To roll coal means revving an engine to intentionally discharge plumes of diesel smoke for  political statement and entertainment. Diesel smoke is discharged at pedestrians, cyclists (“nature nuffies”), protesters (such as environmentalists and Black Lives Matters activists), and hybrid vehicles (in this instance, smoke is a “Prius repellent” in which the fuel-efficient car is imagined as a pesky mosquito). Coal rollers often cover their own faces and bodies with smoke and its sooty residue as a social activity. Diesel exhaust smoke is classified by the Department of Environmental Conservation as a fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5). Prolonged exposure to the substance can cause chronic bronchitis, asthma, and heart disease. 

The smoke is an effect of the excess burned fuel. Coal rollers modify their trucks’ fuel mixture to enhance its performance and power. While the engine’s performance and power is enhanced, this practice eventually destroys the engine. Coal rollers also remove exhaust filters, violating federal clean air laws. A number of states have passed specific laws banning rolling coal. Rolling coal has become an aesthetic and cultural expression, signifying anti-environmentalism and a protest against emission standards established by Obama‘s administration in 2014. 

Rolling coal embodies many contradictions, from its naming (the smoke does not contain coal, yet it symbolically represents the power and pollution of industrialism) to the denial of the smoke’s environmental and human health damages. Evoking coal mines, locomotives, and electric power plants, the diesel smokestacks themselves transform the truck into a miniature coal electric plant and embolden the driver to exert control over the natural environment. This dominating act of releasing smoke is an assertion of toxic masculinity, violence, and hostility, suggesting a fixation on ejaculation and phallocentric expulsion of bodily fluids. This performed masculinity is underscored by the dangling of “truck nutz” from trailer hitches, and characterizations depicting these acts as “pollution porn.”1

Shared online, images of coal rolling concisely and virally validate collective anti-environmentalist sentiments. Image macro meme phrases such as “Happy Earth Day,” “Roll coal or the terrorists win,” and “Second hand smoke,” further expand the connections between authoritarianism, masculinity, and xenophobia that conservatives harnessed in the 2016 election, falsely promising restored coal operations in the United States.2 While rolling coal appears less active in 2019, their social media hashtags remain prominent. Their fundamental ideologies persist in such recent acts as “icing” when ICE (internal combustion engine) trucks occupy and prevent the use of charging stations designated for electric vehicles.

Defined by Greg Lindquist

1    A related practice is “gender reveal” smoke in which an expecting couple plugs an exhaust pipe with colored powder. The engine is jubilantly reved to discharge a billow of pink or blue smoke indicating whether a boy or girl will be born.

2    This antagonistic right-wing messaging is echoed in Trump’s tweets and by many people online in Reddit and 4chan boards and even public demonstrations. This antagonism within the context of diesel smoke blowing may be called “coal trolling.”