Arts & Events

Freedom: The Movie that Dares to Defend Ethanol

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Wednesday August 24, 2011 - 09:38:00 AM

Back in the ‘80s, I was in the vanguard of environmental reporters who warned against the adoption of methanol as an alternative to oil-based gasoline. The preferred fuel, I claimed, was ethanol. Made from a renewable plant crops, ethanol was a perfect “green” fuel that burned clean and didn’t emit Greenhouse Gases. But a series of critical scientific studies began to challenge ethanol’s claims and critics attacked the concept of using corn to feed automobiles instead of people. Soon environmental organizations were protesting agrofuel programs as criminal conspiracies against the biosphere. Ethanol was no longer a cool fuel.

And then Josh and Rebecca Tickell rolled into town. 

It’s not easy being an environmental prophet. Back in the ‘80s, I was in the vanguard of environmental reporters who warned against the adoption of methanol as an alternative to oil-based gasoline. After all, methanol could dissolve engine parts and only produced a third of the energy as gasoline. The preferred fuel, I claimed, was ethanol. Made from a renewable plant crops, ethanol was a perfect “green” fuel that burned clean, contained twice the energy as methanol, and wouldn’t add any new CO2 burden to the atmosphere. 

Ah, but that all changed after a series of critical scientific studies began to argue that producing ethanol consumed more energy than it produced; that ethanol generates unwanted emissions; that ethanol would cause food shortages and price spikes. 

The idea that using food crops like corn to feed automobiles instead of people was particularly gripping. Ethanol was no longer a cool fuel and environmental organizations began to target agrofuel programs as criminal conspiracies against the biosphere. 


And then Josh and Rebecca Tickell rolled into town. 

The Tickells first gained renown when they helped publicize biofuels via a self-made Sundance-Award-winning movie that documented their cross-country trip in a VeggieVan powered by leftover fry-grease collected at US fast-food joints. With a little pluck, patience and a portable mini-refinery, the Tickells demonstrated how it was possible to transform used French-fry oil into a road-worthy substitute for petroleum. Talk about living off the fat of the land! 

Just as in the 90s, when the Tickells pulled into town last week in their latest oil-free vehicle, it was an event. This time, instead of a small van, the Tickells arrived in a large, tricked-out bus called “Freedom” that’s powered by a hybrid ethanol/electric engine and outfitted with an array of 19 photovoltaic panels on the rooftop. 

Last Thursday, the bus was parked prominently on Oxford Street in front of the David Brower Building. It was Week Two of a 140-week, 50-city tour and the Tickells were inside, preparing to host a screening of their latest documentary, “Freedom” (as in “Freedom from Oil”). 

‘Freedom’ Screens in Berkeley 

Josh apologized for the “unfinished” quality of the rough-cut but no apologies were needed. The film is expertly edited and filled with enough revelations, interviews and on-site excursions to fill a dozen films. But the main goal is a simple (but challenging) one: to defend ethanol and debunk the debunkers. To bolster their argument, the Tickells rely on more than 20 talking heads ranging from Ed Begley Jr. to Newt Gingrich (and that’s quite a range). 


The Tickells kick off their film by recounting the personal anguish of seeing ethanol — a “solution” Josh has promoted for more than 10 years — suddenly demonized. “We would show up for an event in our van and environmentalists would start protesting us!” they recalled. “What happened? We thought we were the good guys!” 

The film’s best early argument for reconsidering the ethics of ethanol comes with an investigation into the roots of the anti-ethanol campaign. Behind the public attacks (which included numerous research papers and an oft-cited cover story in Scientific American) the Tickells discovered a vast, covert PR campaign that had been put together by the same powerful company that had once worked for John D. Rockefeller’s oil cabal. 

One of the film’s more remarkable assertions is that Rockefeller was responsible for pushing the law that resulting in Prohibition, a law that was carefully crafted to outlaw the production of farm alcohol as well as bootleg booze. Up to that point, auto pioneer Henry Ford had presided over an expanding auto industry that was fueled by renewable, farm-based agrofuels. (Ford even used hemp to make body parts for some of his vehicles.) 

According to Tickells’ narrative, it wasn’t impatience with the gangland tactics of organized crime that lead to a repeal of Prohibition, it was Henry Ford’s personal capitulation to Oil Baron Rockefeller. When Ford agreed to abandon farm-alcohol as a fuel, Rockefeller signaled it was time to pull the plug on Prohibition. [For more, see “Rockefeller, Ford and the Secret History of Alcohol” at:] 

The film quotes the hidden strategies and goals spelled out in the oil lobby’s secret game plan. This effort to manipulate public opinion recalls a historic parallel to the campaign to criminalized hemp. Once again, it was a case of Big Oil versus Small Farmers. Hemp had proven its utility as a robust commercial crop that provided reliable and durable fiber for clothing and rope. But the Petrol Potentates saw potential new markets for synthetic cables and garments — once hemp was taken out of the picture. A media campaign against “Devil Marijuana” was the result. (The Tickells’ film includes a snippet of the US government’s earlier pro-marijuana propaganda flick, “Hemp for Victory.”) 

“Freedom” starts off by confronting the arguments against ethanol and goes straight to the source, interviewing the scientists whose work has been most effective in damaging ethanol’s reputation as a responsible fuel choice. And one by one, the Tickells throw every argument into question. To challenge the argument that turning corn into fuel is tantamount to taking food from the mouths of children, the Tickells visit the Corn Belt to interview farmers. Turns out that only a small percent of the nation’s corn harvest is used for food. Most is industrialized corn, grown for processing into by-products and additives. To prove the point, the Tickells hike halfway up a mini-mountain of kernels and try a mouthful. Sure enough, the stuff is tasteless and inedible — like munching on gravel. 

The Tickell Tour returns to Josh’s Louisiana birthplace to check out the Gulf shore, a year after the BP oil spill. Walking on the beach, Rebecca is able to spot clumps of oil on the rocks and manages to dig up more lumps of crude hidden just beneath the surface of the sand. Soon afterwards, her body erupts in a painful rash and the skin on the bottom of her feet begins to peel away. She also experiences lung irritation and other maladies reported to be common among local residents. 

How to Switch over to Biofuel in Berkeley 

Finally, the film takes viewers on a tour of the many of the cutting-edge businesses that are springing up with new solutions to the fuel dilemma. Some are making fuel from algae; others are producing high-octane alternatives from cellulosic crop wastes. “There is no one solution,” Tickell cautions in the film. Finding a way to move heavy loads on this planet is going to take a lot of different approaches. One of which is relearning how to do with less. 

During the post-screening Q and A, the Tickells invited a dozen local innovators to discuss the work they were doing. Josh pointed out that the speakers demonstrated how “fuel and food interests could stand side-by-side.” 

A farmer who supplies fresh organic food to Gather, the Brower Center’s celebrated restaurant, spoke about plans to grow plants to produce alcohol for fuel. A gentleman from San Francisco’s Department of Transportation reviewed his city’s 20-year campaign to introduce alternative vehicles and fuels. The owner of Dogpatch Biofuels invited drivers to sample the 100% ethanol fuel available at his pumps in San Francisco. A representative from the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture plugged the pioneering work of David Bloom, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas (a massive book that was the target of a long-running censorship campaign by the Oil Lobby). 

One of the most interesting speakers was Matt Horton, CEO of Propel, Inc., a Redwood City company that is already supplying ethanol blends and 100% ethanol fuels to Bay Area drivers. Thanks to businesses like Propel, local drivers are finally being given the freedom to choose a non-petroleum fuel. (It’s not even that radical. As one audience member recalled, in the 1960s, then-Governor Jerry Brown had promoted 100% ethanol for state vehicles. ) 

In the film, the Tickells are shown installing an “ethanol conversion device” under the hood of their vehicle. These devices cost around $200 and snap into place within minutes, turning many standard vehicles into cleaner-burning “flex-fuel” cars. If your car is compatible (check to find out), you could be pulling into the Propel station at 849 University Avenue as early as next week — and declaring your own “freedom from oil.” 

Resources: Information on do-it-yourself ethanol conversion is available on the Internet and in numerous YouTube videos.  

For more information on the Tickells’ film and their bus tour, go to: