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Welcome to the Thunderdome!

June 12, 2008

One of the steadfast assertions of humanities scholars is that the humanities are the means by which we develop context for new unknowns. The arts, specifically art history, literature, and drama (theatre and cinema) are particularly good at this.

As we were chatting this morning around the bust of Longfellow, conversation moved to, as it so often does, The Road Warrior, Mad Max.

The original Mad Max movie debuted in 1979 just as the world was experiencing its last fuel crisis (before the current one) and its plot was a none-too-subtle reflection of that time of fuel rations and long lines at filling stations. (They used to call them “filling stations” way back then.)

For those who don’t know, Mad Max is the story of a cop, Max, whose wife is slain by a biker gang after the cops crack down on them–an act which subsequently drives Max mad. Now, this story is set in an Australia of the not-too-distant future (perhaps 2008?) and gas is in short supply. So, the biker gangs are also gas pirates–seeking dominion by controlling the most precious of resources in the lawless Australian wastelands.

Flash forward, if you please, to a more recent time.

Several years ago I learned of a new alternative fuel: used vegetable oil. I was at the Cath Coffee house at 52nd and College (ran by the delightful Nora Spitznogle) listening to traveling songstress Jaia Suri who, at the time, was traveling around the country in a pickup truck she had had converted so that it ran on used vegetable oil. I know, right?

She had a rig she carried around in the pickup bed that pumped and filtered the captured oil, conducting it into a huge tank. And wherever she went, she told us after the show, she left the smell of french fries behind her.

She collected fuel by hitting up various Burger Kings, Wendy’s Good Times Burgers etc, asking them if she could pump the used grease from their grease traps, which, at the time, they were happy to allow her to do, if what somewhat confused why she’d want to.

Then there’s today. The gas this morning on South Madison Avenue was $4.17 and alternative fuel sources are a commodity in high demand. Companies have sprung up that do for a fee what Jaia Suri and a few hundred people nationwide used to do for free. They collect the grease from fast food restaurants, filter it, and sell it.

The biodiesel pioneers are having nothing of it. They have become, in the words of this author, Biodiesel Pirates. A gallon of crude soybean oil has a street value of 66 cents, a price that no one can argue with, says the new glistening black market.

I’m not attempting here to tarnish the image of the entrepreneurs that decided to buy and sell used grease. (For that matter, in the days before the modern Thunderdome, grease-hauling was a necessary but thankless task.) And I’m not trying to elevate thieves into heroes–one has no sympathy for the wife slayers in the Australian classic. I’m just saying, that what we are seeing right now in San Francisco is nothing that writer/director George Miller and future mega-star Mel Gibson couldn’t have predicted a long, long time ago in a land very far away.

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