of iconography involving dirty, muscular miners, and because it’s dangerous — physical injury is a marker of masculinity; see Heidelberg University scarring. Solar/wind is feminine because it is clean, less physically dangerous to workers, and because the story used to sell it involves caring for people. This is also true of any anti-pollution activism.

With the religious right, there is an additional twist: environmental activism is interpreted as some kind of Gaia worship. I heard a very sweet, well-meaning commentator, Katharine Hayhoe, on Warren Olney’s To the Point say that because some people say they “believe” in global warming/climate change, that gets read as a kind of pagan religious statement. Ms. Hayhoe tries to pitch environmentalism as Biblical “stewardship” – that may work because it invokes images of rulers. Call it “husbandry” and maybe the masculinization is complete… but I think it’s a hard sell. Caring for the weak (except for immediate infant and female family, and maybe domesticated farm animals) just rings so feminine, however much you try to reframe it.

I’m reminded of a New Yorker story about Uranium mining in Colorado, and the pride the former miners took in their cancers. Yes, they were preventable by the company’s spending money on safety gear, but the illness represents their protection of their family and devotion to their employer. Boss-worship… If only that could be interpreted as “pagan idolatry”!

It’s also a masculine marker to have less education; insistence on book-learning, and accompanying socialization, is feminizing — echoes involve women dressing boys with uncomfortable collars and tight shoes. We still see the resonances of those mythic thought patterns in the “boys being left behind by schools” narrative, and indeed in the latest election. I suspect that a lot of people, men and women both, worry that voting for a woman will soften (as it were) the rigid gender dimorphism and render us all into an undifferentiated non-gendered soup. Presumably this would make us ripe for invasion or decadence or… something. Myths don’t need an ending to force choice – just a beginning and middle. Every action we take is an attempt to provide a dramatic ending to our personal myth.

The myths from the frontier were old when the West was Old, and die hard. See “kirche, küche, kinder” for powerful gender-role cultural mythic imagery. You can find mythic vibrations around men being religious — it’s okay as long as they’re using it to dominate, but sissy-ish if they don’t. I think that mythic structure may be responsible, in part, for the struggle within Islam to be dominionist or not, and also for the early success of Christianity in wooing women away from both Judaism and Olympianism, offering them a path, independent of men, toward glory. This may only have been possible for a new religion without political power — where dominion had not yet been established.

The follow up question is, Is the word “misogyny” correct here, for the American attitude of suspicion toward policies that have “feminine” mythic resonance? On the one hand, obviously: feminine images, when combined with images of control, are repellant to many Americans, and not just men. On the other hand, not so fast: is it misogynistic to insist that men protect women? After all, we decry men who abandon their families. How does that square with saying men do not have a unique role as protectors? Do they leave because they are denied a unique role? Is it enough to say that they leave because they refuse to abandon an adolescent mythos of freedom from responsibility?

This cultural/semiotic chess game keeps going – if we try to reframe the mythos so that people (of no particular gender) must protect weaker people (of no particular gender), is that emasculating? Is raising a family with an equal partner sufficiently gratifying for men who feel subjugated by the larger world? Do men need to feel dominant somewhere, anywhere, or they rebel? Interesting questions. I don’t know. I expect there’s a wide range.

A final note – none of the above has anything at all to do with actual energy policy in the phenomenal world (I don’t say “real world”, because our mythic world is just as real, if not more, than the phenomenal world where you can stub your toe). In fact, good energy policy probably involves every kind of energy source. As with smart financial policy, diversification is key.