One day last summer I was cued in the checkout line at Target behind a man who was having a tough day. The checker asked him if he would like to buy a bag for ten cents for his items. Must’ve been a tourist because he seemed taken aback, perhaps freshly aware that California had passed a new law that took effect in 2017 that banned those single-use plastic bags that were both ubiquitous with not just consumers, but landfills and waterways and all the creatures who might live them. He murmured something about the oppressive lib environmental agenda and cursed before acquiescing to purchasing a multiple-use bag.
It was a familiar scene to me coming from the Texas Gulf Coast, the political oil to California’s vinegar, where there was scarcely any recycling and lax environmental protections. Texas is a libertarian businessman’s paradise bursting with entrepreneurial spirit as much as bible thumping. Business first is the top heroic ideal there, fueled by a steady diet of AM radio pundits trumpeting the Republican cause celebre, the monomaniacal ethos that all other ethoses are brought to heel before, evoking the spirit of John Wayneism by outlining the territory of the conservative American self with its steadfast and blustery white male entitlement. And if this tough truck imago is the self-appointed alpha of this culture, a recognizable type of subjectivity I’ve elsewhere called Lord Man. Other letters after alpha are but hangers on, subject to Lord Man’s hierarchical reality, Lord Man’s naming, describing, using, consuming, disposing – all as he will. The rest of the alphabet on Planet Macho is a very long list, for anything that does not fit within the narrow limits is othered – other people, other languages, colors, creeds, genders, and so on. But of all the Others who are othered, no Other is othered as much as the landbase itself. Without uttering a word, the environment itself, the yardstick of truth, shows the wounds suffered on Lord Man’s Planet Macho.
In many ways, the Trump regime has fulfilled the character of the angry entitled white guy ethic of Planet Macho. Of all the plutocratic plundering, mean tweets and provocations, and downright embarrassment to civilization, perhaps the most pernicious effect of Trumpism is the downright toxic meanness Donald Trump has for the environment. Trump’s recoil from the Paris Climate Accord, his climate change denial and purge of climate science from NASA, the EPA and Department of Energy, the approval of the DAPL and Keystone XL, his opening Alaska’s Anwar and protected offshores to oil exploration, his shrinking of national monuments like the Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou Range and Utah’s Bears Ears, his tariffs on solar panel production, his full-throated support of the coal industry portray a man who seems to revel in a regressive environmental policy with ecocidal delight. His cabinet appointments show not just an open hostility to their ostensible charges, but a careless hostility to nature.
One could chalk all this up to the detached cold rational instrumental calculus of old fashioned profiteering capitalism taking advantage of the demands of market forces and reducing the perceived meddlesome government taxes and regulations. You know, some of that old banal run of the mill corporate sociopathy. But I think it’s more than that. It’s more reactive. It’s more spiteful and sadistic, even. Markets are supposedly adapting to green agendas, opening themselves up to innovation and clean energy. As 365 corporations, (including giants Apple, Amazon and Nike), signed an open letter pleading Trump to stay in the Paris Accord. Hundreds of cities are pleading the same. But Trumpism is resistant, not open to innovations or new markets. He’s resisted these, which shows not even shrewd business logic, but an even more emotional, more insidious kind of anti-environmental reactivity undergirding policy decisions. So Trump’s backing of dirty fuels and responsiveness to Murray Energy Corporation, whose CEO Robert Murray gave 300,000 dollars to Trump’s inaugural gala, cement him as the coal-first president. It is not coincidental that this coal fever comes after 70 years into the decline of coal. This isn’t a rational calculus of a shrewd businessman, of course, but smacks more of the childish reactionary tantrums for which the forty fifth president has become infamous. There is a petty spitefulness in these policies that delights in sticking it to the environment and those of the tree-hugging ilk who doth protest. As if tending to the environment was itself symbolic and ideological and having to do with identity politics, rather than something real, because the Planet Macho character form itself is based on ideological symbolic identity politics.
Trumpism is like the political embodiment of those men who put truck nuts and noxious coal burners on their diesel pickup trucks filling up the streets with plumes of black death – what aficionados call “rollin’ coal,” or “Prius repellant.” Youtube has a plethora of videos where a couple of rednecks are yuckin’ in up watching their buddies billow plumes of death from their tailpipes on liberal roadside demonstrators in their pink hats. A glance at the comments below the videos and it’s clear who is watching ecocidal resentment porn – one read something like “nice job, should be using mustard gas though.”
It all adds up to the Captain Planet level of cartoon villainy impression Trump gives off as he sits in his big rig. Or his tweets taunting the environmental left with exclamations that it’s cold this year in Washington. Or his contempt for science or scientific facts or data. Or his ignorant proclamation that “no way!” does his copiously applied hairspray have any effect on the ozone layer. Or in his boastful assaults on women, or protection of those who are assaulters. Or the famous pictures of Don Junior on safari holding a severed elephant’s tail (and later claiming that the Trumps are saving shithole countries with their oh-so-benevolent safari money).
Trump’s character seems to be constructed out of what are an amalgam of disembodied and ecocidal impulses and character defenses. Trump’s famously called himself a germaphobe, and has a peculiar paranoia about being served poisoned food. This, coincidentally, fuels his love for fast food – the mass produced products are made in such number that he can safely order food anonymously. Or his resistance to chance perspiring, preferring not to walk but rather ride in his golf cart at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump’s body itself appears heavily made up, a product of unlikely hair created by a controversial hair loss drug Propecia (coincidentally made by Merck and subject to a class action lawsuit by users complaining of side effects including cognitive difficulty and impotence), a concoction of heavy makeup, Just for Men hair color, Helmet Head extra firm hairspray, spray tan and his omnipresent suit which hides his widening girth. Some estimate he’s gained 100 pounds since inauguration, fed by his main food groups – McDoos, KFC and Diet Coke.
These aren’t coincidences nor cheap dispersions of the Trumpian character, but ways in which to describe the ecocidal character of the dominant culture. Rather it shows a propensity to create sadomasochistic fraudulent realities, virtual ersatz realities, at the expense of neglecting the Real. Flights into virtual realities are a staple of Planet Macho, part of the magic of reassuring Lord Man of his alpha status in the great chain of being.
But this is our social-political discourse today where figures like AM radio shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh have influenced mainstream discourse. As in, for instance, in one of his childish, tyrannical rants of corporate apologetics after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill blamed the Sierra Club, and suggested that not only is the oil good and natural for the Gulf but that “Mother Nature” would “take care of it.” That oil would become fish food anyway, so it’s like doing this complex ecosystem a great big favor. It’s like expecting mother to clean up after the mess of an entitled, irresponsible child. It’s a strikingly clear image of a civilization indulging in industrial growth and “progress” yet outsourcing environmental risks to the Other – be they indigenous humans, or blue fin tuna, or hammerhead sharks, or phytoplankton, or coral, or brown pelicans, or manatees, or sea turtles. “Mother Nature” will take care of that. Planet Macho must go on at all costs, using the world as a burnt offering to his dominating self-image; self-admiring its “progress” – whatever that is.
This is a far cry from a stewardship ethic that asks how best to take care of the landbase. It comes far short, obsessed more with questions of power and appearance rather than devotion or community. It asks first, “How do I look? Aren’t I the picture of success?” This is the mirror in which Lord Man admires himself, at outsourced expenses in this narcissistic hustler culture of Planet Macho.
What is to be done for the health of the ecosystem in a culture where the milestones of manhood are measured by how far he is from the so-called feminine environment? For that is the trend of the dominant culture – nature is symbolically fused with the feminine. So to get this class of men to care about the environment, the knee jerk reaction is synonymous with their aversion from femininity.
This isn’t just in so-called Western culture either, noting that the stereotype also exist in China, hearkening back to age-old dualistic thinking. But these old deep structural dualisms of masculine-feminine, heaven-earth, spirit-matter remain coded within the critical areas of helping a highly stressed ecosystem. These stereotypes were put to a real world test. The Guardian’s science journalist Patrick Barkham cites research data from experiments by Brough and Wilkie published in Scientific American that looked at found that men were more likely to donate to a fictional eco-friendly group called “Wilderness Rangers” with a wolf logo than one called “Friends of Nature” with a tree logo. He ends his article suggesting that environmental groups macho-up their advertising to make caring for the profound Reality seem important.
Of course, none of these problems would exist if the old structural dualisms of civilization existed in the first place. The earth isn’t essentially feminine (ancient Teutonic culture as well as ancient Egypt and Tibetan culture located the masculine in the earth). The fact that these dualisms even exist suggest a history and a civilization based on the imago splitting that occurs with trauma, and hints at the original sin located in the origins of the phallogocentric civilization.
So if not in making environmentalism into some howling-wolf, badger-wrestling ranger meme generator, what else might be done? One reader commented, how about just being “rational” in relation to the health of the planet? Well a particular dialectical reason is one thing but doesn’t seem to be enough in a culture dominated by traumatized, desiccated selves. Planet Macho is a place of split people, inheritors of profound historical wounds both known and unknown. Reason has never seemed be enough before, and it may not be enough to move sustainably forward before careening into full blown Mad Maxxism.
I can’t help but to be skeptical of this proposal on the grounds that it’s a rather shallow solution for Planet Macho. At best it appeals to men’s paternal instincts for land base stewardship, but does nothing further. It also stops short of the real, keeping nature trapped in a word cage of symbolic references.
In his brilliant book Nature and Madness, Paul Shepard diagnoses this modern culture as suffering from a kind of arrested development, a civilization run amok by grown-ups who are frozen in a perpetual adolescent identity crisis enacted through the elaborate defenses and rituals of the macho performance. Shepard looks for instruction from prehistoric humans who lived within the sense of nature, and whose coming of age necessitated an initiation into the elaborate education understanding the landbase, learning to survive, cooperate with each other and understand the multifaceted interactions between animal and plant life, as well as the language, songs, history, and myths of the local culture. This process in the indigenous way of living, was what it meant to become a mature person living within nature, within a potent living reality defined by its complex assemblages and limitations. Modern technological humans, however, subvert all of these needs, which in their neglect have become ersatz toxic impulses and diseases. The modern condition chalked up to disenchanting and downgrading the real world into a dead place without its own meaning, waiting to be used by Lord Man.
I think we live in a time that is far past small maneuvers and small ideas relating to this or that policy, or this or that advertisement, or this or that technology. I think nothing short of a holistic existential and cultural shift can transform the consciousness of Planet Macho.
The healing salve to this isn’t in branding or ad campaigns, but really in relieving Planet Macho of the gauntlet of anxieties and defenses that constitute the character of this pernicious ecocidal character. It’s in becoming what they think as abject, entering through the slender keyhole that may be the existential awakening of this desiccated, traumatized, violent, delusional culture to reality. There may be a time when culture will look at this carelessness and violence of civilizational narcissism as a discarded, failed mode of consciousness. It would become a shameful stage of history, sort of like how people today think of slavery. There are signs of this change already. As we know from history, change is difficult, and usually only comes after tragedy. Unfortunately, it may be ecological calamity itself that is the catalyst of a new consciousness, if there ever is one on Planet Macho.