The Green Space | Elon Musk and Ecomasculinity

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

Google “Elon Musk,” and it’s likely that the top five search results will be negative news articles. Most recently, the CEO of Tesla tweeted out misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine to his millions of followers, has been sued by an investor for his “erratic” tweets and received criticism for opening the Tesla factory back in May despite local health rules — a decision which has now resulted in more than 100 COVID-19 cases at the plant.

Elon Musk is a flawed character to say the least, yet despite that his various companies — indelibly connected with his person — have flourished through all the controversy. That’s because he has a cult following of mostly male idolizers who don’t hesitate to attack anyone who criticizes Musk. No doubt many believe that despite his insolent Twitter comments, he deserves admiration for his aspirations to save the planet and create a more sustainable future. But we must beg the question — given Musk’s attitude, the astronomical price of his electric vehicles and his aspirations to colonize Mars, for whom is he creating this sustainable future?

A fantastic article from Marcie Bianco demonstrates that Musk is one more in a long line of patriarchal colonizers, whom she describes as “drunk on megalomania and the privilege of indifference.” The modern space race, Bianco writes, “is the direct result of men giving up on the planet they have all but destroyed.” Cultivating Mars for human life is not a solution for everyone — it is only for those at the tippy top who have already contributed disproportionately to the destruction of the planet. The concept of having a fallback planet to which the rich can flee when the going gets too tough on Earth can only contribute to the environmental fatalism — it’s no use trying to stop climate change, let’s just move to another planet — that already threatens to overtake many of us in other forms (including myself, on bad days).

But Musk certainly isn’t all bad, not because of any personal accomplishments or innovations, but because there is another, more positive side to the masculine image he presents. He shows a way to get more people, specifically overtly masculine men, interested in creating a sustainable future. Researchers have shown that women in general are more concerned about the environment and more willing to take action against climate change, and that toxic masculinity can often play into environmentally unfriendly practices like driving an inefficient car or eating more meat. Given the general perception of environmentalism as more related to the “feminine” values of care and community, Musk’s ability to appeal to masculinity to get men interested in environmentalism is genuinely impressive. He just goes about it the wrong way, promoting fatalism and colonization in a way that can only be detrimental to the environmental movement as a whole.

Musk provides a practical framework for what scholars are calling ecomasculinity — the male counterpart to ecofeminism. Ecomasculinity emphasizes examining how sexism negatively impacts men while also promoting a philosophy of care — for the environment, for those around you and so on. It encourages deconstructing and reconsidering the ways in which societal structures pressure men to be “better, higher, stronger, more virile, smarter, richer, more powerful, composed and adored than their supposed competition.” This pressure can lead to men oppressing other groups in order to prove their superiority around other men — a phenomenon that we can see in action close to home at the college frat party.

Musk has demonstrated that it’s possible to inspire men to care about the environment, but ecomasculinity shows us that men need role models who inspire care while also working to closely consider gendered behaviors. You can’t have one without the other. Think Bob Ross or Mr. Rogers, but for climate advocacy. 

Unfortunately, no such role model exists. Bill McKibben, Hank Green, David Wallace-Wells and many other men offer more nuanced information about climate change and a greater emphasis on caring for what we have instead of abandoning it. Even Bill Gates, who recently published the book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” would make for a better billionaire idol than Musk. But none of them have the cool factor that Musk imbues in his every tweet. None of them sell flamethrowers or sleek self-driving cars. I understand Musk’s appeal, but there must be some middle ground between his dangerous, glamorous form of masculinity, and the boring, unglamorous work of actually solving problems.

I appreciate the work that Musk has done in inspiring young men to dream of starting an entrepreneurial career based on products that combat climate change, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an unproblematic male climate role model. Musk fans might argue that his asshole behavior has nothing to do with his accomplishments as a businessman and innovator, but his personality is what propelled him to both fame and infamy. Tesla, SpaceX and his various other business ventures would not be nearly as successful if not for his headline-grabbing behavior. Even his environmental ideals smack of the kind of toxic masculinity that brings men down instead of lifting them into the future. 

All this is to say — men, dump Elon Musk. Leave him! He’s bad for you! You’d be so much better off without him! If you truly want to help the environment, Musk’s brand of toxic masculinity certainly isn’t going to get you there. Instead, we must embrace a philosophy of care as both masculine and feminine, and accept that no one man could possibly solve a problem as vast as climate change.

Sarah writes primarily about trees, climate change and walking. You can reach her at [email protected].