Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane has spent much of his career bringing low-tech energy solutions to underprivileged parts of the world. In 2006 he founded Solar C3ITIES (Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems), a nonprofit organization that has no employees and runs entirely on donations. On a recent trip to Kenya, he taught villagers how to build a simple device that turns organic waste into methane; inside two 500-gallon plastic drums, microbes digested cooking scraps and generated enough bio-gas to run a cook stove. Culhane has installed similar systems in remote places from Botswana to Palestine, built cheap solar hot water heaters in the slums of Cairo, and installed a small wind turbine high in the mountains of Nepal. At his own home in Germany, a bio-gas digester even turns dirty diapers into valuable fuel. It's all part of a vision of self-sufficiency, of protecting families in ways that sometimes even money can't.
You’ve worked in the slums of Nairobi, in central Los Angeles, even in the Ringling Bros. circus. What unites all these experiences?
A producer from National Geographic once called me “the junk genius.” She said she liked the idea that I’m able to find value in things that other people have thrown away, and solve real-world problems through garbage. The genius has little to do with me; I’m not an engineer, but work with people who have native genius. I’m like the hunter-gatherer of their genius, of ideas that are won out of necessity. I try to find places where people have driven themselves to find interesting solutions that don’t get a lot of attention but are very practical and simply need scale. Sometimes there’s a piece missing that makes it impractical to implement the idea without considerable labor, and that’s why it hasn’t spread. But when coupled with academic knowledge it suddenly emerges as a truly sustainable solution.
Can you give an example?
A while back I saw a YouTube video by a 10-year-old boy describing how to run a small LED light bulb off a circuit made with four empty aluminum cans. I coupled that with my knowledge of electronics and another idea I’d seen, the “joule thief” circuit, that was circulating online, and I was able to run super-bright LED flashlights off the tab of an aluminum can. Now I’m modifying the circuits to run compact fluorescent light bulbs off aluminum foil or even just the tabs from aluminum cans. With all of these inventions, people have started something and gone as far as they can go, and I’m trying to be the bridge.
I worked in the ghettos of Los Angeles for several years as the coordinator of a program designed to marry academic and vocational education. My job was to be the bridge between the science and math teachers and the auto mechanics and drafting teachers. I cut my teeth on being that link between worlds, only to find that that’s exactly where things have fallen apart. The ivory tower doesn’t speak well to the groups who have the practical knowledge and vice versa; there’s a sinew missing that would make a muscle out of this. Once that connection is there, you can start moving things.
How did you become interested in helping people become more self-reliant?
When I visited my grandparents in Baghdad and Beirut in 1970, we were a fairly wealthy family. My grandfather was an international lawyer; my grandmother came from a notable family, and we owned a large piece of property by the Mediterranean Sea. But the civil war in Lebanon wiped out all of their assets there, and they had to sell most of their land. This was a huge blow, but they maintained some wealth in Baghdad. It was my hope, when I went to live with my grandparents in Iraq in the mid-1980s, that I would one day return to Iraq and inherit the properties and make a career helping the Middle East develop sustainably. But the first Iraq war in 1990 wiped out everything we had there, forcing my grandfather and family to flee Iraq and live as refugees in the United States. My grandfather died a poor man in a nursing home in New York, not living to see the eventual downfall of Saddam Hussein. I learned from this experience that historical events outside one’s control can erase any security you think you have. You’re forced to live by your wits. It doesn’t matter what part of town you’re in: If you don’t have gas and electricity, you’re screwed.
You’re one of the few people who has attended both Harvard and clown college. How does working in the circus fit in with your ideas about self-sufficiency?
As a clown, back in the 1970s, we had to make our own costumes, props and makeup, and work on our own routines. It’s a self-sufficiency that’s built into the traveling circus, where you have to go into each new town and find your supplies. I was only 14 when I was with the circus, and they trained you in this Gypsy tradition, as modern-day nomads who take care of themselves in their own community. That made me respect the genius of people who were marginalized. It was a formative influence.
I went to Egypt and joined the circus there for a while, when I was 19 or 20. Once, I was at the acrobat’s house in a very dangerous slum in old Cairo that was known for drug dealing. The electricity went out; the circus performer sat down at his sewing machine and started sewing, and the lights went back on. I said, “How did you do that?” And he said, “Don’t you know that a sewing machine is basically an electric generator if you run it backwards?” That’s genius. And that impressed me early on.
You’ve said you think of social networking as a tool for globalization, but in a reverse sort of way that empowers the marginalized.
Virtual connections lead to great friendships. Once you’ve made friends and seen people’s pictures and videos and heard their voice, real trust and bonds begin to grow. I’ll go upon invitation and stay with those friends, on their couch or floor or three of us in the bed of a goat herder. And you eat with them, and then you donate whatever money you can to building a biodigester or solar hot water system. Then that network grows and you don’t have to ever “help the poor,” which I think is derogatory. You don’t have to save the world – you’re just working with your tribe, with people you know and trust and love. But the tribe has gotten so big and varied that you’re blind to race and class and religion and location, and you’re just helping each other. Social networking makes that process unbroken. And in the age of terrorism, when a single individual or small group can cause a disproportionate amount of damage, certainly a small group can also cause a disproportionate amount of good.
Hilary Rosner’s writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Popular Science, The New York Times, Newsweek, OnEarth and many other publications.