Looking for the great American road trip in an age of climate change?
Rolling into the Yale Environmental Film Festival last week in their 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid -- a road veteran of 48 states and lovingly renamed the "Rachel Car" after famed environmentalist Rachel Carson -- acclaimed YERT filmmakers celebrated the world premiere of their long-awaited film documentary Your Environmental Road Trip by co-winning the Audience Award with Oscar-nominated film Wasteland.
Years in the making, YERT is a hilarious, powerful and often poignant chronicle of the year-long journey of three filmmakers, engineers and acclaimed Off Broadway performers -- Julie Dingman Evans, Mark Dixon and Ben Evans -- to explore breakthrough approaches, from the bizarre to the mind-blowing, for environmental sustainability in all 50 states. Beginning and ending at the Rachel Carson homestead in Pennsylvania, the filmmakers crisscrossed the country in search of famous and unknown innovators, scientists, activists, farmers, and artists working to move their communities -- and nation -- toward a more sustainable future. The catch: The team turned the camera on their own lifestyle and set their own road rules, vowing to create less than one shoebox of garbage each month, including recyclables, never turning on an incandescent light (except car lights), or using approximately 25 gallons of water per person per day.
I caught up with the YERT filmmakers Mark Dixon and Ben Evans right before their premiere at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale. Here's their trailer:
JB: Describe how you planned your 50-state itinerary.
BEN: Much of it actually wasn't planned.
MARK: True. To the extent that it was planned, we scheduled around a few key events that we knew we needed to hit and worked around the seasons -- south in the winter and all that.
BEN: We also did some "map math" to figure out which days we needed to be in which state -- and we stuck to that surprisingly well. We tried to identify particular strengths, weaknesses, and points of interest of various states and use that as a guide for what to explore.
MARK: We also talked to dozens of people attending Green Festivals and Bioneers conferences to help us get closer to the "cutting edge" of the sustainability movement. And we outlined the topics that we wanted to cover and then mapped those onto the most suitable parts of the country -- solar in the southwest, wind in the plains, etc.
BEN: But most of the time we'd just find tons of interesting things once we got inside the state - one initial "toe-hold" would lead to half a dozen other gems and on and on. Quite often we'd get to the end of our time in a state and have a list of twenty amazing things or people we really needed to check out. But, we'd have to move on.
MARK: That was particularly hard for Ben.
BEN: Yep. Mark is more apt to lock-in to a plan. I'm more apt to improvise and follow my nose. It was good to have both of those qualities on the trip.
MARK: Yeah -- it kept things interesting.
JB: Do you see your journey as some sort of roadmap to clean energy?
BEN: It's really a roadmap past clean energy toward LOW energy...and a sustainable, sane civilization based on how natural systems work. Clean energy is critically important, but it needs to take place in the context of powering down and maturing out of our extractive relationship with the planet into a mutually beneficial regenerative, restorative one. Ultimately, it's about stopping deficit spending... of all kinds.
MARK: Right. Whether it's dollars, fresh water, fossil fuels, forests, topsoil, fisheries, or entire ecosystems -- we're seeing the limits to unchecked consumption all around us. We can't keep spending what the planet can't renew -- converting to a low-energy, regenerative civilization based based around current solar income really needs to underpin any clean energy future.
JB: What was your greatest discovery?
BEN: Really it was the discovery that this idea of powering down - while as old as civilization itself -- is not just a good idea, it's an inevitability... AND a golden opportunity. It's coming whether we like it or not -- and the best thing we can do is to embrace it and see it as the greatest opportunity in the history of mankind to rethink our relationship with ourselves and the planet at the most fundamental levels.
MARK: The hard news is that this likely means that "the growth economy" is coming to an end - but, the good news is that powering down (dramatically localizing, simplifying, and building community) comes with endless side benefits for human health, happiness, and long-term prosperity. We really have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
JB: Did you run across any greenwashing endeavors that need to be exposed?
MARK: Certainly there are some ideas out there being touted as "green" that may have sprung up from good intentions but are perhaps more harmful than not in the long run - corn ethanol, natural gas from fracking, and nuclear power are good examples. And we're seeing the severe downside of all three starting to play out in food vs. fuel issues around the world, in groundwater contamination from fracking, and in Japan's current nuclear crisis.
BEN: "Clean" coal is another, even more cynical example -- as carbon capture and sequestration (an expensive and unproven technology to begin with) would actually require significantly more coal mining and all of the devastating effects that go with that. But the real problem with things like nuclear power, natural gas from fracking, "clean" coal and corn ethanol is not just that they can be disingenuous, ineffective, or potentially harmful -- it's that they perpetuate and encourage ever increasing dependence on a one-way, extractive, endless-growth model of civilization that is fundamentally flawed -- and they distract us from really addressing the root of the problem. They allow us to continue to rob the future to pretend that the present isn't broken. To the extent we're reliant on technological fixes instead of more deep-seated, natural systems-based solutions, we're likely to be plagued by some pretty nasty unintended consequences.
JB: Four years later, how do your YERT daily ways continue in your own lives?
BEN: Well, we're all still composting, recycling, and -- to varying degrees -- cutting down on our waste in general.
MARK: I also buy much of my food from bulk bins, and I still avoid turning on incandescent light bulbs.
BEN: Julie and I are gardening (though finishing the film has taken a toll on that this spring).
MARK: I managed to marry an avid gardener -- so she's bringing me up to speed.
BEN: We're taking fewer showers, trying to drive less and taking more transit (though we'd like to eventually give up our cars entirely), eating locally and organically as much as possible with CSAs, and focusing our lives on promoting sustainable solutions pretty much nonstop. We've really tried to dig in locally with various organizations.
MARK: We're both heavily involved with our local Bioneers Conferences and Transition movements. Trying to share as much as we can of what has really inspired us.
JB: Is there hope, as you ask in your film?
BEN: Hope? Yes. But as David Orr says, "hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up." So, if you're hopeful, you've got to take action. The good news is that solutions have tipping points just like the problems do.
MARK: Events like the recent transformation in Egypt and the ability of people to share brilliant solutions and ideas with the entire world at the speed of light offer a lot of hope. Good ideas and innovations are really able to feed on themselves through social media and other tools. And we're hopeful that some of those positive tipping points can outpace the negative ones.
BEN: Ideas like Transition Towns going viral give us a lot of hope. They're really a recipe for success, whether we're adapting to the environmental challenges ahead, trying to mitigate them, or just wanting to live well. Simplifying, localizing, and building community are a slam dunk from any angle.
MARK: Also, once you stop solving all of civilization's problems with oil, you quickly find loads of wonderful, healthy, inspiring ideas out there waiting to be put to use.
JB: Beyond the festival circuit and TV deals, how can schools and communities bring YERT to town?
MARK: People can request a screening or presentation at YERT.com. They can also share YERT short videos for free on Facebook, online, and in classrooms.
BEN: We're also planning a screening tour by train -- so feel free to contact us about that. We're just trying to get this information out there as widely and quickly as possible, because, really, the resource we can least afford to waste is "time."