The documentary Fuel opened in Portland last weekend, the first city to host screenings of the film, which shows a way out of our country's addiction to oil. It did so well here, it's been held over--which has director Josh Tickell thrilled. He's hoping his film will follow in the footsteps of An Inconvenient Truth: That documentary "went to 585 screens and 2 million people saw it in the theater," Tickell tells the Mercury. "And with that 2 million people, a critical mass was formed." He's hoping his film--which praises biodiesel, and explains commercially and environmentally viable ways to switch our country over to this more sustainable source of energy--sparks a similar "revolution."
Here's the trailer. And after the cut, check out more from my interview with Tickell, who was in Seattle earlier this week for that city's premiere. He gives Portland kudos for some of our green initiatives, tells Congress what they can do with $25 billion instead of giving it to Detroit, and explains what has to happen to cut the US's petroleum use by 80 percent.
Then, go buy your tickets.
Mercury: How did the Portland premiere go?
JT: Really well. The film got held over, we sold out the biggest of the screenings, and people just love it. There are more people going to the theater each day then the day before.
What was your goal at the outset in making this?
The big goal is social change. I want a green revolution. And I think that Americans want a green revolution. In the whole conversation about our economy and unemployment and the housing crisis, people keep thinking it's unrelated to energy, and it's not. Have you seen the movie?
So you know the part where we discussed that we've been fueling our economy on debt. Most people don't realize that the reason our economy is bankrupt is because we've been using debt to pay for oil. And unless we deal with that, no conversation about the economy is going to make any difference.
I came to the film skeptical of biodiesel: There's a finite amount of land, and what do we grow, fuel or food? But in the last part of the film, you unveil algae-based biodiesel and grandiflora trees for biomass--that was amazing. I want to hear more about that. How far away are we from creating that system, what does it take to create that system?
That system is completely available to us. That's a big misnomer with green energy, that we have to wait for some major corporate shift or some incredible new technology to appear. The research has all been done. And the funny thing is that we even fund research in the US that is the same research that has been done in Stockholm, Sweden or in Berlin, Germany, or anywhere else in the world. We will actually fund the same study. So everything from getting cars that get above 100 miles a gallon, to trees that remediate soil and can be turned into fuel and will regrow in three years, to algae that can grow in the desert and will not displace one acre of food land, to solar power that can be painted onto buildings--there is solar paint now, there are windows that are solar windows and look exactly like normal windows and the only difference is that they create solar energy.
So all of that technology exists, all the R and D has been done, and it's essentially a perceptional shift that we have been waiting for--and the government also, they go together. The perceptional shift, it's going to happen someday and all the technologies are here and it's been figured out. [But] the government perspective is we're going to fund and subsidize coal, oil, and natural gas and bankrupt the economy--worse than bankrupt, we are in debt 3.5 trillion dollars because of the oil economy. We have to dig ourselves out of that mindset to, ‘We're going to take a small amount of money and do a short term investment in these technologies because the long term return is so huge.’ We're talking about a million jobs just in the wind industry, to do 20 percent of the nation's power. A million jobs. Right now [wind power is] at less than one percent.
So we can switch over, we just need to flip that perception switch. What needs to happen for people to buy into it and bring these things online?
People need to see Fuel. They need to see this movie. I spent 11 years making it. We really are able to articulate, from the moment people walk into the theater, we know what they know, and we know what they're skeptical about. We've been there, as researchers, as filmmakers, as regular people looking for solutions, that's how we started. And we take the viewer on that journey from start to finish. They get how accessible and how viable the solutions are. Already the responses that we're getting, the emails we are getting, people are saying, we watched the movie, we sat down afterwards, whether with a person or a family or a community, and we each took action items. We each took on things we are going to do.
What are things that people can do immediately?
These are painfully simple but they can save a tremendous amount of money. We could stop importing oil from Alaska and just forget that Alaska even existed if we just inflated our tires. That's how much fuel we're wasting because of poorly inflated tires. The average home uses about 50 percent more energy than it needs to, so just by having a energy effecincy audit, most homes can cut their energy bill in half.
Most retrofitting doesn't involve this huge complicated process. It involves a caulk gun and some caulk and sometimes some insulation. And families go from paying 6000 a year to 3000 a year. That's a big savings for a family during this time period.
And the other thing I tell people is, people are so attached to the comfort of their car. According to the Detroit industry surveys, one of the first thing Americans look at when they get a new car are cup holders. It's true, they look at the size and the placement of the cup holders. And it's bizarre, but diesel cars get almost twice the gas mileage as regular cars. Look at things like the gas mileage first and cup holders second. You can save thousands of dollars a year by driving a car that's so efficient. My 2002 Volkswagon Golf gets twice the gas mileage of the gasoline model.
This calls to mind the quote that has been circulating of Barack Obama, talking about what he'd say if Brian Williams asked him how he was going to save the planet. Obama reportedly said "Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective." How do we convert from the entire country from one form of fuel to another?
I think it happens at the level of community and the level of city. Most of the things we put in the Fuel film at the end happen at the level of city. Cities can save between millions and hundreds of millions dollars by doing these things, really auditing energy and water, the two main components of the economy.
If I told Seattle, you have five years to cut your energy use or water use in half or you get no more energy or water, they could do it. We've had this perception that we can all turn a blind eye to extracting our oil from far away, putting it in our cars and polluting. And because so many individuals are doing it, no one individual has to do anything about it. And this is a perceptional shift at the core in what it means to be an American. It means to take on that each us are accountable for our city. It means to take on, I may use gasoline in my car today but the commitment I'm bringing to my city is that the city is free of gasoline by 2020. It sounds radical, but Sweden did it. And I encourage people to start at the city level because you can get so much done.
All of the technologies that we previewed--solar, the trees, turbines--all that is available at the level of city. It creates jobs, it brings in revenue, it secures the local economy so that when there is a national debt crisis that economy is secure and healthy. Because the more money you send out of your economy the more you're at risk.
Portland likes to tout its green credentials. Are there things we're doing well, or areas where we could be doing a better job?
I love that Portland has a public transit system that works, that can get you all the way to the airport. LA has a public transit system that stops four miles form the airport. So kudos to Portland.
Portland has a biodiesel mandate for 5 percent biodiesel on all its fuel. So good for Portland again.
One thing that is powerful is when these things start to work on the level of city, to continue to engage in the conversation of what's next, and to continue to promote that around the country. Most cities don't know that they have this thing called sustainable biodiesel that isn't made from corn or soybeans that can be used in city vehicles, grown within the limits of that city that can put people to work. It wouldn't occur to LA that they could save billions of dollars over ten years by actually connecting the rail line to the airport.
The timing of your film couldn't be better, as we're hearing talk about government funding of infrastructure improvements as a way to stimulate the economy. Are these the sort the projects that we can put at the front of the line?
These are absolutely the kind of projects that should be at the front of the line. And not putting 25 billion dollars into Detroit, it's an industry that is bankrupt and dead and produces nothing of value whatsoever. The only reason we're putting that money there is because people's jobs are at stake.
But isn't some of that money supposedly targeted at innovative technology?
You're giving money to companies that have consistently taken loans with the requirements that it be used towards green energy technology and used it for things like fiber optic lightbulbs to go in the high end vehicles. That's what GM has done with the money we've given them to go green. So the past tells us very clearly how these companies operate. It tells us their motive, it tells us their directive, and it tells us what they are going to do with that 25 billion dollars.
What would you do with that money instead?
I would put that money into companies that have a track record for innovation, that are committed to putting fifty mile per gallon cars on the road by the end of this administration.
Oregon's governor is in Japan right now talking about electric cars. He sees them as a major solution to our energy problems. What do you think about that?
I think that electricity and electrical vehicles are the way to go in the long term. Here is the distinction that I make: The average person in the US travels less than 14 miles a day. For all intents and purposes, 90 percent of our personal travel should be first of all, walking, second of all biking, third of all public transportation, and last of all, a car, an electric hybrid biodiesel car. It's the most efficient combustion engine out there.
So in that scenario we cut our national fuel use from 200 billion gallons a year to 40 billion gallons a year. Like the scientist says in the film, we cut our petroleum use by 80 percent, 80 percent is gone, just by switching our cars. This is the problem with Detroit. If there was vision implemented, we could reduce the debt, we could increase the economy, just by switching the cars. This is why it's so important that people see the movie. Because when you get the concept, you see you don't have to suffer.
I know you're busy promoting your film, but any chance you're also lobbying your local US Representative about this bailout? It does seem like an immediate opportunity to do something.
Not only am I lobbying my representative, I'm lobbying in every state the film goes to. Right now, California, Washington, and Oregon. We're in touch with Maria Cantwell's office, we're in touch with Barbara Boxer's office, we're in touch with Henry Waxman's office, Jay Inslee came to our opening word-of-mouth screening here in Seattle. So we're actively engaging the political process.
And what's their reaction?
Positive and cautious. No one wants to be the bad guy to tell Detroit that they have to live with the consequences of their decisions. But I would prefer to put, instead of the people that are working right now in Detroit, I would prefer to put all the unemployed people plus all the people in Detroit back to work. We could go so much further, creating long term green jobs for those people.
What's next for you?
This is my focus for now. Fuel is the birth of a movement. It's come from people as high up as people like Van Jones and visionaries like President-elect Obama and people like Paul Hawken. And there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of champions around the country that want to see the Fuel movement take shape in their communities.
So my goal is to stay behind that movement, and encourage people to go see the movie, not just for themselves, not just for Seattle and Portland, but for the rest of the country. Because this is a lot easier conversation to have at a national level when you're moving those 25 billion dollar chunks, to move them back into our communities.
Your called to mind An Inconvenient Truth, which fostered a big discussion around climate change. Are you holding the same hopes for your film?
Yes. Inconvenient Truth went to 585 screens and 2 million people saw it in the theater, and with that 2 million people, a critical mass was formed. So our commitment is that Fuel go to a thousand theaters and it will also create a green energy revolution. The big difference is that that was a movie that was a warning sign, this is a movie about what we can do now.