Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fuel

Posted By on 10.06.09 at 08:30 AM

Twelve years ago, not long after he graduated from college, environmental activist Josh Tickell set out on a tour of the country in a van powered by used cooking oil from fast-food restaurants. His goals were to spread the word that our cars—and lives—don’t need to depend on gas and oil, and to turn his activism into some kind of film.

The documentary that resulted, Fuel, is finally out and will be opening in Chicago this Friday at Piper’s Alley.

It’s got a lot going for it. In the 11 years Tickell spent making it, he expanded its focus to take a sweeping look at the American addiction to oil, its devastating environmental and political consequences (climate change and the Iraq war among them), and the potential solutions offered by renewable alternatives like the stuff he used to fuel his tours in the “Veggie Van.” Animated graphics detail the science of oil, gas, and chemical production, and vivid camerawork captures haunting images of places like Tickell’s native Louisiana, where refinery towers loom high over bayous whose food chains have been devastated by the polluting byproducts—and where the locals refer to their region as “cancer row.”

Tickell and his team also take several fascinating historical detours, such as when they explain how early attempts to build a market for automobiles that ran on vegetable products were undermined by the country’s giant oil companies, or how Jimmy Carter’s push to build a renewable energy system was abruptly halted by the Reagan revolution. They do some conspiracy theory hatching that would make Michael Moore proud when they suggest that oil interests may have been architects of the Iraq war. And they convincingly demonstrate that it just isn’t that hard to get a car running on cooking oil or other biofuels.

If this sounds like a lot to cover in two hours, it is—Tickell and writer Johnny O’hara take on way too much, leaving the film jumbled in places. Worse, they try to solve the problem by using Tickell’s young life as the narrative thread, complete with appearances from his mother talking about what it was like raising him in Louisiana. In other words, they watched An Inconvenient Truth a few too many times. While Tickell is passionate and informed, he’s no ex-VP bursting back into public life after losing one of the most controversial presidential elections in history. In fact, nothing Tickell has to say about himself is half as interesting as what he as to say about things like diesel engines, and by the fourth close-up of him staring into the sun thinking big thoughts, the movie is running out of biofuel.

More important, the film is, like Moore’s works, more screed than solid reporting. In fact, it was partially funded by biofuel companies, and its message is half-baked. Tickell relies on a bunch of celebrity cameos to make his points—the best, by far, is a shot of a giggling and apparently stoned Neil Young and Willie Nelson filling a tour bus with biofuel. But while they and the other celebs here are serious about saving the earth, they give the impression that only rich people can afford to do it. As former Dallas star Larry Hagman shows Tickell his beautiful home powered by solar panels, he gloats, “I can use as much energy as I want.”

It’s not true—at least not for those of us who for lack of resources are still connected to the power grid. Technology alone won’t get us out of the mess we’re in. It takes energy, and often food products, to produce many biofuels, and it takes tremendous investment to produce others. And as journalist David Owen notes in his new book Green Metropolis, the difference between gas guzzlers and biofuel-powered cars isn’t the critical one. What really has us in trouble is a culture that says we can drive anywhere we want, use as many materials as we want, burn as much energy as we want. Like many liberal-minded environmental appeals, Fuel gets us thinking about our life-threatening consumption of fossil fuels, but it doesn’t dare challenge us to think about consumption itself.

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