Is Joy a Sustainable Fuel?

By Moe Beitiks

as published in the CSPA Quarterly/Fall 2009

Creative Visions


When you see a big painted bus driving down the  highway (a BIG bus, an old school bus, not some passenger van) that says RUNS ON VEGETABLE OIL; when that bus is covered in a thousand brushstrokes of color; is filled with young folk who may or may not have dreadlocks, may or may not play drums, and may or may not flash you a peace sign, what do you do?  Do you roll your eyes?  Do you smile?  Is the joy that seems to sustain them for real?  Can it last?  Or is it the glory of youth and naïveté?

Common Vision is a hippie caravan, in the best sense of the word.  The fleet of vegetable-oil powered buses travels the country in seasonal “Fruit Tree Tours,” planting saplings, leading workshops and giving earth-celebratory performances.  Photos from the tour depict dreadlocked smiling folk beating on african drums and dancing.  It seems like a stereotypical portrait of hippie earth-worship.  Except that in addition to gleefully celebrating the earth, it’s effectively spreading sustainable strategies.

To be sure, green touring is not a foreign concept.  Artists like the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews Band have been running on biodiesel for years.  Even Broadway shows have begun to offset their carbon footprints.  The company that provides such a service, Touring Green, is one of a number of organizations that have developed to support sustainable touring:  REVERB, Bid for Green, the list goes on.  But there’s something pure and joyful about the Common Vision celebration.  It’s a no-holds-barred earthy celebration accompanied by real, measurable action.  It almost feels like . . . cheating. 

Common Vision has been touring since 2000.  They’ve planted hundreds of fruit trees in schools and communities along the west coast and beyond.  They’ve taught workshops and inspired kids (and they’ve got the crayon-drawn thank-you notes to prove it).  “We see ourselves as what I call ‘shooting star energy,’ something that you see, recognize as beautiful and feel inspired by,” says Common Vision founder Blair  Philips. “Now is the critical time to spread the inspiration accompanied with the education to rekindle a relationship with the earth.”

Common Vision is not a lone painted hippie bus, but part of a generation of veggie buses, fueled by waste oil and uncensored joy.  “Biodiesel is the gateway drug to sustainability,” says Biodiesel Station founder Sara Hope Smith, and veggie buses have proven it in droves.  Indeed, the idea that you can fuel a car on vegetable oil is a cultural catalyst.  It’s something that makes a sustainable future seem possible and viable, even if you can’t completely replace  petroleum with waste grease. 

Though veggie oil fuels have been part of the popular lexicon for the past couple of years, there’s still some confusion about them.  Here’s the breakdown: vegetable oil behaves like a diesel fuel when thinned.  Chemically thinning the oil produces biodiesel, which can be used directly in a diesel engine without modification.  To use Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) as a fuel, a diesel engine needs to be outfitted with a fueling system that will physically thin the oil with heat.  This often requires the installation of a second tank and fuel filter, as well as an in-line heater or two.  Both forms  reduce emissions significantly— some by seventy percent– and neither contain sulfur, which in emissions contributes to acid rain.  Plus, the exhaust smells like fried goodness.

That’s the basic spiel I gave while traveling aboard a bus called ‘Unifried, the Biofuels Bus’.  Five years ago, I lived on that converted school bus for five months, giving veggie fuel workshops by donation at farmers markets, schools and festivals across the country.  Our bus was not covered in a mural, just a few crisp, solid stripes of color, and we had our own crew of inspired and willing volunteers who had saved their cash and set aside some time to go preach the good green word.  There was a sense of irony about the whole thing; we knew we looked like evangelical hippies.  I even gave tongue-in-cheek “Grease Sermons,” touting the good-God-glory of greasy goodness.  Still, we dove into grease dumpsters with grinning joy.  We were using waste as fuel!

On the road, the eco-inspired traveled in droves.  There was the Sustainable Solutions Caravan, which made several treks between San Diego and Costa Rica, touting cobb-building and grease-gathering along the way. Julia Butterfly-Hill’s We the Planet Bus, outfitted with a bamboo interior and energy-efficient appliances, drove all over America on used vegetable oil.  The Big Tadoo Puppet Crew would put on colorful shows at festivals, celebrating farmers and permaculture ideals.  Groups of friends with no specified mission bought buses together, vacationing and celebrating in painted school buses running on restaurant waste.  There got to be so many veggie buses that for awhile they gathered themselves in a Clean Fuel Caravan Coalition, a body of alternatively fueled   vehicles supporting each others’ sustainable goals.  The buses would gather at festivals, green events, and celebratory retreats. “If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable,” says Philips.

Still, buses cannot be fueled by waste oil and joy alone.  Though volunteers founded and continue to run many eco-educational tours, there are the costs of feeding and watering those volunteers, as well as internet access, bridge tolls, fuel filters, auto parts, and the occasionally necessary swim break.  Even the prominent Bio-Willie blend of biodiesel, backed by singer Willie Nelson, ended up tanking financially.  There’s no touring, no fueling, no sustainable future without some hefty regard for logistics.

The reality of biodiesel has also changed.  The fuel is commonly made from virgin GMO soy stock as well as from Waste Vegetable Oil.  Producers of Palm Oil in places like Indonesia are widely criticized for deforesting rainforest land in order to grow a “sustainable” feedstock.  In response, the Sustainable Biofuels Alliance emerged to develop a “green” standard for biodiesel.  It even toured with REVERB this year to spread the sustainable biodiesel message.  The supercharged, pure-white joy of a sustainable future must constantly face a slightly gray reality. 

Some of the veggie caravans evolved. Natural supermarket giant Whole Foods sponsored the Conscious Goods    Alliance, which traveled from store to store, touting fair trade goods. Parts of the Sustainable Solutions Caravan, The Big Tadoo Puppet Crew, and the Clean Fuel Caravan merged into the Sustainable Living Roadshow, a massive-volunteer-run, traveling eco-carnival. Some buses are parked and gathering dust: some are touring musicians: some are creating new caravans.

Still, whether a bus is adorned with corporate logos or earthy brush-swishes, touring sustainably can be difficult when time and energy aren’t properly managed.  A spirit of earth-devotion and self-sacrifice can lead to volunteers working themselves to exhausted extremes, or absorbing fleet costs on their personal credit cards.  This can lead to a different kind of unsustainability: one of spirit.

Recently Arcola Energy defended their future touring plans by analyzing the manner in which they tour,  asking: Can the miles involved, the size of the touring party, the negative impact of the tour be reduced?  Can the positive impact of the tour be increased?  In the context of these questions, Arcola looks at its own booking arrangements, multiple-destination tours, and staffing, rather than just the carbon footprint of the cultural endeavor.  Sustainable touring is made more so by smart and efficient planning, and requires the ability to face the inglorious realities of schedules, mileage, and budget.

Is it worth the effort?  Do veggie buses make the world a better place?  Are they, in fact, being the change? “To be honest,” says Phillips, “I don’t think that there is such a thing as touring sustainably. True sustainability starts when there’s no need to tour because the message is being heard and people start localizing food   systems and making decisions based on the recourses available to them with in 100 or so miles . . . However, when you reference people touring with a strong message and education against the making of disposable plastic toys and trucking them across the country, or flying them around the world so that they can end up in a plastic island in the middle of the ocean, touring is the lesser of two evils.”

Personally, I can say this: that while touring with the Sustainable Living Roadshow as a Road Manager, there were many, many moments when I had exhausted my glee reserves.  Our all-volunteer crew constantly worked 12 to 14-hour days, setting up and breaking down the carnival, running games, conducting workshops,  booking venues, hosting film screenings, moving gear, finding fuel, mapping routes.  Many people took on jobs they had no experience with, simply because they needed to get done.  The tour was not nearly as   efficient administratively as a more experienced or well-funded tour might have been, and we learned many lessons on the fly.  

But then someone would thank us for coming.  Someone would say, “I’ve never heard of any of this; I’ve been wanting to learn more about wind power; tell me about biodiesel; this is awesome, thank you.”  Many attendees credited us with being a catalyst for information-sharing and community networking.  All in all, the Sustainable Living Roadshow successfully reached folks at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, and at the Tupac Shakur Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, among many other places.

Philips believes that Common Vision’s effectiveness is evident, “When an inner city youth starts connecting the dots about where his food comes from . . . or when a student gets excited and takes ownership of the tree she planted, and exclaims that she’ll be happy when her little brother will get to eat the fruit of the tree when he makes it into 7th grade.” 

Common Vision’s accolades aren’t only from elementary school kids: a documentary made about their project for PBS’ Natural Heroes has earned them an Emmy Award. It’s an excellent representation of veggie buses at their best, working as a kind of cultural crowbar for the green meme. An accomplishment that is deserving of joy, great gleeful gobs of it, dreadlocked or otherwise.

Moe Beitiks writes about environmental art and eco-culture for and 
She can be found in the San Francisco Bay Area working in theaters or pumping biodiesel.