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Rolling Coal, Environmental Power, & Masculinity

A group of people online are sharing videos and images of their giant trucks billowing thick black smoke into the atmosphere; online this is called “rolling coal”. These scenes are often the backdrop for macho anti-environmentalist messages. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses the concept of environmental power to show us how rolling coal is a social display of status and often masculinity.

There are many ways to be manly. For some super macho dudes, they get their manly on by modifying their truck so that its black filthy exhaust blows out directly into the atmosphere. Maximizing your pollution is just one way to communicate to the world your machismo. If that doesn’t sufficiently communicate your supreme dudeness, then you can always adorn the hitch of your truck with a giant plastic scrotum (or as the kids call them “Truck Nutz”).

This phenomenon is know as “Rolling Coal”. There are hundreds of videos of souped up trucks spewing smoke into the air on YouTube. To those rolling coal, it’s extra cool to eject “Prius repellent” on unsuspecting hybrid drivers, bicyclists, or pedestrians. Other videos bait “hot babes” into a conversation only to eject sooty pollution into their face. An entire online sub-culture exists where people upload pictures of their trucks with messages written on them like, “you can keep your fuel milage, I’ll keep my manhood!” Grace Wyler, who defends the practice says that coal rollers’, “motivations aren’t complicated: It looks cool, and it’s funny to roll coal on babes.”

To an environmental sociologist, rolling coal isn’t all that new or surprising. Showing how powerful you are by dominating the environment is one of the cornerstones of civilization. Humans are selfish with the environment. We come into an ecological community and say, “this land is mine and if any of you other species are fool enough to wander onto my patch, prepare to die.” Farmers do this with pesticides, fungicides, electric fences, traps, rifles, and shotguns. Home owners do it with exterminators, fences, and if needed a quick call to animal control. In the U.S. we live in climate controlled bubbles (only stepping outside when we walk to and from our cars). To be a “modern human” is to control the environment and keep it away from you until you want to go camping or on a hike (but then we soak our bodies in ~~pesticides~~ -er bug spray).

By controlling nature we communicate to the world that we have social status. This is what sociologists call environmental power. With this concept in hand we can easily see that rolling coal sits at the intersection of environmental power and masculinity.

Stereotypical masculinity is narrowly defined. You have to be powerful, tough, fearless, and more than anything else you have to dominate other people, especially women. Environmental power is one way for men to communicate their dominance. Rolling coal demonstrates that you aren’t afraid of any “sissy” environmental crisis. The trail of smoke behind your truck says, this is my atmosphere and I’ll do anything I damn well please to it. Framing women as “hot babes” flattens their humanity and turns them into sex objects who exist for the pleasure of men. Blasting these women with soot against their will is a way of invading their personal space and announcing your dominance over them. Similarly, when rollers spray “Prius repellent” on hybrid car drivers they are enforcing the norms of their narrowly defined masculinity.

Environmental power and misogynistic masculinity can only explain a portion of the rolling coal phenomenon. Some rollers report that they modified their trucks to maximize fuel efficiency (oh the irony). Other critiques have argued that rolling coal is a political statement against an ever controlling federal government.

Regardless of their motivations, rolling coal makes it clear that the domination of the natural environment is a part of our culture, a way that some “do gender” and claim their social status.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What other ways do people show that they have environmental power? That is, how do people control the environment as a means to display their social power?
  2. Symbolic interactionists argue that we create every moment of every day by using symbols to communicate meaning. What are the meanings that those who roll coal are trying to communicate to the world?
  3. Is dominating the environment solely a masculine thing? Can you think of any examples of environmental power displays that are connected to stereotypical femininity?
  4. Clearly for some, a big truck is a part of how they “do” their masculinity. That is, their truck is a prop for the masculinity they are trying to perform. Think of at least 5 other physical objects that we associate with masculinity and are often used by individuals who want to project their masculinity. Explain each object in your list.