What the Weird Clash Over Gas Stoves Tells Us About Conservatives and Risk
I’ve been thinking recently about a tweet I saw last year from a prominent conservative commentator. I won’t name names or quote directly, but the gist was: The people very concerned about Ukraine are the same people who wore masks in their profile pictures during the pandemic, and that tells me all I need to know.
I’ve been reminded of that reactionary statement in the last couple of weeks as the simmering (sorry) culture war over gas stoves was dialed up to a full boil (sorry) by remarks from one member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission suggesting that the sale of new gas stoves might be banned. And although President Joe Biden would prefer the issue remain on the back burner (I’ll see myself out), the commission, which is an independent agency, might still act.
I’ll put my cards on the table right up front: Although there is mounting evidence about potential harms associated with gas stoves, at this point a ban on the sale of new gas stoves is a bad idea, and would be a case of government overreach.
Moreover, while some commentators have suggested that conservatives invented this culture war, that’s not quite true. As The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes and Sonny Bunch noted this week, conservatives are reacting to a real push from some corners of the left, and it is simply not the case that nobody was talking about this until just the last few days. (In fact, I wrote a pro-gas-stove article two years ago.)
All that said, it’s worth looking a little closer at the rhetoric of the reaction to the gas stove story, because of what it reveals about conservative controversialism today.
As a housing advocate, some of the rhetoric sounds familiar to me. There’s an inchoate but widely held view out there that all of this—electrifying appliances and cars, building transit and dense housing, reforming zoning, and so on—is part of a scheme to take away the things that make America great. It is not uncommon to be talking with a conservative about housing and have him suggest that I want to—or want him to—“live in a pod and eat bugs.”
Yes, it doesn’t help that California will ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035 (or maybe they won’t; it’s more than a decade away, and a lot can happen in a decade) and at least once urged residents not to charge their electric cars. It does sometimes seem that regulators and bureaucrats take actions to push conspiracy theorists’ buttons. Certainly, if you do happen to believe that the purpose of ending single-family zoning and banning gasoline cars is to restrict Americans’ independence and freedom of movement, then California’s approach feels like it confirms your suspicions.
But the merits of zoning reform, or the risks of gas cooking, are largely technical questions. Yes, they are also questions of values, but judgments about those values must be informed by actual facts.
The problem with the culture war dynamic isn’t that it separates people into pro and con camps; it’s that it snatches these issues out of the realm of debate and into a realm of feeling and partisan signaling.
If you weren’t following social media in the days after the commissioner from the Consumer Product Safety Commission remarked on gas stoves, you may have no idea what people were actually saying. It was stuff like this:
“Next they’ll come for our grills and fireplaces.”
“Nobody was talking about gas stoves until yesterday, isn’t that suspicious?”
“They want everything you own to be on the grid so they can shut it off.”
“They want you to own nothing.”
I saw variations of these sentiments many times, and I’ve heard them expressed occasionally in real life too. One fellow found a World Economic Forum paper about the risks of gas stoves, and he took that to be proof of a conspiracy. (If you’re not aware, the World Economic Forum is the inspiration for the “live in the pod and eat the bugs” meme.)
Of course, one might ask, why would “they” invest so much effort into electrifying homes and upgrading the grid, just to shut the power off? Why would shutting off stoves be of any particular interest to them? (I don’t know, so you’ll have to eat the bugs?) Why could they not also turn off the gas lines? None of this can be argued with or rebutted. And consequently, none of it should be taken seriously.
And, it should be noted, we’ve seen this movie before: There is a long history of fights over tech turning into culture-war clashes, from the freakout over fluoridated water sixty years ago to the mid-aughts fight over incandescent light bulbs to the griping over low-flow toilets and efficient dishwashers. A certain strain of conservatism is always ready to find dark portents in changes of technology and regulation.
What I find interesting, though, is how different sides have perceived the gas stoves kerfuffle. Broadly, conservatives saw the government and an array of leftish publications suddenly attacking a kind of stove, and then labeling anyone who objects a crank; liberals, by contrast, saw sensible and necessary concern about the environment and consumer welfare being hysterically distorted into an attack on American freedom. For one side, the government launched the culture war. For the other side, the people who complained about the government launching a culture war are actually the ones who did so. We are so far apart that it is difficult to even agree on a common set of facts.
I hope this is maddening for everybody involved.
The gas stove controversy in several ways mirrors arguments over public health (as the quote at the top from a conservative commentator suggests). In particular, there’s a strain of highly abstract thinking that turns out to defend questionable health outcomes.
You may have seen the notion, for example, that there is something magical and exhilarating about fire and open flame, something that speaks to mankind’s early evolutionary, ancestral memory. That it is somehow a symbol of something. That to lose the right to cook on an open flame would be to cede something indelibly human to a faceless coterie of nanny-staters. (Everyone trying to make this case nowadays might as well quit now; the definitive version of this take was written 180 years ago by Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
To talk about the magic of the dancing flame can be poetic and can even be a way of speaking about some important aspects of the human experience that scientists and technocrats are oblivious to. But at the same time, to talk that way is to sidestep uncomfortable facts about, say, asthma and lung disease, and about the growing body of research suggesting that gas stoves produce dangerous fumes.
This is all reminiscent of the way many conservatives approached public health measures during the pandemic. They abstracted concerns out of the world of sickness and death and hospital capacity and logistics. They cast their refusal to do their part as a noble stand, a defense of human flourishing or of the human right to take risks.
Which is all very well, in a way. Cooking entails risk; if you do it wrong, you could burn yourself or get food poisoning. Yet driving to the restaurant also entails risk; you could have a car accident. Gas stoves entail some health risks, yet if you find a gas stove to be the only usable type, perhaps your overall health will be improved by cooking at home with gas versus eating more unhealthy takeout food. Etc., etc.: Everything involves risks, and so acknowledging and weighing them is unavoidable.
But those conservatives who speak in high-minded abstractions seem to be driving at something more than this mundane observation. One often gets the sense that they believe that risk is not just inevitable, but somehow good; that is it invigorating; and that attempting to eliminate risk is not merely futile but cowardly and enervating. One wonders, in fact, if they can tell the difference between risks inherent in the business of living and risks that arise from specific and remediable actions or inactions.
But once again, slipping into culture war mode means that none of this can be weighed and considered. And so we’re faced with the odd sight of people who would do anything for their children, like move to the safest possible neighborhood with the best possible schools, scoffing at the idea that keeping a gun in the house, or running a gas stove, could possibly present any risk at all. Or if it does, risk is part of life.
The term “safetyist”—denoting those who elevate safety or risk avoidance above everything else—was often lobbed at those who favored strong public health actions during the pandemic. But the truth is that everyone is a safetyist for the things that scare them most. And even with the same set of facts, we will each draw our risk tolerance line somewhere different. And that’s fine. In the absence of a very strong case for bans or prohibitions or collective actions, it is usually sufficient. But you cannot determine your risk tolerance if you cannot even acknowledge a risk.
One thing we can say for sure, though: Our country absolutely doesn’t need the type of stove you use to become a reasonably accurate marker of your politics.