The Humanist Interview with Josh Tickell: Preparing for a Sustainable Renaissance

By Bardi, Jennifer | The Humanist, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Humanist Interview with Josh Tickell: Preparing for a Sustainable Renaissance


Bardi, Jennifer, The Humanist


JOSH TICKELL is one of the nation's leading experts on alternative fuels and the author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank (2003) and Biodiesel America: How to Achieve Energy Security, Free America from Middle-East Oil Dependence and Make Money Growing Fuel (2006). In 1997, after obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in film from Florida State University, Tickell drove across the country in a diesel Winnebago (dubbed "The Veggie Van") fueled by used frying oil from fast food restaurants. He also began working on a documentary to chronicle and raise awareness about biodiesel and the green energy movement. The feature-length film, Fields of Fuel, has been winning awards at festivals around the country, including the Audience Award at Sundance, and is scheduled to be released nationwide in September. The film features appearances by Woody Harrelson, Larry Hagman, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and other notable celebrities and cultural icons. In addition to consulting for various environmental companies and organizations and speaking at colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, Tickell is the founder of the Biodiesel America Organization, which was selected in 2005 by former President Bill Clinton to be part of his Global Initiative on Climate Change. The Humanist caught up with Tickell in July to talk about U.S. energy policy, alternative fuel, and his growing reputation as "that biodiesel guy."

The Humanist: I understand you're in the final phase of post-production on your documentary Fields of Fuel. Tell us a bit about the film and your experience making it.

Josh Tickell: Basically, Fields of Fuel is a worldwide journey to answer the question: Why did the United States not engage with green energy use after the attacks of 9/11?

We explore the critical parts of the U.S. energy system--including the oil industry, the auto industry, and eventually the government itself--and ultimately reveal the machinery that's in place to keep the United States from moving toward green energy use. We go around the world to countries like Sweden and Germany, and we see the progress they've made with green energy. The comparison is just astounding.

The Humanist: Together with the film, your first book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and your latest, Biodiesel America, have established you as one of the nation's leading experts on biofuel. What originally got you interested in alternative energy?

Tickell: I grew up in Louisiana, partially, amongst the oil refineries and I watched a lot of people get sick from the pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency specifies that oil pollution of any kind is, A) non-regulated and B) nontoxic. And so this disallows any accountability whatsoever within the petroleum industry in terms of processing and refining oil. And it essentially allows a tremendous amount of what we call externalization, or passing the costs onto the public or the consumer. The 150 petrochemical facilities in Louisiana generally have some of the highest pollution rates of any industry in the United States. The area along the Mississippi River that contains those facilities has become known as Cancer Alley.

Having seen this situation up close I realized there must be other ways of fueling our society. So I began to look--at a very young age--at solar energy, wind, and other alternative ways to create energy. But it wasn't until I was in Germany working on an organic farm that I saw biodiesel, which they made themselves.

The concept of biodiesel--not the actual fuel itself but the core concept--was local, sustainable, diversified energy and energy that was created and used in the same area. So it was just a radically different way of doing business than what I had grown up with.

The Humanist: We hear a lot about the good and bad of biofuel generally. Can you talk a little about biodiesel as a specific potential solution to our energy woes?

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