They spent a year on the road, driving an SUV hybrid through all 50 states to ask how -- and even whether -- we can clean up the mess we've made of planet Earth. If there was one thing that inspired Mark Dixon, Ben Evans and Julie Dingman Evans over the 43,743 miles of YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip), it was the passion many people brought to helping. And if they learned one thing about environmentalism, it's that most people are for it ... if it doesn't make them look like weirdos.
The trio of thirtysomethings launched the trip in July 2007, in Pittsburgh, and documented their mostly light-hearted interviews and encounters in 500 hours of video. For sure, they met eccentrics. In Idaho, for instance, a guy named Dugout Dick has lived in a man-made cave for decades, by choice. They heard outrageous (but possibly viable) proposals, including one for turning the nation's roadways into a huge grid of solar panels. And they interviewed bureaucrats, visionaries, organic farmers and other experts, all true believers with valuable ideas about sustainable paths forward.
"The look in their eyes or the fire in their eyes, or the fears, or whatever, becomes very present," says Dixon, who conceived of YERT (www.YERT.com).
People-in-the-street could be a different story. Many were friendly and curious. Dingman Evans marvels at the openness of people who said, "We like what you're doing. How can we help? Have some lemon squares." Yet even the team's modest set of enviro-rules for their trip took some people aback: saving all their garbage for the year, and limiting it to one shoebox-full a month between them; keeping an on-board compost bin; and eschewing inefficient incandescent light bulbs, so that at night they'd navigate the darkness of a host's home wearing LED headlamps, like eco-conscious coal-miners.
"I think a lot of people were ready for the American lifestyle to be negotiable," says Dixon. "They just didn't know where to begin. They were also nervous about looking different, or weird."
Still, the group felt popular environmental awareness growing during the trip. Though "greenness" has lately been sidelined by the crashing economy, Dingman Evans remains optimistic. "I feel like with the change of administration in this country, and such a huge difference in, basically, race relations, I think it will open up all kinds of doors in all kinds of things. ... It really makes me feel encouraged that the idea of what's normal, what's usual, what's done in this country, [is] gonna relax."
In pushing the envelope themselves, the YERTsters don't mind sticking out: The Evanses are both professional stage performers (Ben has several credits at City Theatre); Dixon, with a background in performance and Silicon Valley, is one of 1,000 "climate messengers" trained by Al Gore himself.
One thing that made people more receptive to YERT was bizarre weather, like Alaska's melting permafrost. "People talked about that all year," says Dixon. "'I'm worried about the environment because the weather's really weird. It's never like this at this time of year.' And it was all year: 'It's never like this.'"
The mostly self-funded YERT is now seeking funders -- and volunteer transcribers, researchers and video editors -- to turn its 800 interviews into presentations for schools, community groups and a feature-length film.
At one point on the trip, as the enormity of the environmental challenges grew clearer, YERT started asking its interviewees, "Are we doomed?"
"For the most part," says Evans, "We got positive responses: 'No we're not doomed, but it might get worse before it gets better, and we've got a lot of work ahead of us.' There were a few true pessimists out there. They were like, 'Yeah, shut off the camera, yes, we're doomed.' That's a sobering experience."
The trip convinced Dixon that the right message about sustainability -- consuming less, reconnecting to the land, using alternative energy -- is out there. "The million-dollar question is, are we going to get the message in time to do anything about it?"