Blind Spot and Fuel: a Review of Two Peak Oil Documentaries from 2008

August 24, 2018

Blind Spot: Peak Oil and the Coming Global Crisis
A documentary directed, written, photographed and edited by Adolfo Doring
Music by Randall Wallace
Produced by Michelle Cicalese, David Gil, Randall Wallace and Amanda Zackem
Presented by Wallace Global Fund in association with Dislexic Films
Release Date: October 2008
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

A documentary directed and narrated by Josh Tickell
Written by Johnny O’Hara
Film editing by Michael Horwitz and Tina Imahara
Cinematography by James Mulryan
Music by Ryan Demaree and Edgar Rothermich
Produced by Daniel Assael, Darius Fisher, John Goldsmith, Tina Imahara, Robert Little, Laura Martorella, Gregory McClatchy, Janet Morrow, Stephen Nemeth, H.W. Pausch, Greg Reitman, Dale Rosenbloom, Todd Sali, Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Kevin Vickery
A Cinema Libre Studio release in association with Blue Water Entertainment, Open Pictures and Hero BX
Release Date: January 2008
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

These two documentaries on the world oil crisis came out in 2008, a time of growing concern over humankind’s energy future. In the decade since then, public interest in the issue has waned, but the relevance of these films hasn’t—they remain valuable, engaging portraits of the quandary we face at the end of the oil age. Blind Spot provides the proverbial 30,000-foot view of our situation, whereas Fuel gives a personal, on-the-ground account of one man’s activist crusade. Both films are far from perfect. One fails to adequately address how we should respond to our crisis, while the other is unrealistically optimistic about the responses it suggests. Still, both are important films, and they’re all the more compelling when viewed together, given their disparate but complementary perspectives.

Blind Spot film ad

Blind Spot is uncompromising about the realities we face as we leave the era of cheap, abundant oil behind. A formidable cast of geoscientists, physicists, environmental analysts, inventors and other experts details the essence of our plight. Our modern world, which requires ever-increasing quantities of easily obtainable oil, faces a future of ever-dwindling supply. Because oil is finite and the rate of new oil discoveries has been dropping since the early 1960s, logic and mathematics dictate that its production will eventually reach an all-time high, followed by permanent decline. The numbers indicate that the point of peak production, a phenomenon called “peak oil,” is imminent. And, sadly, alternative energy sources, for all the hype they’ve generated, are powerless to save us. They are nowhere near as energy-dense as oil, and we’ve already waited too long to invest meaningfully in them.

This assessment has held up well. Most people wouldn’t know it, though, for all the obfuscation on this subject in the media. A lot of people today insist that world oil output has continued to climb steadily, a decade-plus after peak oil experts warned us it would begin to head downward. But such claims are based on a, let’s say, “creative” definition of oil. The original peak oil predictions had to do with conventional crude oil, whereas the figures most people hear about these days are more appropriately termed total liquid fuels. These include things like biofuels and tar sands oil, which are not conventional crude. We now know that production of the latter peaked around 2005 to 2006, right on schedule (and, incidentally, even before Blind Spot’s release). Eventually, total liquids will follow suit.

Besides the specter of oil’s scarcity, Blind Spot looks at a range of deleterious effects the substance has had while plentiful. These include overpopulation, climate change, war in the Middle East, the economic decline of America’s middle class, health effects from automobile emissions and mass species extinctions.

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Overpopulation is perhaps the most frightening of all the topics listed above. Richard Heinberg, a major peak oil author and senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, describes how, beginning around the early 1800s, oil enabled industrial agriculture. This in turn permitted the world’s population to increase sevenfold (seven-and-a-half-fold as of 2018). Blind Spot shows a line graph of world population growth from 1 A.D. to 2007, which reveals that as of 1850 there were fewer than one billion humans alive—a data point labeled “Earth’s Approximate Carrying Capacity.” Thus, Heinberg argues that absent oil, the planet isn’t capable of supporting more than about a billion people. Our task at this point, he says, is to reduce population as humanely as possible before nature does the job for us.

The miracle of petrochemical-based industrial farming is but one factor enabling today’s bloated human population; it’s also our luck that Earth’s current climate favors widespread human settlement and agriculture. Yet that propitious climate is among the things we’re destroying through our oil usage. Gases emitted by burning fossil fuel are altering the climate in ways that are fast eliminating human habitat. For this reason, if for no other, it’s fortunate that we’re depleting our oil resources. However, climate change researcher James Hansen suggests that the damage might already be done, due to positive (i.e., self-reinforcing) feedback effects. Hansen warns of “the danger that these positive feedbacks will cause a situation that begins to run under its own power.” In the 10 years that have passed since Blind Spot’s release, evidence in favor of this scenario has steadily mounted, with data repeatedly showing rates of change far beyond what climate scientists once said was likely.

Just as the science on climate change continues to grow more and more alarming, so research into the human health effects of automobile exhaust increasingly shows it to be deadlier than previously thought. Terry Tamminen, former head of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, reports that levels of exhaust pollutants once thought to be benign are, in fact, quite harmful. He also exposes some of the measures that oil and automobile companies have taken to bury this fact.

Apart from the harms that directly attend oil usage, there’s another host of troubling issues associated with fuels that have been touted as oil’s replacements. Blind Spot highlights two such fuels, ethanol and biodiesel. Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel, who chaired a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) panel on ethanol from 1979 to 1983, decries the ethics of diverting food crops to fuel production. The number of malnourished people on Earth today is the largest in history, he observes, and increased biofuels production means less food to go to these already starving people. Biofuels’ other horrors include soil degradation, water depletion, deforestation and ocean dead zones caused by fertilizer runoff.

In addition to their ecological and human health effects, ethanol and biodiesel lack the one thing that is oil’s greatest virtue: its energy density. Our present society needs fuels with high energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) ratios. The DOE research that Pimentel advised found ethanol to have a lower-than-1:1 EROEI, meaning that it takes more energy to produce than it yields in return. As such, ethanol isn’t an energy source but an energy sink. Pimentel adds that subsequent studies into ethanol and other biofuels have reinforced this finding. So, once the present glut of fracked tight oil from the American West begins to vanish, efforts to mitigate its decline by ramping up biofuel production are bound to be just as ill-fated as the attempt to reverse conventional oil’s downward spiral with biofuels 10 years ago was.

Blind Spot covers far more ground than has been described so far in this review. Beyond the hard science underpinning our energy picture and the ecological corner into which we’ve backed ourselves through our fuel choices, the film goes into the link between oil supply and economic growth, the psychological and sociological facets of our predicament, the tactics advertisers use to entice us to consume and how we, as a society, need new stories to make sense of our changing world. These discussions enter some pretty deep philosophical territory, but the thread that ties them all together—an awareness that infinite growth on a finite world is impossible—is remarkably simple.

Where Blind Spot falls down is in not exploring in earnest the matter of how to deal with our mess. The documentary spends some brief, isolated moments outlining the types of changes that are necessary, but these are mere asides. The problem isn’t that the individuals interviewed lack detailed proposals for addressing the challenges we face. On the contrary, they have plenty of thoughts on what we should do, as evidenced by the many books they’ve collectively written. It is the film that’s at fault for not allowing its experts to really delve into the subject.

My desire is not for the film to offer “solutions,” for it seems to me that its fatalism about the future is substantiated. But many issues that can’t be solved can nonetheless be responded to effectively, and this, I judge, is the case with peak oil. If only Blind Spot had closed with a section examining some of the promising suggestions that have been put forward by the many fine thinkers among its cast. As it is, the film ends on a stark warning about a coming mass die-off of the human population, voiced over the image of a poisoned, dead bird lying on its back. That sort of ending inspires not constructive action but melancholy.

Fuel film ad
The difference in perspective between Blind Spot and Fuel is perhaps best illustrated through the following comparison. In Blind Spot, there’s a reference to people who live “in toxic hell because of oil refineries.” It’s a poignant line, but the documentary never drives it home with any specific examples to which viewers can relate. Fuel ventures into this same topic and does provide a personal story. It turns out that the filmmaker’s own family is from a region of Louisiana that is badly polluted by petroleum refineries, and his mother is a casualty. She tells of how she always wanted to have a large family, but couldn’t because petroleum effluents in her environment had ravaged her reproductive system. She suffered nine miscarriages and brought only two children to term. Her anguish is more effective than any litany of abstractions, and it helps us appreciate the hatred of oil companies that Josh Tickell says initially compelled his activism.

A deeply personal film, Fuel is every bit as much a portrait of Tickell’s activist career up through early 2008 as it is a wake-up call to humanity. Tickell is an alternative fuels advocate who rose to fame during the late ’90s for embarking on a two-year nationwide tour to raise awareness about the merits of biodiesel. He traveled in a flamboyantly colored, diesel-powered van known as the “Veggie Van,” running it on used frying oil from restaurants he passed along the way. Fuel begins with an amusing scene in which he pulls his rig, in all its bright-colored glory (its paint job a mural of sunflowers set against a radiant blue sky) into a drive-through and asks for a medium soft drink—as well as all of the restaurant’s used cooking oil. We chuckle heartily as the flustered server struggles to understand Tickell’s request.

Tickell was born in Australia and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a boy. Following the move, he was dismayed at no longer being able to play amid nature as he had back home. His new stomping ground was too toxic for such recreation. Tickell was a bright kid, and during a school science project for which he collected and analyzed local water samples, he gained his first clues into how the state government had long been controlled by oil interests, and as a result had been underreporting levels of toxic waste in the environment. Tickell went on to earn a college degree in sustainable living, which afforded him the opportunity to intern on some organic farms in Europe. It was on one of these farms that he first encountered biodiesel and decided to spread the word about it in America.

One distinct difference between Fuel and Blind Spot is that Fuel interviews not only scientists, entrepreneurs, scholars, politicians and the like, but also Hollywood celebrities. Among the stars it features—all of whom have supported causes related to getting off oil—are Julia Roberts, Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Sheryl Crow. Their presence, together with Tickell’s beguiling, vulnerable and altogether touching narrative, lends Fuel a good deal more entertainment value and drama than Blind Spot. The soundtrack reinforces this tone, with songs by Crow, Nelson, John Mellencamp and other popular musicians conveying an inspirational, at times humorous, feel, as opposed to the solemn instrumental track of Blind Spot.

In many ways, Fuel and Blind Spot are well aligned ideologically. Tickell shows no signs of being what peak oil folks would call an oil cornucopian, or one who believes that we can magically make more of the stuff appear simply by wanting it badly enough. (He has other cornucopian leanings, but we’ll get to those later.) He grants the basic tenets of peak oil and includes clips from interviews he conducted with heavyweights on the subject like Colin Campbell and the late Matthew Simmons. Also like Blind Spot, Fuel makes a point of emphasizing how ubiquitous petroleum is in our lives, the connection between oil and war, oil’s adverse ecological and human health impacts and the existential threat that climate change poses. Both films are also critical of Americans’ profligate consumption, the advertising industry that encourages our wastefulness and the use of food crops to create fuel (they’re agreed that ethanol is a nonstarter).

Moreover, Fuel is sober enough to recognize that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to replacing oil. Tickell says we need “a barrel of solutions,” and to illustrate, he shows us a diagram in the shape of a barrel, with seven horizontal sections. These are labeled, from top to bottom, “ENERGY EFFICIENCY,” “PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION,” “PLUG-IN HYBRIDS/EV’s,” “SOLAR,” “WIND,” “BIOMASS” and “SUSTAINABLE BIOFUELS.” As he drills down on each category, we watch him meet with entrepreneurs, lawmakers and investors across America, as well as travel to Germany and Sweden to gain insight into what those nations have done to reduce their oil dependence. He talks with experts in wood-based bioenergy, wind power, tidal energy, diesel automotive innovations, biodegradable plastic alternatives, vertical farming, retrofitting for energy conservation and the use of wastewater as an algal biofuel feedstock. In short, rather than a single magic bullet, he fires a volley of projectiles, the better to hit an exceedingly daunting target.

Unfortunately, however, some of the solutions that Tickell examines reflect a delusion on his part. He appears to take it for granted that our species somehow has ultimate control over its destiny, no matter that it’s the biosphere we’re destroying that put us here and continues to support us. “We can sustain every living human being,” Tickell glibly assures us, “as well as the human beings that will come. The choice is ours.” He also uses the phrase “almost insurmountable” to describe the challenges we face. How can he draw such a fine distinction? Couldn’t an equally valid case be made that our crises are just shy of surmountable? The filmmaker provides zero evidence in support of claims such as those quoted above; he merely asserts them.

Worse yet, he ignores a wealth of evidence that goes against these optimistic statements. He never brings up the Club of Rome’s landmark 1972 report titled The Limits to Growth (to say nothing of its subsequent updates). Since this study remains one of the most prescient ever conducted on the implications of continued growth in the global population and economy through the end of this century, its omission from Tickell’s assessment is glaring. Tickell also avoids mentioning the DOE’s 2005 Hirsch Report, which stressed the need to begin our shift away from oil at least 20 years in advance of its peak, lest the transition fail miserably. Tickell’s faith that humanity can somehow magically avert certain disaster is no doubt reassuring to many viewers, but it has nothing to do with reality.

Numerous other vital topics go neglected in Tickell’s selective analysis. For instance, he states that biodiesel’s EROEI is 3:1 (a figure that contradicts the DOE findings mentioned earlier, but let’s grant for argument’s sake that it’s correct). The next logical question, which Tickell doesn’t ask, is whether a 3:1 EROEI is actually sufficient to power industrial society. The belief among many who have studied the energetics of complex human systems is that it isn’t—not by half. And just as with EROEI, Tickell fails to pose questions about a raft of other necessary topics relevant to our energy situation, including the vast number of finite resources besides oil that are nearing peak production, the paradox inherent in striving toward ever-greater efficiency (peakists will know this as the Jevons paradox), the failings of free trade and nature’s status as the ultimate arbiter of what takes place in human economic affairs.

Even so, you don’t have to share Tickell’s blind trust in human ingenuity to applaud him for at least proposing solutions. Peak oil author John Michael Greer has sensibly argued that what we need right now is a fruitful state of dissensus. Greer reasons that because so much is still unknown as to which approaches will work and which won’t, we need to research as many avenues as possible to weed out the promising ones from the duds. I don’t know whether Tickell is aware of Greer’s ideas, but his openness to a range of potential responses, as demonstrated in Fuel, makes him an exemplar of dissensus.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: building resilient societies, peak oil, Resource Depletion