Thomas “T.H.” Culhane, urban planner, science educator and entertainer, was our biogas instructor during the last week of the Global Campus. This means that it was up to him to break the news to us, not at all gently: “We are 90% constituted of microorganisms, of parasites and bacteria. We are their buses, their apartments, we are their hotels and their airplanes. Bacteria are responsible for the running of virtually everything on this planet. And it is up to us whether we treat them well or not”.
Culhane is also responsible for the nongovernmental organisation Solar C.³I.T.I.E.S. – “Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems” – based in Essen, Germany, where he currently lives with his wife and son – which aims to do exactly this in the slums of Cairo, Egypt, where he works to bring people the perspective of simplicity in self-sufficiency, that survival and welfare are just a couple of gallons and pipes and a pile of biodegradable matter away.
Culhane’s journey started when, as a young Harvard University graduate on biological anthropology, he, to put it in his own words, “somehow convinced David Rockefeller to give him money to do whatever he wanted” – based on the following premise: “He asked me – if you find your paradise, will you stay there? I said no. He asked me why. I said that if I found paradise I would want to come back to share everything I’d learnt”. His next step was venturing into the rainforests of Borneo, where he might not have found paradise, but found in the difficulties experienced by the local tribes – as well as in all their ancestral knowledge – enough encouragement to move on to study the urban environment of Bagdad, Iraq. From this point on he started unfolding his perception on the close interrelationship between the designing of a functioning city and the dynamics of rainforest ecology, and thus of nature processes in general.
These ideas led him to a couple of years later pursue an education on urban planning at UCLA, where he combined concepts of agroforestry, sociobiology and urban design. He followed this up with his first summer in Cairo in 2001, when he started to work in cooperation with UCLA professor Randall Crane on installing rooftop solar water heaters on some of the poorest neighbourhoods of the region.
He has experienced firsthand a lot of the daily challenges faced by people in areas with little sanitary treatment, for he and his wife Sybille lived in a slum apartment themselves during their time in Egypt. This close contact with the area’s inhabitants and their day-to-day routine provided Culhane with a new outlook on our society’s relationship to waste: there he got to know the ‘Zabaleen’ people, or the “garbage people”, who for decades have made their living out of collecting and recycling the city’s waste by hand. Using biogas technology, the garbage they collect can provide the whole neighbourhood energy for up to two hours a day. According to Culhane, solar technology is well heard of in the region, but often thought as being too expensive for most people to afford. The Zabaleen people, for example, did already use solar energy in order to dry plastics they picked up to recycle. However, a pre-manufactured solar water heater would cost them way over their average annual income. Culhane showed them how they could build one using not more than their own two hands and recycled materials they had picked up on the streets.
Of course, in crisis areas energy self-sufficiency is also a crucial step to be taken towards liberation. T.H. cooperates simultaneously with the Zabaleen districts, which are mainly Coptic Christian, and with Darb Al-Ahmar, an Islamic quarter, and both neighbourhoods now work together in cooperation. It is one example of how differences can be overcome when people find a new perspective that guides them towards a common direction. In occupied areas such as the Palestinian territories, it represents a pivotal factor in empowering local tribes and communities.
Culhane also mentions the importance of biogas in empowering women, especially in rural villages. As they are in charge of most of the housework, they are the most affected by the limited resources they have accessible. In some regions of Africa they have the saying “Momma cries when she cooks”, because of all the black smoke and coal that gets into their eyes and lungs whenever they use the primitive wooden stoves that are available. Biogas represents a big shift in the whole routine of such households.
The reason why I am so enthusiastic about biogas is that it is one solution that is fundamental to practically all of the world’s problems. I can get all my energy and just focus on this one thing” Said Culhane laughing during an interview. And there is a lot of energy, indeed. T.H.’s ambitions go way beyond the solar water heaters that are now spread around the rooftops of several neighbourhoods in Cairo. They are only the paving of a road of lifelong dedication to finding alternatives to the problems created by social inequality and by centralised means of production.