Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

What “rolling coal” has to say about the cultural state of sustainability efforts

Posted 05 Dec 2016 / 0
2016-12-05Image of a Ford F-150 “rolling coal” courtesy of Salvatore Arnone via Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent meeting of my Ecology course dedicated to sustainable policies, we were discussing why people don’t choose to adopt sustainable technologies. I think that the question was asked under the assumption that people want to be more sustainable, but face financial and logistical obstacles that make sustainable choices harder to make. Certainly this is an important idea: that when it comes to sustainability, we may not lack overall good will… we simply lack the social systems needed to convert that good will into meaningful action.

But at least one student pushed back against this idea a bit, suggesting that many people are entrenched in cultures that fundamentally don’t value sustainability. I immediately thought of — and introduced to the class — the cultural phenomenon of “rolling coal”. The practice, which involves modifying a diesel vehicle in order to give the driver the option to belch out copious amounts of thick, black smoke while driving down the road, is well-chronicled in this recent New York Times article. For those of us who understand American prankster culture — which spans the political spectrum from the extremes of the right to the extremes of the left — this is not an entirely surprising subculture. If you really resent the suggestion that we all ought to be driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, you don’t just keep driving your big truck: you make a statement by modifying it to be even more polluting.

Now admittedly this is a relatively small subculture, and even within the climate-change-denying heart of America this practice is probably mostly frowned upon. But I frown upon some of the same prankster tactics on the left, even as I probably support most of the same basic goals of many of the prankster lefties, so I think that rolling coal does tell us something about American culture’s stance on sustainability. And after the recent election of Donald Trump, an event that took this urban intellectual liberal by complete surprise, I think that we need to consider the nature of American anti-sustainability culture that we are facing.

Rolling coal is a reaction to the call for collective action on environmental issues. While I am sure that many coal rollers don’t make this self-analysis, what the act of rolling coal really represents is the defiant assertion of individual rights over the collective good. There are some choice quotes in the New York Times article that perfectly capture this attitude, and I imagine that if someone was to survey the attitude of coal rollers we’d probably observe some pretty consistent pro-individual, anti-collective attitudes.

Why do these attitudes persist, and how do we change them? We won’t be a sustainable country if we cannot answer these questions.

As the recent United States election suggests, a lot of people feel as though the America that they (and their ancestors) used to enjoy has been taken from them. So I think that it is important to ask the question whether people pushed to the anti-social extreme of intentionally blanketing their fellow citizens in toxic, health-hazardous exhaust are doing so because they don’t feel included in the collective that is America. Some of this feeling is entitled and unmerited — as we see from the rise of white supremacy — but some of it probably has a very legitimate basis: if you live in (or identify with) rural America, you may not feel sufficiently included in the collective economic enterprise that is America.

Seen through the lens of both individual and collective levels, rural rebellion in the form of “rolling coal” forms a kinship with other forms of public nuisance that are associated with disenfranchisement. From graffiti to selling drugs on the corner, urban residents from populations that have been left out of the American economic collective have always turned to activities that celebrate individual needs over collective goods. If you are not benefitting from the collective, you create a culture that celebrates poking the eye of the collective, a form of individual retribution against the collective that excluded you.

The argument above is essentially one for better economic integration: that if we can integrate all members of American society into our collective economic enterprise, we have a much better chance of getting all members of society to support collective goals, including becoming sustainable. Let’s remember that many sustainability activists don’t just seek environmentally benign societies: they also see the need to create societies that are economically viable and socially equitable. This “triple stability” approach to sustainability might shed light on the coal rollers and the greater American phenomenon of denying that we have a major sustainability problem. If our society isn’t socially equitable, that means that we are not pulling enough people into the collective enterprise of our society, including efforts to create a more healthy and ecologically-sustainable culture.

I buy this idea that we might convert those who rail against collective sustainability goals by better integrating them into the American economy. But there’s also a part of me that sees this effort as a bit futile. If the coal rollers are simply waiting for an invitation to what’s now an urban-dominated economic banquet, we should create social policies that extend that invitation. But what if the idea of individual freedom to pollute isn’t generated by a feeling of exclusion but rather by a feeling of superiority? If those who think that collective environmental rules shouldn’t apply to them justify their special treatment based on their unique identity (for example, being “white”, or having ancestors who immigrated to this country several centuries ago), cultural conversion into the collective may not work.

And therein lies the cultural dilemma we face: do we try to pull in and convert those whose culture is anti-sustainability, or do we engage in a “culture war” that seeks to exterminate anti-sustainability culture from our country? I know the latter sounds extreme, but there are signs that this kind of extermination is already taking place. Demographically, we live in a country that’s less and less “white”. Demographically, we live in a country in which fewer and fewer people live in rural areas. It’s these very trends that have driven the “whitelash” that seems to have fueled the election of Donald Trump. But the trends continue, and more and more of the children of white, rural residents with libertarian tendencies are going to face a dilemma of their own: do I stay in “traditional America”, where economic prospects are poor, or do I integrate with the “new urban” culture where economic opportunities are better? If migration to urban centers continues, we may see a hybrid scenario: the integration of some people whose ancestors harbored anti-sustainability sentiments paired with the continued economic — and eventually social — isolation of those who cling to American traditions of personal liberty over collective sustainability.

I don’t claim to have the solution to these dilemmas, but I do think that it is important that we try to understand behaviors like rolling coal from a cultural evolutionary perspective. I certainly would like to see the “roll coal meme” go extinct from our cultural idea pool, but what’s the most effective strategy for eliminating this cultural variant?

A Minor Post, Activism, Anthropogenic Change, Articles, Behavior, Belief, Climate Change, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Economic sustainability, Economics, Environmental Justice, Memetic Fitness, Pollution, Public Policy, Punishment, Social Dilemmas, Social Diversity, Social Norms, Sustainability, Sustainable Energy, Sustainable Transportation, System Stability

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