Information is Freedom

Josh and Rebecca Tickell jauntily wear two hats—environmentalist and ethanol supporter—terms some would claim are at odds
By Holly Jessen | May 10, 2012

Looking back a year after a special showing of their documentary, Freedom, at the 2011 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, Josh and Rebecca Tickell reflect on what they learned as they toured the U.S. showing the film and interacting with audiences. Although the three and a half month tour of 50 cities is now over, work to spread the message is far from over. This year, they have big plans to keep the momentum going through their nonprofit organization, “I’ll Be the One,” formerly known as the Veggie Van Organization. Their first plan of attack is to get educational materials, including student and teacher manuals, to 10,000 schools. Second, the film will be released on television late in the year, with possible showings in select theaters as well as other formats, such as Netflix, iTunes and Pay-Per-View, Josh says.

In the meantime, they encourage the ethanol industry to use their movie to reach others with the truth about ethanol. Besides distributing copies to people they know, Josh suggests looking into booking viewings at local colleges. “If you really want to shift Congress, shift the next generation of American engineers and their scientists and their biologists and their policy makers,” he says. “I think we need to focus more energy there, because we keep trying to deal with the people we have, but some of those people are just not going to change.”

Getting There
In the past, Josh has said negative things about ethanol. Some of those comments appeared in his film Fuel, which won the documentary audience award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. After researching the topic himself for the documentary film Freedom, however, he’s publically taking those words back. Today, Josh believes his prejudices were the result of an “insidious and strategic disinformation campaign” against the renewable fuel. “As somebody who was very indoctrinated from that movement, I had very specific perceptions against ethanol,” he tells Ethanol Producer Magazine.

The catalyst for his change of heart was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Josh and his wife began filming and didn’t stop until they had enough material for two films, The Big Fix, about the oil spill, and Freedom. The process of making these films was a journey to the truth—uncovering the lies about the oil spill as well as about ethanol, Josh says. As the husband and wife team traveled around, visiting ethanol production facilities and speaking to people on both sides of the issue they realized they had been in the wrong about ethanol. “This is really the only option that America has near term to deal with our fossil fuel dependence,” he says, adding later that, “The positives well, and truly, outweigh any negatives.”

The Tickells consider Freedom a tool for changing other people’s minds about ethanol. They watched it happen during the Freedom Tour, which ended with a final showing in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26. While they mentally prepared for push back—even protests—in some of the locations, that didn’t happen. Instead many attendees accepted their message and got inspired. “It was really amazing,” Rebecca says. “I know that it helped shift the tide.” At almost every one of the 50 scheduled stops, there were former ethanol haters who thanked the Tickells for giving them access to the truth about ethanol. “People got kind of upset that they had gotten the wool pulled over their eyes,” she says. “They felt like they had been duped.”

San Francisco and Sedona, Ariz., were two locations that stand out in Josh’s mind. He was pleased with a standing ovation in San Francisco, a left-leaning, highly environmental community. In Sedona, 600 people attended and work is now ongoing to install the city’s first E85 pump. Overall, Josh agrees with his wife that the tour was extremely successful. Still, he realizes that the misinformation campaign about ethanol has a strong grip on many. “Where people were neutral, I feel we moved people to positive,” he says. “Where they were negative, we often moved them to neutral.”

The Freedom Bus was another tool the Tickells had in their arsenal. The bus, a 1986 Blue Bird school bus with a General Motors 8.1 liter V8 gasoline engine in it, contained a mobile learning lab. Before starting the Freedom Tour, the Tickells attempted to contact an unresponsive GM about using E85 in a nonflex-fuel engine, Josh says. In the end, they went ahead and installed an American-made conversion kit that made it possible to run the bus on up to E100. Although E85 was not available in some locations, the bus ran on E85 for more than 90 percent of the tour.

Occasionally switching from E85 to gasoline provided an unexpected learning opportunity. When running on E85, not only were there no noxious odors on the bus, but putting a hand up to the tailpipe of the bus resulted in getting a wet hand, as the bus emitted water vapor. When the bus ran on gas, however, putting a piece of paper up to the tailpipe turned the paper brown. “From a practical standpoint, I think it’s really important to try it and use it,” Josh says of E85. “It’s one thing to research it and do a movie on it—it was another thing to drive across the country in a huge bus on the fuel.”

Propaganda Machine
In the film, the Tickells reveal a coordinated campaign to discredit ethanol, which many have fallen for, hook, line and sinker. Yet, when asked, these arm-chair critics often can’t clearly articulate what is so bad about ethanol. Josh calls it the indoctrination of wishful thinking. Rather than using ethanol, a very good solution that already exists, many people would rather wait until the perfect solution comes along. In the meantime, those people continue to get their power from petroleum.

The use of oil is so ingrained in our society, Rebecca says, that we fail to look at the total impact. For example, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a very personal impact on her. Although the Tickells did their filming on the beaches of Louisiana after it was reported in the media that it was safe again, she came into contact with oil and oil dispersant, a toxic combination that resulted in 13 upper respiratory infections and other medical problems long after they left. In fact, she may never be able to have children due to her exposure. “I had no idea that the impact of being down there would continue to affect me after we left the Gulf,” she says.

Something needs to shake Americans out of the willingness to go along with the status quo. “We can be green all day long and talk about ethanol until we are blue in the face, but for the most part, almost all Americans are going to get in their car and they’re going to go to a gas station and they are going to fill up on gasoline,” she says. “So there’s overwhelming agreement in our society that even though we have a sense that there’s something not right—it’s just what we’re going to continue to do.”

It’s a big battle, she acknowledges, especially for a small nonprofit organization. Still, it’s not something she’s willing to give up on. “We’re going to continue to fight it despite the complacency in our society,” she says. “Eventually we’ll prevail, there’s no doubt about it. Eventually people will understand.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 738-4946
hjessen@bbiinternational.com