An Interview with Josh Tickell About His New Film, Fuel

Director, Josh TickellWhen 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 film maker, 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.

Fuel PosterLeslie 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.

  1. Josh K.

    Let’s get the message out! This country wants an enviromentally safe alternative!

    Go see this movie! It’s as good as a vote for alternative fuels! It’s showing in LA right now! Help get this message seen more places in the US by going and seeing it!

  2. Kelsey

    Finally a film that not only addresses a well known problem but then provides realistic solutions that will keep America moving forward. Amazing work Josh Tickell! Hey if you are reading this comment and are in the Los Angeles area check out http://www.thefuelfilm.com about times and locations to see this film because believe me FUEL is not something you want to miss.

  3. tomW

    The thing that bums me is that we have no true agenda to counter fossil fuels. Oh sure, we can bang on our chests and feel really great about our holiness but the fact is that things will not change until non ecos see an alternative fuel that is within their price range and is abundant enough that they don’t have to read by candle light. AND we contradict ourselves so often. Wind power is not available to all because wind is not consistent in many areas. In the middle of the coal belt in WV wind turbines were erected on the Allegheny Front where wind is, to generate clean wind driven energy. So who protested it, the coal companies? No, enviros who believed, with the same zeal of Josh Tickell that wind energy is dangerous to birds and should not happen. Solar is fanastic but does not work in most of the country and as for private residences getting off the grid and onto solar, its just too expensive right now. Maybe we will reach the right price. Hydro is something that the north east and anyplace that has major rivers can do and yet we have enviros who protest hydroelectric because it is not natural to fish migration and while the methane issue is not significant on big rivers, enviros protest hydro power. All the while we are throwing ourselves in front of wind and hyrdo power generation, coal fired plants are still filling the air with smoke. Why do we wish to join in the continuity of fossil fuel plants? Biofuels are really neat but they can take as much energy as they produce to make them and bio ingredients are not available to most of us, and no where near abundant to fuel a nation of 300 million. I get bummed when I see people in my groups all a glitter with the idea that Obama is going to change the US and we will all become happy basket makers and ride bikes to work. Not going to happen. What enviros may cause is the clean, dependable energy that we know as nuke. As the nation moves toward electric cars, WE are attacking the power sources. Would it not be enough to get piston driven cars off the road and to do that we have to understand that electric power demand will multiply many times. We have to blend our zeal with some sense of reality. The country is not going solar in total in our lifetimes. If we can have hyrdo and wind and solar without it being a competition of survival of which one we use, then we can put the smokestacks behind us. Hydro has the promise of being able to produce all over the place and in great quantities. And we need to understand that the same “enviros” who love to protest and love to see themselves as the holiest of all of us, often are wealthy and after the meetings they get into their V8 SUVS and drive home to light a candle to their own shrine. I want out of the greenhouse gas lifestyle but I also know that huge segments of the environmentalists are as much of an obstacle as the coal industry.

  4. Perry

    Go see Fuel in the theater now – don’t wait. I saw Fuel in Santa Monica and the entire audience was exploding with positive energy afterward. What an uplifting experience!

  5. Lisa

    Hey there,
    It seems like a few of you have already seen the movie but for any readers in the LA area that haven’t seen FUEL yet below is an awesome event that you should check out.


    The 7 PM screenings of FUEL at the AMC Lowes Broadway in Santa Monica will be hosted by celebrities on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, February 27 – March 1. Scheduled celebrities include Steven Collins and Peter Fonda among others.

    SELL-OUT crowds are expected so buy your tickets NOW online (www.thefuelfilm.com) to make sure you don’t miss this very rare opportunity. Screenings will include a Q&A session with celebrity host and the filmmakers following the movie.

  6. Charles

    Although biofuel is a good alternative to oil, it’s still not addressing the main problem, and in fact, biofuels cause just as much harm as oil. For example, food prices and food hoarding is a serious issue because of the demand of bio-fuel. My point is that there is already a technology that exists that would even render bio-fuels unnecessary and that is electric power. If you don’t believe me then please google video a film called “who killed the electric car” And then please respond afterwards.

  7. tomW

    I enjoy the postings but I still remain baffled as to why hydroelectric is not in the planning. The areas that do no have wind or enough sunlight can produce even more electricity, cleanly, than does sun and wind by using hydro electfic plants (many do not even require a dam). This is reliable 24/7 power producer that are on major rivers now and can be expanded to produce more power than anything else. Look at the Ohio River on an atlas and imagine how many huge power generators could be on that river alone. If we can change cars to electricity we are going to need a lot of electricity to do that, more than we can get with just solar and wind. Our move toward a greener America will fail unless we can show that we can do it just as well and cleaner. That is why I am always suspicious of cultlike greenies who talk as though they are born again bible thumpers about the fabulous energy in the crowds and if you just read this author or see this film you will dance and sing and want to be a basket maker and churn butter. America is not going to become a renaissance fair, folks but it will be a major victory for earth if we can stop using fossil fuels. Incidentally I don’t know of a single oil driven power plant in America and yet glassy eyed greens talk about them. Its coal, man, its coal fired power plants that pollute the earth and oil/gas driven cars too. We cannot make the jump from fossil fuel to clean electricity if we let radicals lead the way as they will drive people backwards. And that is why I am so curious about why no greenies even talk about hydro, it has the potential to be a massive and clean generator of electricity, 24/7 not just on sunny days or when the wind is blowing but all day all night. It makes me think that, just like the coal industry, there are people getting to people because there is big money to be made promoting one form over the other. There is a town on the Ohio River in WV, in the middle of coal country, that built its own hydro plant 25 yrs ago and has lived nicely on clean electricity since then. Thats worth noting, thats worth emulating. Its a proven source of clean and big power.

  8. Walter Lippmann

    Tickell’s film is being broadcast tonight on the very environmentally-conscious Cubavision channel on the island of Cuba. In the newspaper article announcing it, they write:

    The Roundtable will re-broadcast today at 6:30 pm, the documentary Addicted to Oil, by the American filmmaker Josh Tickell on the power of multinational oil companies, their relations with the political world and the irrational energy consumption model that prevails in the empire.

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