America is Fu... eled

A few weeks ago, I pulled into my neighborhood gas station not to fill up my gas tank, but to fill my brain with FUEL.

FUEL is a documentary that tells the story of Josh Tickell's quest to spread awareness about the potential of biodiesel as an alternative energy source. After watching the film and hearing Josh speak, I wanted more- so I set up an interview...

I read that it took about 11 years to make your documentary, FUEL, from start to finish. Lets break down those 11 years and take a closer look. Initially, what was your intent and hopes for the film?

Initially, I just wanted to see if I could drive a van on biodiesel that I made myself. That was the Veggie Van (you can learn more about that saga at But secretly, personally, I always planned to make a movie. I wanted to do something that my sociology college professor told me that was 'insane' - to both catalog and catalyze the green movement. So I set out on the road in 1997, made fuel from Long John Silver's grease and filmed everything that happened. I lived in the Veggie Van for 2 years, traveling around the country. Not a lot of great footage was produced, but that trip lay the groundwork for the research of the movie. For the next couple of years, I finished my first book and tried to pretend that I was going to get a real job. Then, I got seriously committed to making the movie, went to graduate school for two years (during which time I continued to shoot and edit) and then graduated with an MFA in film in 2002. I moved to LA and for the next 7 years, I did little other than shoot and edit FUEL. (Oh yeah, I wrote my second book, Biodiesel America, but that was because I had to put all my notes in one place). The movie premiered at Sundance in 2008 and won the audience award for best documentary. Two days later, biofuels were slammed in two articles in Science Magazine. Then the biofuels backlash happened. Instead of selling the movie to a distributor, we spent the next year fundraising and re-cutting the movie. The final film, FUEL, was completed in November of 2008 and began its self-funded theatrical release.

Where there any specific scientific breakthroughs or events that helped drive FUEL in a direction?

The anti-biofuels backlash, which by the way, was mostly funded by oil interests, made the movie obsolete overnight. It was challenging, but we had to turn what was essentially a movie about biodiesel into a movie about green energy and the green energy movement. It was our initial failure and the re-framing of the subject thereafter that gave the movie its guts. In a way, the oil companies played their entire hand at once (blowing their wad on thinly veiled anti biofuels propaganda) and we had an opportunity to address the food vs. fuel issues in the movie. It turns out that the anti-biofuels backlash showed how easily swayed environmental groups are. Oil had hit $148 a barrel, pushing food prices through the roof, which opened up the beef market in Brazil which pushed soybean (read - cow food) production through the roof. Viola! Deforestation. Similarly in Malaysia - the cause of the deforestation was the booming demand for hardwood, an acre of which is worth more than the average person in Malaysia makes in their lifetime. Once the valuable wood is cleared and the land is practically worthless, palm oil plantations are planted (which take 5 years to bear fruit). And 99.9% of the palm oil is turned into margarine, lamp oil and junk food. So the whole anti-biofuels argument was B.S. And the irony is that it was bought - lock stock and barrel - by the very organizations that had been fighting the oil companies!

The green movement has picked up quite a bit of momentum in the past several years. Talk a little bit about your approach and what tactics worked best to spread your film.

We're really still figuring it out. The green movement is very disenfranchised. There's no central voice - unless you consider Whole Foods or Gaiam a voice. But really, unlike movements that were clearly defined by leaders and objectives, this one is amorphous, large and moving in so many directions at once. Part of our strategy is to find the common threads that can bring different factions together - from Prius drivers to hard core cyclists to green shoppers to yoga people to vegans to transition towners - FUEL applies to the whole movement. It's a matter of getting people to the theater where the magic of community really takes over.

FUEL includes a good amount of coverage on the political presence in America's addition to oil. How do you see the Obama Administration playing a role?

In some ways, President Obama is fighting tooth and nail to get out from under the grip of big oil. The incentives package included a number of good provisions for public transportation and alternative energy. But in other ways, for each step forward, there seems to be at least one step back. The entire bailout of the banks and the auto companies is a total scam. Those institutions should be left to wither and die. It is the way of the free market that when an institution has repetitively screwed the American people, we don't prop them up with more tax money - we punish them! So there are a lot of inconsistencies in this administration's approach. I think for us to move forward with any efficacy, we are going to have to take a hard stand against oil finance and against the associated industries.

What are the differing viewpoints on energy, specifically oil, that currently exist? (Economist views, Science community, Corporate views, etc.)

There's the mythological view held by "flat-earth" economists and companies that resources are infinite and energy is finite. Ergo, whomever controls the energy controls the economy. Hence our current mess. Then there's reality. And in reality there are a finite amount of resources but an infinite amount of solar energy. This 'whole system' paradigm is not yet dominant. But when it becomes dominant, it will restructure the fabric of our society - from the grassroots up.

Do you think the Free Market can solve our energy problems?

Um, free market? What's that? I don't think we've had a free market in terms of energy - ever. The closest thing may be in some remote unindustrialized society. But in the western world, control over energy resources has always been the norm and from that has been a constant 'exception' in the free market system - governments have always propped up energy systems and the companies that run them. Until now. I think we are starting to see that shift with the decentralized energy production systems being installed in countries like Germany and Sweden. It's a scary thing to truly lose control over your population as they become self-sufficient in energy and food and even water, but it is the only way our societies will survive and evolve. These old monolithic, centralized institutions that dole out energy as if it were a sacred commodity are crumbling and underneath them the economy they built is also crumbling. Cometh a new era. The era of decentralized, miniatureized and easily replicable energy production technology. The energy production of tomorrow will take a quantum leap forward - like the mainframes of yester year have turned into the iPhones of today.

When we speak of oil (the 80+mb per day) we are speaking of conventional oil. What makes this kind of oil so important?

It's easy to get, our infrastructure is made to drill it, process it, turn it into gasoline and agri-products (fertilizers, pesticides etc), and we know where the rest of it is (plus or minus 10%). It's also important because our current infrastructure cannot run on anything else. Our species uses about 29 billion barrels of it a year and there are approximately 1 trillion barrels left in the crust of the earth. That gives us 30 years - assuming consumption won't increase, which it is in fact doing. And fast. India is releasing the $2,500 car. How will 250 million new cars affect the world's supply of sweet crude? Oh yeah, there's one other thing about conventional oil - the US passed its peak in conventional oil production in 1971. We produce less each year than we did the year before.

Where do you see us 25, 45, 85 years from now?

I don't have a crystal ball - but I hope that somewhere between reacting to the inevitable global resource crisis and following a proactive vision for sustainability that we will evolve into a new era of sustainability in all areas of human civilization and development. At least, that's the hope that drives me to do what I do.


What is your next step?

To push to get FUEL into 150 theaters across America by the end of summer.

My favorite books and blogs...

I like this blog.

A piece of advice for President Obama...

Give the nation a clear objective and time frame. Sweden will be petroleum free by 2020. What about the US? This was the thing that made Kennedy so powerful. He made unreasonable promises and then got the scientific community to perform to those expectations. Don't try to fix our spiraling debt with more debt financing from countries overseas. Instead, divorce the US dollar from petroleum. It will hurt to pull the oil needle out of Lady Liberty's arm, but it's the only way the Republic will withstand the coming economic and oil shocks.

A piece of advice I will always hold on to...

Frustration comes from thinking it should be some way that it isn't.


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