Josh Tickell is a hard man to reach. As one of America’s top experts on alternative fuel sources and the author of two books on biodiesel, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank and Biodiesel America, and having directed the documentary film Fuel, it’s no wonder that messages have gone unnoticed and unanswered. His email is inundated with letters from Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson, comrades in his environmental campaign. Considering his friendship with these two lifelong potheads, it seems fitting that Josh resides in Venice Beach, California, his house a short stroll from the medicinal marijuana clinics operating along the beachfront. But Josh, unlike Woody and Willie, isn’t interested in the weed revolution former Governor Schwarzenegger hoped would save the Californian economy, but rather the green revolution he hopes will save the planet. And although I’ve come all the way to where he lives, I still can’t get onto him in person, only on the phone in New York where he is receiving an award from the United Nations.
Over the crackling phone-line Josh is recounting what inspired him to get involved in the biodiesel movement. ‘When I was twelve years old I moved from Australia to Louisiana and I realised that the pollution in Louisiana from the oil refiners was making people sick. And some of them were related to me, some were my family, and I said ‘well this has got to stop, there’s got to be a better way to make our energy that doesn’t pollute our earth, our air, and the food we eat. And that began the quest,’ he recounts.
Josh’s own mother, Debora, a Louisiana native who grew up around the areas 150 petrochemical facilities (known to locals as Cancer Alley), has suffered nine miscarriages, with other women in the area also encountering major fertility problems and cancer related illnesses. ‘Most people don’t know there’s a toxic cocktail of about 6000 chemicals that come out of an average oil refinery and none of those chemicals have really been studied for health affects on humans,’ Josh explains. So it’s the unfortunate reality that the gasoline we use in the US is very unregulated in terms of the emissions it creates when it gets created, most people are worried about tailpipe emissions and not about the emissions at the refinery and that’s where they’re most concentrated and do the most damage to people and wild life.’
But Josh is not only interested in cleaning up the state he grew up in. While working in a German commune in his early twenties Josh discovered that fuel could be made from vegetable oil and saw a way to combat the oil-produced pollution so prevalent in Louisiana. In 1997 he undertook the Veggie Voyage to inform people of what he’d learnt overseas, driving across America for two years in a Winnebago, dubbed the Veggie Van, powered entirely on used cooking oil from fast food restaurants. ‘The Veggie Van voyage was really about person to person contact around a simple solution which was making fuel from used cooking oil, how simple is that? The US produces three billion gallons of used cooking oil a year, about twelve billion litres, it’s a phenomenal amount that could account for 5% of our diesel fuel in this country.’ During this time Josh did the morning talk show circuit, radio interviews, lectures and presentations in local high schools.
As he once said ‘if you can make a margarita you can make biodiesel,’ which Josh proved by teaching elementary school children how simple it was. ‘We did classes where youngsters could make their own fuel and its incredible to see children realize at an early age that fuel isn’t something that has to come from a mega corporation, in the future it could be something we make from home… energy doesn’t have to be something we pay a tremendous amounts of money for that’s always causing problems in the world.’
Moving from this grass roots approach, Josh took his cause to the big screen in his documentary Fuel, which not only won the audience award for Best Documentary at Sundance Film Festival, but also opened the festival. ‘After traveling in the Veggie Van for years and writing two books, I realised there has to be a much broader approach to getting people involved in the green energy movement. If we were going to make a substantial impact on energy in the future, to me there is one medium more effective than the others. The documentary format has become such an accepted method of communication, especially around ideas being heard. Sundance was our test platform, we knew we struck a cord, we knew people loved the movie emotionally, that they loved the core of the story and really what it was about, the deeper issues, humanity, peace, democracy and triumph of the human spirit.’
Indeed, Josh’s main goal is the democratisation of energy and disrupting our reliance on major energy corporations. ‘Really, the foundation of the clean energy movement isn’t about technology, it’s really a revolution about peace through empowerment, and when people have the power to make energy its like people being able to gain information, they become powerful, they become leaders, and their choices are a lot more meaningful because their choosing from a place of being independent rather than being dependent.’
While this is his greatest ambition, Josh realizes this is an enormous undertaking and in the meanwhile is trying to help corporations adapt to a greener, more sustainable business model. ‘All industry contributes to carbon dioxide emissions, but everyday we see industries changing and becoming more green so there are some very big companies stepping on board the green revolution and changing their entire industrial policies so there’re no emissions, and that’s where we want to see most these big companies go.’
‘In an overall economic analysis, we’d have somewhere between a tenth of a percent and a half of a percent conversion to fully green energy’ by corporations ‘at this point.’ Of those 150 petrochemical plants in the area Josh grew up in, two facilities have ‘converted to becoming green and producing green fuel, who’ve met all non-hazardous regulations. It’s not a true survey but it gives a sense of how fast we’re moving in the direction towards green.’
It now makes sense why Josh Tickell is such a hard man to reach. While I’m counting the amount of people wandering towards those marijuana clinics, baking in the Californian sun, he’s trotting around the globe on a Promethean quest, trying to take the fire from those seemingly God-like petroleum corporations to deliver back to the people. For the sake of our planet, I hope he continues to be impossible to reach.