It’s always a sign of trouble when a theory starts to sweep everything into one gigantic bundle, especially one with an enemies list. But here’s what television personality Stephen Colbert, famous for bringing his acid wit to bear on politicians of every partisan stripe for being too right wing, has to say about a new study that men don’t recycle because it seems feminine. “Really, men? Is there no limit to straight male fragility? This isn’t just toxic masculinity, this is literally toxic.” Insulting people into doing what you want is something Dale Carnegie firmly warns against. But can we at least leave the patriarchy out of this one?
Are environmentalists wimps? We hope not, because we consider ourselves environmentalists. And we don’t feel any particular need to crush the cans with our bare hands before dropping them into the blue box. Nor would we slap a whale around for getting its dumb tail beached before pushing it back out to sea if we found one aground. On the other hand, we do insist on asking whether a proposed measure is really good for the environment before endorsing it and insulting the intelligence, courage or sexuality of those who disagree with us.
It’s a slightly scary business, because when you start talking about marginal utility and demonstrated preference and public choice and the other nerdy things that economists think are cool you do get into Poindexter territory pretty fast. And meanwhile the manly greens in fatigues with beards are out there impressing the chicks (or the guys, in these enlightened times) by shutting down roads with menacing, barbarian alpha-male displays.
To be fair, parts of Colbert’s routine were funny, including “Oh, that’s some bulky waste I wouldn’t mind kicking to the curb, because it’s Tuesday, ‘cause you’re a man in the testosterzone, and Mother Earth is so hot. Literally, it’s very hot. We need to do something.” The fact that a study really did appear in a journal that really does exist called Sex Roles is perhaps marginally less funny.
At any rate Colbert didn’t seem to find it funny, whereas real satire goes both ways, so to speak. Though sometimes it’s redundant, as when NBC reports po-faced that study lead author Janet “Swim and her co-authors found female participants were most likely to avoid men who engaged in PEBs [Pro-Environment Behaviours] that aligned with their gender roles, and most preferred a conversation with gender-conforming women. Men did not demonstrate a strong preference for conversation between gender-bending men, gender-conforming men or gender-conforming women. However, male participants demonstrated an aversion to gender-bending women.”
We’re still trying to decipher whether that means a reusable grocery bag helps you get dates and if so with whom. Maybe not, since NBC contacted Swim who said “The paper does not show men don’t recycle because they are afraid they are going to look gay,” but “People might have subtle things that are influencing their behavior.”
In any case the problem with recycling is that it costs a lot more to dispose of the stuff compared to putting it in a landfill and it is also much more likely for recycled waste to end up in the ocean. And if we’re just shipping plastic in oil-burning ships to Asia where it gets buried or burned we’re harming the environment no matter how boldly we defy gender stereotypes.