“Fuel” is out. The documentary by biofuel pioneer and Veggie Van evangelist Josh Tickell, 11 years in the making, premiered in Seattle this past weekend. I just saw it. The timing, as the Big Three plead their case before government, is serendipitous. An indictment of how Detroit has mismanaged innovation (while Sweden, Germany and other European countries ride the wave of the future — to say nothing of Israel, which has committed to an electric car network by 2011), plays one part in the argument Tickell sets forth, as he traces the government and industry influences that have driven us (no pun intended) to live as “crack fiends for oil.”
Much of the argument is familiar: we sell our security for the price of foreign oil; US energy policy is written by the oil industry; a national tragedy was hijacked to justify a ruinous war. What stands out against the dark background of this portrayal of oil-igarchy is the color green: the chartreuse fields of European fuel crops; Tickell’s variegated Green Grease Machine, with which he toured the country promoting biofuels (in one scene, he pulls into the drive-through of a fast food restaurant and orders “a medium drink and all your used cooking oil”); and the diaphanous, squiggling green bodies of the cellular organisms that, in their primordial appearance on the global scene, set the fossil stage for a century-long punch-drunken black-gold binge. And from which their algae descendants just might now help save us.
Tickell is hopeful but not naïve. It will take more than squiggly greenies to pull us out of this, and biofuels are not without their cost. In fact, Tickell’s quest to open the public imagination in favor of biofuels was rocked by the recent backlash against ethanol production and its unintended consequences: Amazonian deforestation and the perilous rise in food prices for the world’s poor. And, using an oil-barrel graphic near the end of the film, he echoes the sentiments we’ve heard from Al Gore and others that biofuels, algae, wind, solar, hybrids, conservation, biomass are each insufficient in and of themselves. But together they can create a viable, survivable future. And, like Gore, he maintains that public will and political vision are endlessly renewable resources.
Here’s a fascinating bit I didn’t know: the diesel engine itself was originally designed to run on biofuel. It was Rockefeller and Standard Oil that co-opted this intention, and the captains of the oil industry haven’t looked back.
As we look toward a future we desperately need to green up now, a quote from the movie stands out, as both portent and directive: “Man is not bad,” said Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the engine that was to set the world on fire, “only badly governed.”
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