Manhood and the Fate of the Earth

This article was first published in the Christian Science Monitor on October3, 1991– not long before the Rio “Earth Summit.” More than a quarter century ago. But sadly it remains relevant. Climate change is even more of a threat. And the United States is now, under Trump, even more of an outlier in refusing to meet the challenge.

Manhood and the Fate of the Earth
Andrew Bard Schmookler

The Puzzle

The United States has once again distinguished itself among industrial democracies with its reluctance to take concrete action to counter the threat of global warming. While the Europeans and the Japanese are ready to commit to reductions in the consumption of fossil fuels –while some, indeed, have already moved unilaterally to do so– the Americans are still hanging back.

We need, the Bush administration maintains, to avoid making rash judgments. Until we know more about the precise nature and extent of the threat from climatic change, why make economic sacrifices?

How different is this response from the way some of these same people responded to the alleged danger a decade ago from the threat of the supposed military ascendance of the Soviet Union. Fearing that the Soviets might be emboldened by their capacity to hit our land-based missiles, these American cold warriors expended many billions of dollars to close what they saw as a window of vulnerability.

Here’s the puzzle: why are the same people who were prepared almost to bankrupt the country to protect against an external enemy so reluctant to sacrifice anything to forestall possible environmental disaster?

Uncertainty is not peculiar to the problem of global warming. Were the scenarios of Soviet attack plausible, given that the Soviets knew that even if they could knock out the land-based missiles, the U.S. could still have struck back with thousands of nuclear warheads on submarines and on bombers?

Yet we spent billions on the basis of our fears of what might be.

Deference to science cannot be the answer. In the case of global warming, there is substantial consensus among scientists on crucial points: that there is a problem; that continuing what we are now doing to the atmosphere could inflict catastrophe on living systems, including the food we depend on; that we know enough now that it is only prudent to take immediate steps to mend our ways.

Yet, despite almost unanimous scientific opinion that Reagan’s Star Wars concept was fundamentally flawed, the same administration that preferred “study” to action in response to the problem of acid rain launched an exorbitant program to make us invulnerable to enemy missiles falling out of the sky.

Why is it that when facing the “Soviet threat,” our conservative leaders always insisted that we prepare for the “worse-case scenario,” but when it comes to how we care for this living earth, these same men always assume the best and sneer at those who fear the worst?

A Proposed Solution to the Puzzle

A solution to this puzzle has also occurred to me: both responses grow out of deeply ingrained ideas about manhood in America. There are some concerns that it is thought manly to attend to, while others are sissies’ stuff.

So, in one case it is damn the uncertainty and expense, full speed ahead, while in the other it is wait and see.

Our image of manhood is inseparable from the role of the warrior. Preparing to fight our enemies is always manly. We regard our armor as a sign of strength, not of weakness. There is no shame if we invest too heavily in armor. Nobody thinks it unmanly if a president spends unnecessary billions for defenses against an exaggerated threat, or if a football coach prepares for a weak opponent as if they were strong.

The warrior never speaks of being fearful; he calls it vigilance. Not too cautious. Just on our toes. Whatever it takes to assure we are not vulnerable to penetration by the other guy’s weapon.

Showing concern about environmental dangers, however clear and present, is a completely different matter for an American leader.

Here the dangers do not involve an enemy, i.e. another man whose power can hurt us. In fact, the dangers come from our own excessive and irresponsible behavior. The remedy does not involve more action, but more restraint; we are challenged not to magnify ourselves, but to limit ourselves to fit into something larger than us.

Real men in America are not supposed to accept limits. The Marlboro man is the lineal descendant of the western cowboy who hated when fences appeared on the land. Don’t fence me in. The American dream, and the idea of progress in the American economy, express the idea that “The Sky is the limit.” Real men are always headed onward and upward.

So when some began to speak a few years back of “limits to growth,” they were derided as defeatists and sissies by the manly defenders of American dynamism.

A group of business leaders was recently enlisted to discuss the problem of global warming. These businessmen were concerned about the problem but, I was told by the man who organized the conference, many of them individually were hesitant about attending. They were afraid of how they would look to their peers. If they showed willingness to advocate restraint in the face of invisible dangers, would they appear timid? If the alarm proved a false one, would they be thought cowards?

No such fears attended those who wanted to spend tens or hundreds of billions to close the window of vulnerability. Presidents can neutralize the wimp factor by invading smaller countries, but not by safeguarding for future generations the climate over America’s breadbasket.

It is one thing for a man to guard what is his own –that is the work of the warrior. It is another for a man to take care of what has been entrusted to him– that sounds a lot like women’s work. The hero in the old Western movie, Shane, is not the farmer who grows crops and children but the gunman who protects him.

For thousands of years, human communities have seen the greatest threat to their survival as coming from enemies outside their borders. So they have made warriors their heroes, the virtues of the man of power their ideal of manhood.

In our time, it is becoming ever clearer that the greatest threat to our security is the destruction our peacetime activities are wreaking upon this living planet. New virtues are required of us.

There is another ancient image of what a man might be. It is the image of the good steward, the man to whom the care of things can be entrusted. Until the good steward seems to us as manly as the vigilant warrior, our national security will be threatened by the images in our mind.


Postscript (2017):

While this article presents one of the deep cultural forces that stands in the way of responsible American action, it is not the only big factor. The role of corporate interests is another, which has grown in prominence. And meanwhile, as the cold war has receded into the past, the salience of the macho pasture has receded somewhat. But long-standing ways of relating to manhood — and to men’s accepting limits — have not disappeared, and are an important part of the picture.

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