Exile in Greenville

What happens when a NASCAR race and an environmental conference converge

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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.

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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.

To enter the pit area, I’m required to don slacks, which seems to go against the stereotype. (I’d been flouncing around Greenbuild half-naked and no one said a thing.) Drivers on their way to the track glide through the crowd signing autographs. A row of semis in myriad colors stretches to infinity. It takes a lot of horsepower to haul this circus from town to town.

And that means a lot of gas. An unofficial NASCAR ambassador introduces me to a company called Safety-Kleen, which comes to every event and “recaptures all the fluid that comes out of the car, including the oil.” Every bit of fluid that passes through a vehicle must be lugged in translucent jugs over to a trailer, where it is broken down until it’s no longer harmful to the environment. The guys in the pit know more about industrial cleanup programs than I do. I twirl my blond hair and hope they’ll forget which one of us is holding the microphone.

“We all have carbon footprints,” says Leilani Münter, one of racing’s few female drivers. “It’s more obvious for me because you can turn on the TV and actually see me burning my fossil fuels. ‘There’s Leilani being the hypocrite, taking laps around the track!’ But everybody takes a car to work or gets on a plane. It’s impossible to be perfect. It’s totally about doing what you can.” Which is not easy when you’re in NASCAR. After watching An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, Münter decided to make her environmental passion public. “It was not taken well,” she told me. “I had marketing people tell me, ‘You need to just shut up and drive your race car.’”

Sick of the brainiacs at NASCAR haranguing me about responsible waste management and alternative-energy sources, I head back to Greenbuild, where, eschewing further education, Kim and I take a martini-fueled ride in one of the courtesy rickshaws, snapping photos of ourselves with our legs in the air as we cruise the streets to Led Zeppelin blasting out of our cyclist’s boom box. Why is it so hard to reconcile what we need to do with what we want to do?

Even longtime enviro-types are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their old lifestyles. In his speech at Greenbuild, Al Gore admits that he misses his vice-presidential motorcade like a phantom limb. Sheryl Crow, who follows Gore’s keynote address with a rocking performance, tells me that when she went to Capitol Hill to lobby for environmental legislation, she met with Senator Carl Levin, who hails from Detroit. “I told him, ‘I am a person who grew up in Missouri, and I have always had a muscle car,’” Crow recalls. “‘I would love to continue driving a great, American-made 12-cylinder. I’m not gonna do that, but …’”

A day later, the prospect of driving back across the stark Mojave threatens to paralyze me. But Kim is riding with me, and the vista she sees when she looks out the window is different from the one that haunted me on the way out. “I think it’s beautiful,” she says, “I just want to run out there and keep running. I see freedom.” Suddenly I realize that this is our new reality and I’m scared to face it: to have less stuff at my fingertips and grow more resourceful. “Discussing emotions is always tricky for people,” Josh Bernstein had said at the conference. “But ultimately the society we need to create to sustain the planet depends on our ability to speak emotionally with some sort of comfort or fluency.” Oh, hell, give me that thermos, Kim. If we do this together, maybe it doesn’t have to be so daunting. We are a nation, after all, of Average Joes who are occasionally called upon to do extraordinary things.