October 1, 2019

NGUYEN | Of Meat & Men: Masculinity vs. Sustainability

Print More

You know you want it.

The feeling is carnal. A primal lust. It’s irresistible — you can hardly hold back from that instinctual need to clasp your fingers around it, wrap your lips around its thick flesh, sink your teeth into that sumptuous parcel of indulgent sin. You want it.

Meat.

No, you freak! It’s not that type of “meat.”

I’m talking about meat meat. You know, steak, ribs, bacon, pork chops, ham. The works. Meat is good. In fact, we’re biologically wired to enjoy meat, seeing that our primordial ancestors relied on it to yield calorie-rich, nutrient-filled, protein-loaded meals.

But today, our biological dependence on animal flesh has branched off into a distinct, niche offshoot: a bizarre culture of male fascination with meat. This obsession has manifested itself in a number of ways, taking form as the signature male congregation around the barbecue or as a “bro” hunting retreat in the woods. “Manning the grill” is, quite literally, the prerequisite for attaining masculinity. Perhaps it stems from the outdated role of the male as the “hunter,” or maybe from the gold standard for the ideal male as a chiseled figure fueled entirely by protein. In short, the relationship between the two boils down into one indisputable point: someway, somehow, we’ve learned to equate meat with masculinity.

So, it should come as no surprise that a scant 21 percent of America’s vegans are male, a mere slice of an already limited population. I can’t even count the number of male vegans I’ve encountered on one hand — and I’m from California. The vegan male is an oxymoron, balancing the contradictory forces of traditional masculinity and the femininity associated with meatless diets.

While “meat” evokes notions of woodsy machismo, “veganism” conjures images of hipster girls with canvas tote bags and metal straws. The same goes for “sustainability.” Sustainable living, strongly associated with herbivorous eating choices, is another heavily gendered practice. In response to growing concerns about the Earth’s increasingly dire state, people around the globe have committed to redressing our climate crisis. National governments and big businesses have failed to enact effective improvement; yet, individuals have taken the issue upon themselves by reducing their carbon footprints. Simple, everyday changes — recycling, carpooling, opting for reusable bags — produce an immense improvement in one person’s environmental impact. Some have even engaged in more drastic life changes, like purchasing fuel-efficient electric cars, adopting plant-based diets and living zero-waste lifestyles.

Yet, the proportion of those engaging in these sustainable activities is heavily skewed. According to Scientific American, “Women litter less, recycle more and leave a smaller carbon footprint.” Multiple studies echo this phenomenon, showing consistent male absence in green living. Compared to females, men resist eco-friendly practices. And it’s not because men are immune to the planet’s declining health (as they are from many systemic injustices). The Earth’s well-being has universal impact irrespective of gender. It’s because of toxic masculinity.

As a cohort, males share a collective fragility, rejecting altruistic behavior in fear of appearing too feminine. Because sustainability carries undertones of actually caring about something, males have developed a resistance to buying into lifestyles that are less harmful to the environment. Discussing the perils of fast fashion isn’t ingrained in the daily vernacular of red-blooded, testicle-bearing individuals. Vocalizing dissent against the meat industry’s polluting existence doesn’t fall in line with perceived ideals of masculinity. “Aye bro, let me just toss a spear of asparagus on the grill” doesn’t have that robust, macho aura that men attempt to exude.

One of my friends commented on the male involvement in environmental causes on Cornell’s campus: “I genuinely sometimes wonder, is the best example of men collectively caring about the environment on campus frat brothers recycling their empty cans of Keystone and White Claw? Do they even do that?”

The lack of male participation in the environmental movement is glaring: By allowing perceptions of masculinity to take precedence over our environment, we force women to shoulder the lion’s share of sustainable efforts. Women are the ones expected to buy reusable straws and water bottles (when they still only make 79 cents to every man’s dollar), and are the ones expected to embrace plant-based diets for the sake of the environment (when they are already held to strict, societal body standards).

It’s ludicrous, it’s toxic — and it’s avoidable. Maintaining one’s masculinity won’t even be a concern if we’re all dead. It’s our duty, as the residents of this planet, to play a role in saving it. However we identify ourselves, we should all be doing what we can to remedy the issues that we’ve exacerbated.

And sometimes, that means exchanging our beloved infatuation with meat for a grilled spear of asparagus every once in a while.

Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at nhn5@cornell.edu. Unfiltered runs every other Wednesday this semester.