EcoEng Newsletter No. 11, September 2005

Good bye, Thomas Rohrer (1959-2005)!

  By Andreas Schoenborn-Schaller, EcoEng-Newsletter
  "How do you convince a decision maker that sanitation without water works? For example by having them stick their noses into the terrific final product - fecal compost smelling like forest soil."

These two short sentences written in May 2002 sum up Thomas Rohrer's attitude towards his favourite field rather precisely. He, an agronomist by training, was a pioneer of ecological sanitation by heart. From years of trial and error he knew that constructed wetlands, composting toilets, urine separation and the like work well if they are set up properly. And he wanted to convince others about it. By arguing with them, showing them systems at work - e.g. at the Schattweid Centre of Applied Ecology. By having visitors stick their noses into fresh compost ("aahh, nice") that was unveiled only seconds later as being of fecal origin: Laughter, fed from surprise and some fright were the usual reaction. I am sure that this moment sticks in people's minds more than anything else of these visiting days at Schattweid.

Fig. 1: Thomas Rohrer and the author at Schattweid, back in the 1990s

I first met Thomas in summer 1993 when I visited Schattweid for an interview for the position of an intern I had applied for. From then until spring 1997 when I left Schattweid we were close colleagues in the team. We were collaborators in a number of projects, had countless meetings and also some parties together. Due to Schattweid's grassroot democratic structure, the whole team had to discuss and decide about difficult operational and strategic issues. Such as waiving our December salaries after another disastrous year, deciding about marketing strategies, setting up the yearly budget and deciding what to do with the wood in our forest. Not an easy setting for a young professional with sometimes stubborn ideas, like myself, in a pool with seven comparably willful individuals, one of them Thomas.

During these years I learnt to appreciate Thomas' enthusiasm, in work and in private issues, which went far beyond normal. Or would you install a composting toilet in your own bedroom if you had a common flush toilet working well just next door in the bathroom, like anybody else? I vividly remember his opinionated arguing about political issues he was interested in, his willingness to experiment and try out new ways. For Schattweid he was elected to be directing manager in my last years up there. In this function, he tried to open doors to foundations, town and state administrations, businesses. He organized an internal reorganization. The precarious overall financial situation of Schattweid made it quite natural that money, how to deal with it, how to get to it (e.g., via new projects or via finding new sponsors) was a major concern also for Thomas. However, as far as finances are concerned, back then and also in later years Schattweid never made its way to success. Not during Thomas' time as director, not before and not after that.

If I think of the pile of project ideas on Thomas' table - the creative chaos on his desk was remarkable - part of the story is, that the time for a number of his and Schattweid's ideas had not come. Take, a now flourishing non-profit organization that "provides you the opportunity to offset the impact of your flight on global climate" by purchasing a myclimate ticket in addition to the regular flight ticket ( Thomas was the first and to my knowledge only member of a club he founded years before myclimate where he did just the same: pay some money to a bank account for every long distance trip he made, which was then used for climate related projects.

Or take the remarkable rise of Ecosan that today thrives in numerous countries and is starting to be seen as a serious alternative (see e.g. the report by Ina Jurga on this year's Ecosan conference in South Africa). Or take the rising prices for oil that - finally - open doors for alternative energy technologies that for a long time have been around but did not get the attention they would have deserved.

It is a loss that Thomas Rohrer is no longer with us. He, the long term activist for composting toilets, organic gardening and ecological thinking, the baker, salesman, gardener, cook, husband and father of two small children, died from brain cancer at the age of 46 in March 2005.

Good bye, Thomas.

  Would you like to comment on this obituary from your own experiences and encounters with Thomas? Please post a message in the forum at (reading without login possible - login required for postings). This article and the postings in reaction to it will be part of a book for Thomas Rohrer's children, in order to give them a chance to get to know their father a bit better, who died when they were so young.

© 2005, International Ecological Engineering Society, Wolhusen, Switzerland