Pop Sociology March 2010

Exile in Greenville

What happens when a NASCAR race and an environmental conference converge
Ben Gibson

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I’m driving east through the gnarliest patch of desert I’ve ever seen. There’s no moisture, no hint of green left in the land. The mountains look as dry and cracked as a mummy’s tongue, and I can’t believe anyone ever made this trek on horseback. They call this stretch of road the Devil’s Playground, and there’s a sign along the highway with a skull and crossbones on it and a little silhouette of a roadrunner that says Last gas for 30 miles. If your car breaks down, no one’s going to come looking for you. Meep! Meep!Thank God I’m driving a Prius, I think. If I do get stranded, I can learn automotive terms in Spanish while I wait to die. Or figure out the algorithm behind the shuffle feature on my iPod.

I’m headed to Phoenix to attend a NASCAR event (the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil) and a conference on eco-conscious design (the 2009 Greenbuild Expo), which are taking place simultaneously. I’ve never been to a NASCAR race. I picture a bunch of rednecks dousing themselves with beer and slapping their wives on the ass. I’m more familiar with the environmental crowd, and expect to have zero fun at the expo learning a lot of depressing facts about the future that I’ll feel helpless to do anything about. But I figure if I ask the folks at NASCAR what they do to recycle, and get the green-buddies to admit they still dream in Rodney Dangerfield Technicolor, then maybe I can convince our fractious society that we have more in common than we think.



Slideshow: Liz Phair’s Phoenix photo album


I hit the expo with my friend Kim, who is an architect at a company called the Green Hive. While Kim networks, I wander the busy corridors of the convention center, throwing my press pass around like it’s an Olympic medal. I pass a row of gleaming, low-water-waste toilets on display in the exhibit hall and realize that while we may not have figured out yet how the billions of us can live in harmony with the planet, a lot of smart businesspeople are positioning themselves to occupy the most lucrative revenue streams once we do.

Truth is, I feel eco-inadequate. When we eat, Kim refuses to use the recycled-plastic utensils provided. Instead, she breaks out her wooden chopsticks and pours water from a drinking fountain into her thermos, wiping her lips with a bandanna that she keeps in her pocket. God, I think. What about the germs? When I grab a wad of brown paper napkins, she yanks them out of my hand and stuffs them back in the dispenser. “You’re not getting it,” she says.

“It’s like Josh said,” she explains, referring to the explorer and television personality Josh Bernstein (he hosts a show on the Discovery Channel), who was speaking at the conference. “You have to walk through the land leaving as little trace of yourself as possible.” I compare Josh’s lifestyle—he lives in a yurt and fuels his Land Cruiser with waste vegetable oil—to the aesthetic I cultivated during my years on tour. I have a long way to go.

But habits are hard to change. “People can’t quite get their head around the concepts of ‘low carbon’ and ‘sustainability’ if it means giving up all those wonderful clothes and those cars and those dreams,” Paul King, the chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, told me. “One of the things that the environmental movement has typically gotten wrong is to focus on telling people what they can’t do, telling people to feel guilty about things that they do, because they have a negative impact. I often say it’s like seeing a juggernaut come racing down the street—the juggernaut being consumption—and the environmentalist leaps out in front of it, puts his hand up and cries, ‘Stop!’ And the juggernaut flattens him.”

From a distance, Phoenix International Raceway looks like a magical kingdom: an enormous white arena, flags snapping in the breeze, surrounded by a vast encampment of buses and RVs. NASCAR is reportedly the second-most-viewed American sport after football. It’s definitely the loudest. In the stands, the decibel impact of a car making a turn is equivalent to being hit in the gut with a cannonball. A nearby thunderclap can reach 120 decibels. A NASCAR vehicle at full throttle, 130.

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Liz Phair is a writer and musician.

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