Posted by: Adam Kay | November 21, 2011

The Real Green Man

 Introducing the Real Green Man

Humanity currently faces significant environmental challenges due to climate change, habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural resources, and biodiversity loss. These challenges are related to human population size, resource use, and waste production. Given that our population continues to grow and our per capita ecological footprint gets ever larger, there’s a lot of work for us to do. Is there any chance that we can make our society sustainable? Can we create a world in which we live happy lives in a vibrant society without degrading our natural systems? The short answer is YES: good descriptions of the policies that we need to enact can be found in recent books by Thomas Friedman and Paul Gilding. But we need passionate buy-in to create major societal restructuring needed to become sustainable. We need a war effort focused on reducing our environmental impact.

So how do we increase our collective appreciation of these dire circumstances? One way would be to target the message to demographics that show the least concern. If we can begin a dialogue with the most skeptical among us, than it should be easier to build a broad consensus that will actually lead to action.

So what’s a demographic to target? What is a group that shows less concern about environmental issues and can be easily targeted with “educational information”?

The most obvious answer is MEN. A Gallup poll of Americans from 2006 assessed feelings about environmentalism; it found that 68% of woman were either “sympathetic to or active in the environmental movement”, while only 56% of men were. But does it have to be this way? Are the goals of environmentalism in conflict with the goals of the average man? Maybe we just need to find some common ground.

And I think there is a lot of common ground. There are clearly aspects of the stereotypical male lifestyle that can help galvanize environmentalism. So here’s a first attempt to put together a list of the traits for what I’m calling “Real Green Men”. I’m sure this list is incomplete and I’d love to get some more suggestions. But here’s what I came up with:

  1. Real Green Men don’t “shop ‘til they drop”. Social pressures sometimes force a real man to spend a lot at the mall. Women report enjoying shopping more so than men and are more involved in shopping activities (Fischer & Arnold, 1990, Journal of Consumer Research, 17, 333-344). For example, 78% of respondents to a survey about Christmas shopping (Laroche et al. 2000, Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 17, 1-19) and 73% of respondents to a survey about food shopping were female (International Mass Retail Association, 1993). If pressured to go shopping or to allocate resources to shopping, a Real Green Man can say “the United States emits more greenhouse gases than any other country except China, and we emit more than 4 times the amount of greenhouse gases per capita than do the Chinese. Consumerism in the US is a big contributor to these emissions. And we’re in trouble – in 2010, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted globally exceeded the International Panel on Climate Change’s worst case scenario model. The mall is not a place for a Real Green Man or his kin.”
  2. Real Green Men don’t obsess about their appearance. Social pressures sometimes force real men to wear clean, wrinkle-free outfits. Social pressures force real men to take daily showers and shave. A Real Green Man can stand up to those pressures. He can say “more than one out of six people on the planet lack access to safe drinking water, and more than one out of three lack adequate sanitation. In the US, the average individual daily use of water is ~159 gallons, while more than half the world’s population lives on less than 25 gallons per day! Wearing my favorite shirt day after day serves a greater purpose.”
  3. Real Green Men don’t complain about physical discomforts. Social pressures sometimes force real men to turn up the thermostat during the winter. But real men are tough, and they view physical stress as a challenge. Armed with the knowledge that raising your thermostat down by two degrees F in winter and up by two degrees F in summer can decrease your carbon emissions by 2,000 pounds per year, a Real Green Man can display his manliness with bold displays of thermoregulation.
  4. Real Green Men make things from scratch. The centers of all of the world’s oceans are filled with particles of plastic, with devastating consequences for the marine ecosystem. There are many ecological costs associated with plastic waste, including the fact that they can release hormone-mimicking substances that may alter sexual development and increase cancer risk in humans and other animals (for a case study, see Nancy Langston (2010) Toxic Bodies). Real men know how to build things, to fix things, and to grow things. Real Green Men know that making things themselves also means that they don’t have to buy everything that comes in ultra-durable plastic wrapping.
  5. Real Green Men aren’t lazy. At some point, men became associated with inventions that make life easier – leaf blowers, snow blowers, riding mowers. But real men don’t use these tools. They use their massive shoulders and thick forearms. They’d rather grunt and grown with a rake or a shovel than use the tools of decadence. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, one gas lawn mower spews 88 lbs. of carbon dioxide and 34 lbs. of other pollutants into the air every year. A new gas mower produces as much CO2 per hour as 11 cars; older versions are even worse. A Real Green Man not only knows the value of using his brawn, and he also knows the impact he can have on the environment.
  6. Real Green Men eat meat (but only if it’s an invasive or pest species). What could be manlier than bringing down a wild animal and using the meat to provision one’s family and friends? Even Hollywood knows: Real men hunt. But what about Real Green Men? There are certainly ecological reasons for a Real Green Man to be a vegetarian. Given that only about 10% of the energy at one trophic level (e.g., plants) is transferred up to the next trophic level (i.e., herbivores), eating lower on the food chain as a vegetarian is much more efficient than eating as a carnivore. But the primal urges are strong in the Real Green Man, and he yearns to track, capture, and overcome his prey. And he likes the taste of meat. Must he satisfy himself with attacks on mock duck? No. A Real Green Man can hunt and have a positive effect on his environment at the same time, as long as he targets invasive and pest species. Invasive species are having an increasingly large effect on native ecosystems – their spread is largely due to human commerce and other economic activities. One idea for controlling invasive species that is getting attention is to promote them as dinner items. For example, the lionfish – an invasive species that is having a devastating effect on reef-dwelling fish communities in many tropical areas – apparently tastes delicious! The Real Green Man can even hunt deer – a traditional favorite of many real men hunters – because deer populations are well above long-term average abundances in many areas. Of course, the Real Green Man is well informed, and knows how the specifics of his actions affect the environment. For example, trapping lionfish can ensnare native fish instead, so spearfishing is the right strategy for the Real Green Man. And a Real Green Man would not support managing an ecosystem to support his hunting needs – a Real Green Man doesn’t need a handout.

Does the Real Green Man have a future? I hope so, because we need him for the environmental war effort. Greening up may also do wonders for the traditional real man by giving him a way to lead his community to a more promising future.

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