When I first met Josh Tickell a few years ago, he was a blonde-haired, baby-faced, young man driving around the country in a diesel van painted with yellow sunflowers that he was running on used fast food vegetable oil. He called it the Veggie Van and he was an unabashed biofuel evangelist.
I asked Josh my favorite biofuel question at the time: If Willie Nelson can figure out how to run a car on vegetable oil, why can’t Detroit? I’d like to think we bonded a little over that. He had me test drive a diesel Volkswagen and told me that he had written some books and was going around the country in the Veggie Van, lecturing on the benefits of biofuels. He also said he was working on a film. I didn’t think much of the film making bit. I live in L.A. Every one is working on a film about something. Still, Josh had a sincerity and contagious optimism about him that was distinctly antithetical to being just another L.A. film guy.
Some time went by and as some of us started reading and writing about the down side of corn and soy based biofuels, I sometimes thought about Josh and his biofuels crusade. Granted, he was talking about biofuels from waste products and the negative reports were about biofuels from crops, but still, major media, environmental organizations and the blogosphere were becoming an echo chamber of “biofuels aren’t the answer”. And then the second generation biofuels from algae, waste products and fast growing, low impact crops started showing up and suddenly the conventional wisdom was shifting again to “biofuels might really be the answer.”
As it happens, Josh did make his film, Fuel. And as it turns out, it is a beautiful documentary, which may seem a strange adjective to use for a film about petroleum and vegetable grease. However, it follows what turns out to be a deeply personal journey for the filmmaker, conveyed in a way that the viewer feels a part of it, because, in fact, we all are.
Among other awards, the film won the Best Documentary Award at Sundance in 2008. Ironically, shortly thereafter, the mainstream media started reporting on the horrors of biofuels. In order to produce them, forest were being clear cut, people in the developing world were starving and food prices were rising.
Fuel is now out in limited theatrical release (California, Washington, Hawaii and New York) coinciding with a new understanding about the potential of second generation biofuels.
I caught up with Josh in between an appearance on Jay Leno and answering viewer questions at screenings of Fuel. And despite now being an award wining film maker, he remembered exactly when we met and standing around the Veggie Van talking.
Leslie Berliant: The film covers several years, how long did it take you to make?
Josh Tickell: It took 11 years to make the film. I began filming in 1997 and always had the intent of making a movie that would both capture the zeitgeist of the sustainable revolution and propel it forward. People thought I was nuts! And while they may have been right, I think the film meets those original objectives. There were many times, though, that it wasn’t clear that it was actually going to happen.
LB: So much happened in those 11 years concerning biofuels, energy and environmental issues. By the end of the film, you are really talking about a whole suite of answers to our energy needs. Were there key events that effected the direction you were going?
JT: There were really 3 pivotal moments for me during that time. The first was September 11th. It was such an obvious moment in history and time to galvanize an international source of support for sustainable energy. Of course, that was the only thing that made sense, what else would you do at that point?
LB: Go shopping.
JT: Exactly. Socially and culturally, that response was such a shock, it was the most unusual response to the magnitude of what had happened and it really heralded for me that there were forces at work that were much darker and deeper than I had imagined. It showed the naïveté of the American people, through no fault of their own, and the lack of true clarity around the issues of dependency on foreign oil. It prompted me to realize that I had to get serious about this movie; it had to get made.
The 2nd defining moment was Hurricane Katriana. And really, it was the experience of it, rather than what came after. I thought, this is what it looks like when you talk about the effects of climate change. On top of that, I was seeing the places I knew (Tickell spent part of his childhood in Louisiana) so radically altered and an entire community in a state of shock. I realized that we are not equipped to deal with the results of climate change. People were walking around like cave people, walking in rubble, wearing found clothing, and this included people with Ph.D.s and 6 figure incomes. It was a huge shift.
I’ve been studying this stuff since I was 9 years old. I thought about the Club of Rome predictions from the 1970’s about the ecological shifts by 2030 that would be caused from over consumption and the resulting human displacement and lack of basic necessities…Having that background and seeing the results of Katrina was totally unnerving. It was happening 24 years too early…and I thought not only did we not see what really occurred with 9/11, but we don’t understand this; this is what it looks like when an eco-system can no longer maintain the land and population around it. Oil exploration and drilling had destroyed the canals and the local flora and this was the result. I was shocked to the point of total indignation and righteous anger.
At that point, I decided I was not doing this alone. I was going to find everyone who gets it and connect with them. I didn’t care what kind of clothes they wore, the slogan on their t-shirt, what kind of job they had, who they were, what they did, what else they believed in. If they were sustainability people, I needed to connect with them.
The 3rd pivotal moment was the biofuels backlash. It played off of myths, partial truths and an incomplete story, telling the public that biofuels would lead to an increase in global warming, jack up food prices and cut down forests. They spun it so that it was as bad, or worse than, petroleum. The public interpreted it to mean that anything organic that makes fuel is bad for the planet and the crazy eco-freeks want to starve people for fuel. It was heart breaking. I realized it was going to take a lot of research to find out if it was true. At the same time, I started to wonder if for 10 years I had led people down the wrong path. It was a real crisis.
In a way, it was good, though. It taught me that the information had to be so clear for people that they could get the whole thing, understand the whole picture. And from that, I think we were able to make a film that if people watch, they get it.
LB: So what is your take on crop based biofuels?
JT: Corn and soy are not future fuel crops. No reasonable person would suggest making fuel from what we make food from. But at the same time, what about the food versus fuel argument? There is almost no news coverage on the amount of petroleum it takes to make food. We use petroleum products to grow the corn we feed the cows to become food. We’re eating oil, it’s completely unsustainable.
LB: The film has such a deeply personal quality to it, and not just because of your childhood in Louisiana. Can you speak a little bit about that?
JT: I’ve been doing this for 24 years. It’s who I am. At times, I wanted to quit. I went to Australia to escape it, to just get away from it, and some people came up to me on the beach and said “hey, aren’t you the Veggie Van guy?” I can’t escape it. There’s a point at which there’s no turning back. Over1000 people participated in making the film possible. At some point, I don’t get to quit. When people attack green energy, they are attacking the 2700 people in my database. It has become a movement – not without its faults, its failings, its bickering – but at its core, it’s a movement for sustainability. It’s about the next phase of what it means to be human. It’s not about buying more, getting a better car, a bigger house. It’s about being in community and being able to sustain a community so that there’s something to pass to the next generation.
Our lives are extremely predictable, even mine which doesn’t seem predictable; we live for the next generation. We don’t have sustainability and so we have lost our spirituality. I don’t mean religion, I mean spirituality as in our connection to something else. We are lost when we have no connection to the next generation. So the sustainability movement is really about a spiritual movement. Everything we need for survival is at our fingertips. There are so many more lessons to learn from this earth, but they must be learned inside a context of whole systems. There’s no such thing as waste or an infinite resource, except perhaps the sun, which is why so many cultures revere it.
LB: So what comes next for you?
JT: Now it’s the next phase of the green revolution. I have no interest in being a film maker. Now we have clear information presented in a way that this generation can get it which had to be in a movie and told through a true story. This generation doesn’t like deception. Now that we’ve got the messaging piece, it’s time to build the infrastructure to have a social movement.