Florida professor: “We are trying to save civilization”

Just north of Tampa in Land O’ Lakes, Florida, sits a 40-foot recreational vehicle, but it’s no ordinary RV.

It’s a self-sustaining, off-the-grid home that runs off solar power and features a biodigester, described as “a mechanical stomach that breaks down organic waste.”

“We want to be living examples of what a reimagined Florida could be that is resilient to future change, that mitigates and adapts to those changes and that creates enough of a bond with enough biodiversity to all the components of this ecosystem that we can thrive together,” Dr. Thomas Henry Culhane said.

T.H. Culhane is director of the Climate Mitigation and Adaptation program at the Patel College of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His 27-acre property is called the Rosebud Continuum, where students and the community can learn more about sustainability.

He and his wife recycle their shower water and grow much of their food through aquaponics, hydroponics and aeroponics. They call their life one of “voluntary simplicity.”

He said his interest in the environment goes back to his childhood. He remembers traveling to Iraq, where he slept on his grandfather’s roof along the Tigris River in Baghdad. Then just 8 years old, he saw flames from oil drill towers burning trough the night. He realized the air and the water were being polluted in Iraq – and in America, too.

On Earth Day in 1970, Culhane recalled gathering neighborhood kids to go pick up trash in the woods behind his apartment complex near the Hudson River.

“I had these powerful personal motivations, but I didn’t know how to get off grid for years and years and years,” he said. “They teach us about solar energy in school, and they’d say it’s not efficient, and it was too expensive. They’d talk about solar hot water and say you couldn’t keep it hot long enough and made all these lies. I guess I started rebelling by the time I got to Harvard when I was 18.”

Culhane has had an accumulation of experiences that have inspired his off-grid lifestyle. From using solar panels in the remote jungles of Borneo and Guatemala, to building solar hot water systems in the slums of Egypt, Culhane has teamed up with communities around the world to implement sustainable practices. 

“In 2004, I moved into the slums of Egypt, and faced a life with the poor of no electricity, caught in constant electricity cuts and water being cut. And I was like, shoot, I can solve this problem. So I started building solar hot water systems by hand, and figured out ways to do them really cheaply out of local material. It was clear that I had to start teaching what I was learning.”

Culhane, an associate professor, is also the co-founding director of a not-for-profit educational corporation, Solar CITIES Inc. The college website says it “helps community stakeholders solve urban ecology and development issues surrounding waste-water, solid waste, food security and decentralized clean energy production.”

He practices at home what he preaches in his college classes, but says his RV is not entirely off the grid.

“We are not off-grid in the fact that we are detached from civilization,” he said. “Instead, we are deeply involved in our connections and that’s vital for people to know. There are times that we draw from the grid, from the community and we are working out a way where we can all be cooperative allies to one another, improving our neighborhoods. We aren’t turning our back on civilization, we are trying to save civilization.”

Dr. T.H. Culhane. Credit: Patel College of Global Sustainability

At the core of keeping Culhane’s RV running sustainably is the biodigester, which Culhane describes as a water tank that transforms organic waste into storable energy. This biodigester technology allows Culhane to run generators, cook and heat water. It also produces a fertilizer that he uses in his garden.

“It’s the core technology because it uses something we will never run out of, waste, and we will always have parts of plants and animals and fecal material, trimmings of trees. It’s the one thing you know you can count on.”

Culhane believes the people who could “rewild Florida” are the state’s Native Americans, including the Miccosukee. A loss of indigeneity and connection to the land, has contributed to Florida’s environmental crisis, he said.

“We’re so brainwashed by the current system of capitalism, communism, socialism,and control oligarchy that you destroy the land yourself. We’re turning to our Indigenous relatives and bringing them here to the Rosebud Continuum to have these discussions and learn from each other.”

Culhane believes a way to cure this displacement of heritage is to adopt a gentle language and different view of Florida.

“Instead of this sort of Imperial English that is all about domination, commerce, subordination and hierarchy, learn a gentle language that’s Indigenous that has words for the relationship with the landscape,” Culhane said.

“You’re framing Florida the wrong way. You’re framing it with a language that looks at it as something to be exploited, to be flattened, to have shopping malls built on it.”

As he adapts and learns more every day, Culhane said his main goal is to live out his sustainability practices in hopes of helping make Florida better suited for future generations.

“We want to honor that tradition of Indigenous peoples that set from the American perspective of planning for seven generations or as sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. The goal here is to precisely test it, not just to talk about, not keep things theoretical, but to everyday live the challenges of living that sustainability ethic.”

Story by Maiya Mahoney

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