By 2020, there is no question that electric mobility will make its way and combustion engines will disappear. We have explained this often enough here in this blog and have laid out the reasons. But the still fierce resistance of many drivers, discussion participants and regular visitors to give up their ‘beloved’ gasoline or diesel can only partly be explained by a cherished familiarity or concern about the hundreds of thousands jobs associated with it.
There are deeper reasons why ‘petrol heads’ are so attached to their combustion engines, and these have to do with their identity. In films, the media and at the regulars’ table, men and women define themselves through vehicles with loud engine noise, the smell of gasoline and oil-smeared hands, and a life made worth living by working on their own cars. From James Dean to James Bond in the Aston Martin and the Fast & Furious with actors like Vin Diesel in their muscle cars, they represent the epitome of masculinity. Women are no exception. Their femininity and their acceptance in this social environment are also defined by cars. A sexy body spread on or sitting in a sexy car and knowledge about cars make her a member of her in-group.
In the USA it is mainly the ranchers and craftsmen with the massive pickups, in our country it is the lowered Golf GTI or in the past the Manta Manni that comes to mind. Also in higher classes it is the Corvette, a Ferrari or a Porsche the status symbol for the successful alpha man. The middle classes in these countries are similar in their choice of vehicles, where SUVs dominate.
The political scientist Cara Daggett, who conducts research on energy policy and its social effects at Virginia Tech in the USA, coined the term petro-masculinity to describe the fact that the transition to alternative forms of energy and electric drive trains is not only a purely technical disruption, but also a social one. If one’s own identity and way of life is closely linked to a technology, the abolition of this leads to an identity crisis. Not only the knowledge and expertise on this technology, often acquired from a very young age, sufficient to be accepted in a circle of friends, becomes obsolete in one fell swoop, but also the associated prestige and details such as the smell of oil as a symbol of masculinity. Cohesion, status in one’s own social group and attractiveness in the eyes of potential sexual partners is called into question.
Daggett not only ends her analysis here, she also finds a connection between petro-masculinity and the tendency to accept authoritarian behavior. Thus, aggressive and violent reactions by petro-masculinized individuals to efforts to make the transition to sustainable forms of energy and propulsion are considered justified measures. Many Tesla drivers in particular have experienced such aggressive reactions at first hand, with so-called Coal-Rolling or ICING, where charging stations are intentionally blocked by drivers with combustion engines, is used.
Owning, working on, earning money from and identifying with internal combustion vehicles is so important to many parts of the population, both financially and in terms of status, that much, if not everything, depends on it. To make matters worse, many oil-producing states are dictatorships led by ‘strong men’ and are thus part of their own culture in the petro-masculine sense.
There is a convergence of three anachronistic characteristics that seem threatened in times of feminism, emancipation and climate change: Masculinity, fossil fuels and authoritarianism.
Any discussion and action on sustainable forms of energy and propulsion must therefore take this context into account. If the transition is to be achieved, an alternative means of identification must be created. Tesla was the first electric car manufacturer to understand this, when its design was not based on the cute or even ugly electric car designs and use-optimized – in other words: ‘underpowered’ – performance data, but clearly combined power and elegance. A design like the one presented for the upcoming Cybertruck addresses precisely this petro-masculine target audience and can thus break down their resistance.
As hard as it is for some people to accept this: Cars polarize, emotionalize, and the successful transition to sustainability requires, especially with this technology, the consideration of such sensitivities.
This article has also been published in German.