Transformative Forces in Energy and Society: Popular Culture as a Source of Wisdom and Guidance, and the Limits Thereof


Media creates the background for how people understand energy questions. The concerned citizen has two important jobs. The first is to pay attention to useful expressions--film, TV, radio, newspaper, internet, etc.--that mediate the reality of energy issues, such as a recent movie discussed extensively below.

The second responsibility is more complex, but no less important. Every single problem in the world today--from bickering with loved ones to worries about paying bills to concerns that the biosphere is about to implode--results from inappropriate or otherwise destructive relationships. Social relations, our connection with the earth, political problems, all relationships are part of the overall difficulties that we face.

When we think about a particular expression of media, therefore, we also have to think about how usefully it considers our various interrelations, and whether it advises us in tangible and practical ways about how to improve or optimize relationships. This kind of thinking and work may not be easy, but it is definitely interesting. More importantly, we will get nowhere unless we do it.


"Hallelujah for H-bombs" is never going to be the thematic core of a feature film, or even a documentary about energy, unless in the guise of a snarling, snapping satire like "Dr. Strangelove" or the wacky prattle of a Tom Lehrer.

"So long mom, I'm off to drop the bomb,
so don't wait up for me.
But though I may roam, I'll come back to my home,
although it may be, a pile of debris."

Similarly, high praise for nuclear power plants is unlikely to emerge outside of an industry financed forum.

Wherever one looks, on the other hand, both punchy criticism of what we might term 'plutocractic' power, and enthusiastic endorsement of less centralized and more grassroots expressions of fuel and energy, appear in abundance. From Dead Prez and Tupac to Woody Nelson and Bono, from Michael Moore to Spike Lee, cutting edge performers and producers extol a renewable, sustainable, democratic, and down-sized approach to science, technology, and society, and to the attendant energy that both comes from and reinforces them.

Such populist emanations can concern the most everyday eventualities, as in country crooner Nelson's commitment to biodiesel for truckers. Or they can ruminate about the sorts of complexities that fill Michael Moore's work, as in "Capitalism: A Love Story" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." What unifies all such efforts, however, is an explicit rejection of present day leadership and the results of that top-down control.

A relatively recent expression of such a popular effusion is Josh Tickell's film, "Fuel," which is

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is widely available and expanding its base of viewers and supporters. In order to dislike this film, one would have to combine a heart made of stone and a zero-tolerance for fun.

Tickell is as engaging a young fellow as one can possibly imagine: passionate, open-minded, inquisitive, and both goofy and knowledgeable.

This article does three things:

  • it briefly recounts the movie;
  • it examines the premises and promises that the production manifests;
  • it suggests reasons to believe that, despite its joyous magnificence, the project has serious deficiencies that guarantee its failure, unless citizens, both those who watch the film and the vast majority who will never see it, garner the political strength to correct those errors.


The movie itself is a first person narrative of Josh Tickell's life, in relation to the primary source of motive power in the world today, oil. His growing up in an Australian 'child's paradise' ends when his mom returns him and his brother to her Cajun country roots, after countless phone calls from across the world tell tales of sickness and woe on the bayou.

"Cancer Alley," along the Mississippi River, is precisely opposite of Australia's clean benevolence. As Josh grows, his disgust with oiligopolistic dominance of Louisiana grows apace. The comeuppance of nearly facing the disqualification of his senior year prize-winning science project, which found all sorts of toxins in local waters, confronts him with inherent contradictions in being an honest citizen.

Cancer AlleyThe State EPA official who threatens to toss out Josh's work says that his technicians had tested the same waters that the young student had perambulated, finding them relatively clean and free of deadly toxins, heavy metals, and so forth. Josh discovers when he looks into the case that 80% of the agency's funding comes from the polluters along the Mississippi that released the nasty effluents. The inherent corruption of this 'fox in charge of the henhouse' arrangement outrages him and launches his quest for an alternative to petroleum.

At New College in Florida, the young man matures into a counterculture aficionado who travels to Germany, where people-power is potent enough to bring forth many of the changes that Tickell and "Fuel" imagine for the U.S. In Europe, he discovers that tractors run on biodiesel derived from vegetable oil, and a life's quest takes shape.

Veggie Van Fuel Diagram
He and friends in Florida acquire a diesel Winnebago that they convert to the capacity to run on filtered and slightly modified vegetable oil, which they learn to make simply and copiously from fast food leavings. Thus begins a two-and-a-half year odyssey, touring America and promoting the engine of the inventor whom Tickell lionizes throughout the film, Rudolf Diesel.

This expedition brings both kudos and a sense of growth and development that is almost unsuppressable. The trekkers' funk and drive garner loads of media attention and loads of love from both the hippie/biker contingent and the multitude of regular citizens who want the cheaper and more environmentally friendly transport that the "green grease machine" proffers. A popular ditty sings the project's praises.

Veggie Van

The other day I met a man,
taking a trip all across the land.
He's got a car that runs on grease,
a side of fries and a burger please.
It won't be long till you're a fan
of the man who drives the veggie van.

They return to Florida where a book contract awaits Tickell's attention.

Nevertheless, a crisis of conscience pends. Josh realizes that, despite all of the vibrance and "25,000 miles in the veggie van...nothing had changed." This deepened his commitment, however, to figure out the political economy of petroleum, which the middle third of the film presents in an impressive overview of the intersections of empire, militarism, and the life blood of capitalism.

This tour, which also considers the technology and business of retrieving and refining oil, picks up its pace as it notes the passing of 9/11, and Dick Cheney's assembly of a war/energy policy council that both government and business lie to keep secret. We meet community members whom the oil industry have ravished and left bereft; we meet scholars who vibrate with rage at the inequities of this aspect of society; we meet entrepreneurs who avow that new techniques will eliminate the injustices and corruption of the fossil energy thoroughfare.

The final section of the movie begins as the sense of tangible progress toward a new fuel standard has gained real momentum. The monopolistic acquisition of biofuel output has led to a big-business SOP in regard to 'feedstocks,' and that means corn and soybeans as the source of Tickell's hoped for magic.

In a series of pronouncements that occur as the 'Great Recession' unfolds, critics who struggle for food security and alleviation of the plight of the poor attack biodiesel as "a crime against humanity" because, as presently constituted, it must lead to higher food prices for a billion cousins who are already on the verge of starvation.

Obviously, another crisis ensues. But Josh is not a thug, nor does he particularly want BP and the Seven Sisters to be his companions on the way to a 'change of fuel' that will purportedly cause a 'change of life.' Noting that he needs to abandon the 'anger-directed' orientation that had theretofore driven his efforts, he sets off in search of partners who can guarantee the humanization of biofuels.

And, in the form of NGO's and small-scale-development leaders and 'new-economy' thinkers, he finds collaborators aplenty. Together, they lay out the basis for replacing a 'barrel of oil' with a 'barrel of equivalents' that will reduce or eliminate such fossil fuel pollution as plagues both 'cancer alley' and kids riding school buses. Moreover, these new sources will bring 'good jobs' to deprived communities. They will eliminate the dependence on both foreign oil suppliers and the petrol plutocrats who undermine democracy.

And all we have to do to effectuate this Valhalla is vote in better officials and make sure that they make better laws. That's it. Two hours of indictment, two hours of human carnage, two hours of outright criminal conspiracy and anti-democratic profiteering, and the solution is as simple as pulling a different voting lever.


Cheney and Bush
Passionate anger followed by a search for partners-in-change states the intellectual arc of this venture. A bow to individualism, informed by clever inventiveness and collaboration for technical change, underlies the entire film's belief in the transformative potential of 'the American way.' Diametrically opposed to the rosy goal of individual freedom is the cabal of ruling class cretins, epitomized by Cheney and Bush, whose roots are in the privilege of oil wealth and the expectation of wheeling and dealing to get what they want.

One key contradiction is possible to see in Tickell's view of how our system works in the film. He sees a 'disconnect' between good people and bad rulers. Yet he totally buys into the profit system; it's another premise. In an interview for Popular Mechanics, for instance, he has this to say:

"If you don't provide businesses with value, they won't ever change. They don't care what's happening to the world. Corporations aren't run with a set of moral directives. They are run with one thing in mind, and that's profit. For me, for my work, even for the Fuel film, the question was always: How do we get away from these didactic arguments that just go around in circles and leave people with less understanding, less information, less ability to make informed decisions than they had when they began? How do we give them really clear, insightful information that they can use to actually better their lives? It's great that it betters the planet as a result. And it's great that it improves the air. Of course it's going to reduce carbon emissions. Because at the end of the day, it's an efficiency equation."

If it were merely an 'efficiency question,' then one might at least posit that more CEO's, like then Vice President Dick Cheney, and more boards of directors would be on board, so to speak.

From these premises emerge the promises of the movie. Anyone can avoid the herd and follow his passion to a more fruitful life. Individuals can link with other individuals to choose more righteous, more ecological, and more economically and politically sound methods of doing business. As a repeated motif from the narrative avers--in which Josh stands in a corporate plaza, smiling and silent, turning this way and that as he holds up first one side and then another of a hand-lettered cardboard sign--to "CHANGE YOUR FUEL" will lead, inevitably, everyone to "CHANGE YOUR LIFE."

Class Slavery
This combination, of assumed background to the political economy presented on the one hand, and of presumed outcome from the technological potential presented on the other, is a common pattern in narratives and critiques that want to advance a very specific agenda. These critiques needn't worry about such messy elements of the nature of social reality as class privilege and oppression, disenfranchisement, disempowerment, or any of the other seamy realities of political economy in social evolution.

Having left such problematic notions aside, which the likes of Michael Moore and Spike Lee insist on presenting in complex detail, Tickell is able to come to a simple, neat, and easily packaged conclusion. Find better managers and make better laws, and all will be hunky dory in paradise, or, if not in paradise, then at least in a version of the United States that people recognize in the myths we have about ourselves.

Unfortunately, though such a cut-and-dried mythology may be attractive, it does not meet the reality nor does it confront the depth of the difficulties that people face everywhere on the planet. To engage with the real, and to wrestle with the deeper issues, is going to necessitate more fierce commitment and more insightful analysis.


A few evaluations of Tickell's work have offered significant criticisms. One HuffPost journalist for instance took "Fuel" to task for ignoring the centrality of water to all biofuel technology. She ends up recommending the movie as a "must see" but also suggests reading a Scientific American piece, so "you are sure to get the facts presented accurately and fully."

However, the real problem with "Fuel" has little to do with lack of facts, or incorrect data. The reason that the film, despite being a 'must see,' is utterly incomplete is that it lacks a way to view productively how we can develop the relational transformations that have to happen if we are to have a prayer at creating better policies, technologies, and so on.
In truth, of course, none of us can say with much certainty exactly what steps are necessary to transform our relationships with the earth and each other. However, with almost no doubt, this transformation is going to need to involve work at a deeper level than the simplest accoutrements of parliamentary democracy.

This digging for detail, this insistence on social richness, this grappling with political reality, and so on may not be fun: it's certainly not easy, but it is arguably essential to any real hope of even transforming our fuel supply, let alone transforming more deeply embedded toxic patterns than what we do when we fill up at the pump. Essentially, this grasping for depth and such entails both honest engagement among folks in communities and attempts at networking among different communities.

Bus Stop in Louisiana
For such interaction to occur, however, those who would need to do the interacting would need to recognize certain problems that stand in the way. One of these is accessibility; many hard-hit communities, like the North Baton Rouge residents of 'Cancer Alley' in the film, do not commonly have internet connection. They may have transport issues. All sorts of things that JustMeans readers simply 'take for granted' might stand in the way of carrying out the richer but critical dictates of this work.

Another blockage is that 'cancer clusters' are real, but they are not the common experience of the people who were riding alongside the Veggie Van. Nor is it a normal part of 'middle class' experience that half of a family, or a person in every other house in a neighborhood, suffers from environmental illnesses that are direct result of injustice. Thus, lacking recompense, the advice to 'CHANGE YOUR FUEL' and thereby 'CHANGE YOUR LIFE' is close to an insult.

Another difficulty is capacity. This knows no social boundary. Almost without exception, as a result of truly crappy schools and media more interested in misinformation and misleading stories and such, U.S. citizens feel pretty clueless about centrally important parts of their lives. Moreover, we don't seem to be very enthusiastic about listening to each other. Without overcoming these problems, however, any implication that changing political leaders or changing laws will save our asses is, at very best, simplistic nonsense.

Finally, problems of perspective abound. As a good friend of mine, whose profile will eventually appear here, is fond of putting one aspect of this issue, with a wry smile, "You are definitely entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your facts." People are almost uniformly certain that they already know what is going on. But this is never true, no matter how well-informed a person is. And most citizens tend to exhibit the opposite of a well informed understanding of things.

Or the opposite situation is present. People think, "Oh, I'm too stupid (or uninteresting, or slow, or whatever) to get something as complicated as this." So they give up, or they never even try. Such attitudes as these, whether they are honest or merely serve as an excuse to avoid the duties of citizenship, guarantee that the transformative potential of the information in "Fuel" will never have much impact.

Readers may not think of the sorts of things that I mention here as 'details,' but operationally they are exactly that. And the lack of such operational advice in media and other activation efforts such as "Fuel" means that the brilliance of the work, the magnificence of the film in this case, will not bring about a social impact commensurate with that brilliance.

Instead, we will here what we've heard before: 'vote, petition, write a congressman.' And we will sigh and know that nothing will ever come of this, except inasmuch as it benefits the powers that be, the same institutional forces and political-economic rulers that have brought us to this pass of dire crisis in the first place.


Thus, for several key reasons--access, redress, capacity, and orientation--all of the good information and wonderful yarn spinning and passionate commitment of "Fuel," and a multitude of similar outpourings of anguish and critique in popular parlance, almost always come down to programmatic suggestions that are, at best, inadequate. They may cause change of some sort, but they will never yield the social transformation necessary to underpin the more human existence that "Fuel" envisions.

Only community-based participatory methods that place social justice in the forefront, recognizing the role of social power in the creation of inequities and disparities and therefore making the balancing of power relations the number one priority, have a 'snowball's chance in hell' of achieving the transformative frisson that Josh Tickell says is at the heart of what he wants.

Huey Newton
He and other members of such bandwagons would do well to listen to Dead Prez's songs, "Let's Get Free," and "Propaganda." Huey Newton, the charismatic and brilliant Black Panther leader, speaking from jail before his assassination by the FBI, evocatively summed up aspects of these views.

"We view each other with a great love...and try to extend this to...oppressed people all over the world. ... We differ from some other groups because we understand the system better than most groups understand the system and with this realization try to form a strong political base based in the community with the only strength that we have, which is a potentially destructive force if we don't get freedom."

Josh Tickell, at least, can see the connection between forms of injustice and forms of energy. His portrait of 'Cancer Alley' is nauseating in its revelations in this regard. His prescription for change: we should vote and sign petitions. At the level of suffering communities, such paltry 'reforms' are unlikely to be adequate.

Thus, congruently with Tickell's reporting, but much more extensively than his conclusions, Dead Prez's song intones,

"All the shit a nigger go through every day...
imagine havin' no runnin' water to drink,
chemicals contaminating the pipes leading to your sink...
I go against a tank with a shank...
if you don't think it can happen think again, my son,
be prepared for the worst is yet to come,"

suggesting that, lacking direct remedies and power-to-the-people, devolution and devastation are unavoidable.

Put another way the "thin democracy" of liberalism must yield to the "strong democracy" of citizenship. We here at JustMeans can either be in alignment with that, or we will likely watch all of our great hearted hopes disappear in a whirlwind of social conflagration.

As the author of Strong Democracy, Benjamin Barber, stated the case,

"(I)f interdependence is the lesson of the new millennium, then the moral for strong democracy is that it must belong to all nations (and communities) or it will be secure in none. If we cannot find a way to democratically govern the globe together, we will, one by one, lose the right and the ability to govern our nations (and our communities). Strong democracy is no longer America's last, best hope. It is humankind's last, best, and only hope."


How can we "find a way to democratically govern the globe together?" If the answer were easy, then we'd be kicking back with a brew and munching on barbecue. But the 'answer' is probably not an answer at all, but a process of engagement, respectful and full of listening, with each other. As a simple example of what this might mean, a reader might print out this blog and rent or download the film that is the main subject of this post.

Then he or she might invite a friend or two or so over for dinner or snacks. They might all then read the blog, as best as they can, given the limitations of your humble correspondent, watch the movie attentively, and discuss what it all means and what they, what we all, ought to do about it. That would be a start.

Josh Tickell, in an excerpt from a related video, actually started a conversation like the ones we need to be having. He called back a woman who had left a message, reassuring her that "I wanted someone to get back to you."

"Good," she said, "I wanted to be got back to...There's so much that we're not doing...And I know that we got the technology. Why aren't we doing more?" she asks, her voice a sound print of frustration.

"That's a good question," the filmmaker responds. But if his only answer were that we needed to vote better, write more letters to Congress, and sign more petitions, the relationship would have gone nowhere, quickly. We've got to get deeper than this.

Photo Credits:

Movie Stills: "Fuel"
Media: Corey Goulker
Cheney and Bush: Blatant News
Class Slavery: public domain
Bus Stop: Jeramey Jannene
Huey Newton: Toots Fontaine
Dinner: gkpsecretariat