by David Schwartz
Josh’s childhood in the toxic environment surrounding Louisiana refineries, watching his family suffer poor health as a result of their proximity to oil production, motivated him to seek a cleaner path. By the late 1990s, Josh had amassed a cult following from his well-publicized exploits in the biodiesel-powered “Veggie Van,” and from his best selling book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank—The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel. Through books, personal appearances and high-profile concerts and events promoting bio-power, Josh became recognized as the pioneer who jump-started the US biodiesel movement.
Joining creative forces with Rebecca, a film producer, marketing director and musician, the two fell in love, produced the movie “Fuel,” and then got married. Just like that.
“Fuel” winning the Sundance Audience Award for 2008, and the associated hoopla in Washington really put them on the map as a highly influential dynamic duo in the green movement.
They now travel the globe making their films, promoting energy awareness, and making presentations at professional and consumer advanced energy conferences. We caught up with them at the recent ABO Summit in Phoenix, where they had driven in their 150-mile-per-gallon Algaeus, the algae-powered Prius made famous in “Fuel.”
What is your latest film project?
Josh: We really have two film projects at the moment. The first one was a surprise project, and it started with the Gulf oil spill. We’re documenting what happened, and what’s happening now in Louisiana. We’re looking at what mechanisms, in terms of our government and our industry, allow this kind of thing to happen, and what keeps us dependent on oil. And then, of course, in the third and final act, we look at solutions. And algae is one of those solutions.
The other film’s called “Sex and Algae,” and it’s about the world population crisis and algae as a potential mechanism to help us get through what scientists are calling “the bottleneck.”
Rebecca: Algae’s our hero, always! And the films also document what’s not being shown in the media. You watch the films and you won’t see anything you’ve seen on the news so far.
What are some of your observations about what happened in the Gulf that haven’t made it into public awareness?
Rebecca: The fact that there’s still a lot of oil there. The media has reported that 75% of the oil has gone, but in fact that is not the case at all. The oil continues to wash in. Just last Friday we were standing on a white sand beach that was completely black. People don’t realize how much oil is still there.
They also don’t realize that the dispersant Corexit is still being sprayed, and how toxic it is. The media has made people believe that Corexit is nontoxic and safe, like salad dressing or like Dawn dish soap, when in fact it is a hazardous material. (Rebecca points out a rash on her neck.) You see the rash here? That’s from the chemical, from being on the beach on Friday.
It’s in the air, it’s also in the sand, even if you’re not standing on the beach, if you’re miles inland, people are still getting really sick. That’s another thing that people don’t know, how many people are actually sick right now down there from just being close to the water. The dispersant is airborne and people are inhaling it. And it’s in the fish. And the EPA didn’t admit until three weeks ago that they didn’t even have a test for fish contamination by Corexit!
So there’s a lot that people don’t know about the oil spill that we’re down there documenting. But ultimately, the whole intention of it is to lead people to a place where they demand green energy and that they demand algae.
You’re from Louisiana, Josh. How much motivation to change do you observe in people at this time?
Josh: Change in Louisiana is very slow, when it happens at all. The mindset of the people there is that you can’t live without oil and it’s a bit of an abusive spouse, but you’ve got to keep it around anyway.
So, it’s not likely that we are going to see sweeping change in Louisiana any time soon. I think what we see is, if we can maybe start the change on the West Coast, and start the change in the White House, and start the change with money, that eventually the oil industry itself will shift. I think there are some signs of that, with ExxonMobil’s partnership with Synthetic Genomics, for example, and looking at potentially making crude from algae. But we’ve got a long way to go, and while we’re going there, there are a lot of secrets that the old energy industry would prefer that the public not know.
The second film project you’re working on, Sex and Algae…tell us a little more about that.
Josh: People say, “Sex and Algae, that’s a strange name.” Well, we just didn’t think a lot of people would go to a movie called “Overpopulation and Microorganisms.” So, that movie takes the perspective, unlike the first movie, that the issue isn’t so much the oil industry itself, but rather humanity and how we choose to behave. And looking at it as a whole system.
Oil is part of our life, but so is water. So is land. So is how we exist in a given community. All those dynamics filter into population, and population is ultimately the decider of whether or not a given group of people is able to survive on a given piece of land, regardless of what you’re using for fuel.
And the reality is, we’re going to have ten billion people in a very short period of time on this planet, and unless we radically shift our global thinking, our whole systems thinking—and it’s not just about climate change, but really about how are we going to eat? Once upon a time America could do what it wanted, and India could do what it wanted, but those times are over.
So that’s a very broad strokes approach, but both projects involve algae intimately. One as the fuel source, in the first movie, and in the second one we look at algae for nutraceuticals, algae for food, for carbon sequestration, as well as for fuel. One starts with the oil spill and ends with solutions. The other one’s about algae as a potential mechanism to help us get through “the bottleneck.”
What are some of the milestones you’ve seen that make you feel like real progress is being made?
Josh: I think when we worked with Solazyme, putting that first gallon of what they called Soladiesel into their Mercedes Benz… That was a quiet moment, we just had one camera, but it was a milestone. I’m not aware before that of any fuel that went into a standard vehicle and powered it to go down the road. That was followed by other trials and other tests, the Continental flight, the jet fighter that flew on it as well…all of that proof of concept is how you shift public opinion a step at a time.
Rebecca: That was part of why we came up with this whole campaign to drive a car powered by algae gasoline across the country. Because, for people, seeing is believing. It’s just a pie in the sky idea until somebody does it. So, we came up with this idea of taking a car and driving it from California to Washington, DC, powered by algae gasoline. And up until that point we’d only seen a vile of algae gasoline. Nobody had actually put algae gasoline into a car. So we were the first people to do that, and Sapphire made the fuel for us.
Everybody was a little nervous, but we did it, and the car ran great. We had press conferences along the way, went to DC and had a bunch of Congress and media people show up. It was very effective in terms of getting the word out, especially to people in DC, that it was real and it was happening. And I think that another milestone was when we actually went to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and filmed Sapphire’s facility there, and drove down to Columbus where the thousand acres are going to be grown to commercial scale.
Josh: One of the funny things about the second movie that we’re working on is, there’s almost not enough to make a movie about algae yet. You almost have to wait a year until these things are up and running. Even some of the bigger groups that are putting systems or integrated algal biorefineries and things like that in place, they’re not to the point yet where you can actually go and see something.
Rebecca: Which is why it was so exciting to be down at Sapphire, in Las Cruces, because we had a large camera crane and we were able to, in a cinematic way, go sweeping across their algae pond and capture the beauty of it. It’s such a stunning thing to watch, us being able to make this transition to clean fuels, and to see these ponds all laid out like that and see it really happening. It was kind of a relief because we’ve been talking about it for so long!
How deeply do you get involved in the science of algae?
Josh: I think it’s important for us to qualify that we’re not experts in the technology. We’re filmmakers.
Rebecca: We deal a lot with public perception. We’re not so much into the science of algae, but we are certainly in the media and we are often people’s first point of contact in terms of understanding that algae can be used as a fuel. So when people make that connection and they realize that not only can you feed people with algae, but you can actually create a new green economy and fuel our cars and airplanes with algae. There’s a moment when that person lights up, because suddenly it all makes sense.
That certainly happened with me, when Josh introduced me to algae. It was like, it’s all going to end where it began. Algae is a miracle. It really, really is. I believe that algae has the potential to be the very thing that carries us out of this sort of dark age of our dependence on petroleum, and I believe that we’ll see that in our lifetime.
Where do you apply your energy to get the most impact? Is there someone or some group that you feel you can be most effective in delivering the message?
Josh: Certainly our priority is making our films at this stage. Films are a very different experience than an advertisement. They are a distinct experience from a book, from a conversation. They literally transport you to a different world. Movies captivate people, they draw people’s attention, they focus people. For us as filmmakers, our priority is making the film. For us as activists, our priority is using the film to elicit some kind of change.
Are we at a fork in the road in our society, or going off a cliff? How optimistic are you about the future?
Josh: That’s what “Sex and Algae” is really about, is about that cliff. Because the cliff is likely, it’s predictable, but it’s not definitely going to happen.
It’s unlikely that humans will stop reproducing at the rate they are reproducing without some major cataclysmic change. What could that be? An asteroid, or environmental crisis? In all likelihood, none of that is going to happen. What is predictable is that we will continue doing what we are doing until some other force acts upon us.
It’s going to take something drastic and unpredictable for human beings to make a conscious evolutionary shift. Most evolutionary shifts are unconscious. So the question is, can we consciously choose a different path, different lifestyle, algae being a piece of that, algae heralding some of the thinking that will have to go into that. But algae’s just the tip of the iceberg on that thinking, and that thinking will have to be embraced in all systems, electricity generation, how we get our food, to how we move around, to how we clothe ourselves. We’re talking about a major retooling of human society.
Who or what do you think is going to be the driving force of that?
Josh: I’m pessimistic in that I think it will come from multiple crises occurring simultaneously. I think having grown up in Louisiana I saw Katrina being the first confluence of multiple crises—climate crises, infrastructure crises, government crises and the lack of education and ability in a population crises. The oil spill is just a Take 2 of that. And now we add the energy crisis.
Louisiana is like a petri dish, a microcosm of what we could be seeing in other areas, and on a large scale, if we don’t make some very powerful conscious choices on a social level, which is extremely difficult for humanity to do. We don’t generally do that.
I’d like to think that we’ve become enlightened and make the choice from a place of understanding and knowing and big heartedness…but you should ask Rebecca’s opinion!
Rebecca: He’s the glass half empty kind of guy! I’m the glass half full. Even despite seeing everything I’ve seen down in the Gulf and being really disturbed by it for the last several months, I think we’re all simultaneously having sort of a new awareness of what it is we’re doing to ourselves, and the detriment that we are causing to our planet and chances for survival. I think that everybody is starting to gain some awareness around these issues, and I think that one of the main problems that we are facing is where the solutions are going to come from.
We have to mimic nature and have an ecology of solutions, to be able to shift out of this system that’s no longer serving us. We have a car outside that gets 150 miles per gallon that we plug into our solar panels and we pour algae gasoline into it. That makes sense. We have to look at how can we have all of these things work together so that we can make the shift that is required.