August 15, 2011

"Freedom" Film promotes Choices at the Pump

It has been thirty months since Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell premiered their award-winning biofuels documentary "Fuel." That film tracked down alternative fuels that can help wean the U.S. from its "addiction" to oil (see my interview and reviews). After traveling the U.S. in his Veggie Van, Josh took a position that there were biofuels winners (biodiesel, algae, cellulosic ethanol, plug-in hybrids) and losers (corn ethanol). Launching the film included tours at conferences, schools, and statehouses all over the country in an effort to stimulate discussion about what a sustainable transportation energy future might look like.

The best way to learn is through experience and re-evaluation. Now married some thirty months later, with considerable pro- and con- feedback from their tour and a trip to the oil spill ravaged Gulf, they realized that they had some "'splain'n to do." The feedback that stung most was from the farmers and promoters of corn ethanol. While the drivers for change had gotten more urgent - energy independence, community building, human health, economics, the environment, and sustainability - the practical truth about the best way to achieve the desired paradigm shift had to be re-evaluated before all the momentum was lost.

Most of the new film "Freedom" is a series of interviews with farmers and biofuels innovators, economic and energy security experts, engaged government policymakers, and the occasional false prophets of inertia (Searchinger and Pimental). It treats its audience to an unblemished look at where we are and why public support now is so important to the well-being of future generations.

It is very difficult for new markets to emerge in the midst of a entrenched, hundred year monopoly. The biodiesel industry was not stable enough to survive an interruption of government subsidies and it shrank from scores of domestic producers to just a handful. The rest of the biofuels industry RD&D also had to withstand the considerable blowback from entrenched fossil fuel interests, a devastating recession, and a steep drop in oil prices. Algae, hydrogen, and battery technology are certainly promising trends - but they face a gradual 25-years transition away from alternatives that feed into the current infrastructure and vehicles.

In spite of the challenges, corn ethanol has remained the U.S. cornerstone of a sustainable biofuels future. To their credit, Josh and Rebecca reexamined their stance on this first generation biofuel and admitted that (like many others in the sustainability culture) they had been hoodwinked by those who sought to protect the status quo. Upon further investigation controversial issues of energy balance, food vs. fuel, and indirect land use change had suspicious origins and backing - not to mention that they were based on highly speculative theories and a slanted interpretation of data. And why hasn't fossil fuels ever been evaluated and compared using the same metrics?

The Tickells realized that inertia is not an option and "perfection can't be allowed to be the enemy of the good." In a very real way, by attacking the only biofuels that worked at scale, well intentioned NGOs were further reinforcing the nation's oil addiction! To develop more commercial-scale alternatives, we should design policies that build and enable what works (good first generation solutions) rather than obstruct it in favor of unproven and unscaled solutions. Besides, any new technologies will require more flexible pumps at filling stations and vehicles that are able to run on alternatives. We don't have the thirty years it took Brazil to provide their population with a flexible fuel infrastructure based on gasoline and ethanol.

It gets down to the central theme that runs the length of the film. We can't be free if we don't have choices. We need to develop not only new technologies but new markets, vehicles, and infrastructure. Ending the addiction will take time, but during the Q&A session after the screening it was clear that a dread, helpless feeling was being lifted from the audience. There are alternatives and action we can take today to secure a sustainable future for our children. We shouldn't elect policymakers that limit our consumer votes at the pump.


Visit to view the movie trailer, buy the DVD, or maybe book a screening. The initial tour screening dates are available online so let your friends know what's coming. This screening sold out and is sure to generate great word-of-mouth.


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