It must be a tough time to be a political satirist. While most of us were grappling with the truly shocking news that Ray Hadley might not be a very nice person, the Morrison Government decided the hill it was going to die on was the Labor Party’s civilization-ending plan to have half of all new cars sold in Australia be electric by 2030.
I know we’re well past the point where reality has anything to do with what comes out of the mouths of our Prime Minister and his cabinet, but it’s probably worth at least mentioning a few facts. The first is the rationale behind Labor’s decision. Although the never-ending trainwreck of Australia’s energy policy tends to obscure the fact, electricity generation accounts for only about half of Australia’s greenhouse emissions. Of the remaining 50%, the two biggest components are agriculture and transport.
What that means is that if we’re going to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement we don’t have a choice about transitioning our transport sector, and fast. And unless we all decide to start walking, that means greater reliance on bicycles, public transport and—shock, horror—electric cars and trucks.
That transition will involve the rollout of charging stations and related infratructure, a process that will take time but is far from impossible. And, as with many aspects of the transition to a low-carbon economy, the longer we leave it the more expensive and disruptive that process will be. It’s also a transition we don’t really have a choice about: since Australia doesn’t have a car manufacturing industry any more, we are locked into buying cars from overseas. The price of electric cars is already competitive with older, internal combustion models; once they become cheaper, something most analysts predict will happen within a few years, anywhere without the infrastructure necessary for electric cars will be locked into buying an old and increasingly expensive technology. In the face of this Labor’s aspirational, non-binding target of 50% of new cars looks, if anything, too modest.
Farcically, the government actually understand this. Just over a year ago, in January 2018, Josh Frydenberg wrote an editorial for the Fairfax papers hailing the revolution of electric vehicles and comparing their disruptive impact to that of the iPhone. This week Energy Minister Angus Taylor week tweeted a link to a discredited Top Gear segment that claimed electric cars were unreliable; six months ago he was trumpeting the rollout of charging stations that would let those same electric cars travel 400km. And only weeks ago Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack was tweeting excitedly about the NRMA’s rollout of charging stations, saying it would help local communities and attract tourism to regions such as the Bland Shire in Central NSW.
It is tempting to say that this sort of stupidity is simply an instance of a government in its death throes, although in truth this government died long ago, and what we are really witnessing is a kind of zombie government doing what zombies do, which is lurch about, eating brains and spreading destruction.
But it’s difficult not to wonder whether there’s something else at work here as well. In 2016 American researchers published a study that suggested men tend to associate environmentally-aware behaviour with femininity. Because, as the researchers sardonically noted, men tend to be more concerned with the maintenance of gender identity than women, this means men are likely to perceive the embrace of environmental ideas or the consumption of green products as feminine, and therefore an attack on their masculinity. And, conversely, they are likely to use environmentally unfriendly behaviour and choices as a way of asserting and performing their masculinity.
A 2010 study by market research firm Ipsos made similar findings, revealing that young men under 30 are the most anti-green in their attitudes and behaviours. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley says they think they are bulletproof. ‘One guy actually liked the idea civilisation might collapse: he felt he might do better in a Mad Max-style world than in one where all the girls were beating him in maths at school.’
Nobody who has watched the anger too often directed at vegetarians is likely to be surprised by this finding. Many people find such choices deeply confronting. Likewise it’s telling that Top Gear—a show that celebrates a particular kind of unreconstructed masculinity—ran a segment that used fake data to discredit electric cars.
Perhaps not surprisingly these attitudes are all over the government’s attacks on Labor’s policies. The Liberal Party’s problems with women are well-documented, and one only has to watch Scott Morrison presents himself to see how deeply embedded they are in the culture of the party he leads. All those blue suits, all that back-slapping bonhomie and private school rugby locker room mateship, they’re all a way of asserting a masculine culture that explicitly excludes women and people of other ethnicities. And, as one saw as Morrison badgered and bullied Waleed Aly during his interview on The Project, the model of masculinity they assert is surprisingly fragile, and intolerant of questioning.
So when Morrison—a man whose fondling of a lump of coal in Parliament now looks like a dress rehearsal for the stunt-driven stupidity of his dismal tenure as Prime Minister—claims electric cars will end the weekend by getting rid of 4WDs, or that Bill Shorten ‘doesn’t get how Australians like to live’, and that they like ‘vehicles with a bit of grunt and power’, he isn’t just revealing his assumptions about who ‘real’ Australians are (white, male, heterosexual), or who his party really represents. Instead he’s proving the researchers’ point about the ways in which traditional masculinity asserts itself by attacking environmental values, or, to borrow the formulation of one journalist last week, making it clear that toxic masculinity really is one of the causes of climate change. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so serious, but either way, you couldn’t make this shit up.
James Bradley is the author of Clade. He blogs at cityoftongues.com