Mad white men and the climate crisis

Tone Lanzillo

Now, before I say another word, let me introduce myself. I am 66 years old. Male. Straight. White. I’ve lived in the middle class most of my life. Went to college. Have had several careers. Have two adult sons. And about to become a grandfather for the first time. 

Since moving to Duluth in November 2017 to join the Loaves and Fishes community, I’ve been trying to lead a more sustainable and healthier life, and have been reevaluating what it means to be a man in today’s world.

I’ve also been examining how men like myself have responded to the various challenges that we all face with climate change. In many ways, it hasn’t been pretty. And on too many occasions, it’s been unhealthy, abusive and sometimes destructive.

Why have so many of us turned into “mad white men’’ when it comes to talking about or even acknowledging the climate crisis?

Does this climate crisis, or what we think the crisis is demanding of us, threaten our masculinity or sense of manhood?

Why do we feel the need to verbally abuse others who want to talk about climate change?

Why is our defense mechanism to become aggressive and confront others when we don’t understand or agree?

On May 5, the Star Tribune published two articles right next to each other. One piece talked about Minnesota’s rising temperatures and that climate change is the direct result of high levels of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Climatologists reported seeing temperatures increase faster in the northern region of the state.

In the other article, state Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen talked about his opposition to a bill that would address emission standards by helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. When he was interviewed by the newspaper, Ingebrigtsen stated, “We’re the only ones in the Midwest that’s moving forward with this. It’s very maddening for me and I think it is for a lot of folks.”

It appears that we get mad about things we don’t understand or can’t control. And being mad or getting angry is often directed toward women, children, and many times against ourselves.

One only has to look at the statistics for domestic violence, suicides and homicides to see that many of us struggle with our expectations and feelings about being a man. And now, it shows up in how we treat the planet.

In his compelling novel about the climate crisis, The Ministry For The Future, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote, “The Gotterdamnmerung Syndrome, as with most violent pathologies, is more often seen in men than women. It is often interpreted as an example of narcissistic rage. Those who feel it are usually privileged and entitled, and they become extremely angry when their privileges and sense of entitlement are being taken away. If then their choice gets reduced to admitting they are in error or destroying the world, a reduction they often feel to be the case, the obvious choice for them is to destroy the world; for they cannot admit they have ever erred.” 

Having worked in the mental health field for 29 years, and spent a lot of that time counseling men and facilitating men’s groups, I’ve seen too many of us, especially white men, struggle with our feelings. When facing a crisis or challenge, we are only too comfortable with expressing our anger and, at the same time, repressing any other feelings; especially those that we think or feel will make us more vulnerable or appear to be weak. And, because of that, we often hurt and destroy the ones closest to us. 

And now, how are we abusing and destroying the environment in a vain attempt to defend our manhood?

Have we disconnected from so many of our feelings that we’ve become distant and disconnected from nature and the planet? Does our machine mentality and toxic masculinity prevent us from being able to relate to nature and truly appreciate the significance of this climate crisis? 

In his book The Fragile Male: The Decline Of A Redundant Species, Ben Greenstein wrote, “when the male runs into something he can’t cope with, he fights.” Is that what we’re doing now? Just look at the number of white men in leadership positions in government and business who are fighting to deny or disregard the significance or severe impacts of climate change. 

The climate scientist Michael E. Mann, in his book, The New Climate War, wrote, “There is something especially disturbing when middle-aged men scold teenage girls fighting for a livable future. It’s even worse when other middle-aged men stand by and applaud.”

Our children, our grandchildren, our city and our planet need us. They need us to stand up and help protect them. We must redefine who we are as men, and realize that our legacies will be determined by the choices we make and actions we take to address the climate crisis that threatens all of us.
Can we become “guardians of the new world” and find our opportunities to serve other human beings, other species and our global home?