Human traditions must change for the sake of the planet

Illustration about tradition and the environment
Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Customs and traditions hold undeniable significance in the human experience. Holidays, weddings, birthdays and dozens of other practices seem ingrained in our lives. Yet many aspects of these traditions we hold near-sacred are harming our planet in staggering ways, and by extension, become a threat to our lives. Change is most certainly in order.

Take purchasing a diamond ring for your significant other, for example. Some forms of intensive diamond mining result in rapid soil erosion, mass deforestation and the death of several wildlife species. Furthermore, less trees and less nutritious soil mean more carbon particles in the atmosphere, leading to increased global temperatures.

Or consider Thanksgiving and its iconic turkeys: About 46 million turkeys are consumed around the world during the holiday. Turkey farming is known to be extremely detrimental to the environment. The average turkey that is cultivated has a carbon footprint of 91 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, which adds up to 4.4 billion kilograms within a single day. This is more than the total annual carbon dioxide emissions of the entire country of Iceland.

From my own Indian background, Diwali is definitely the most important national festival in India, celebrated by approximately 1.38 billion people. Also known as the “festival of lights,” the lighting of fireworks is a common occurrence during the holiday. These dazzling lights were a vital part of my childhood at the age of 5, I remember my family lighting the longest and brightest one I had ever seen. Throughout the total 30 seconds from the time of igniting to the final explosion, anticipation and excitement reverberated throughout our extended family of 15 like a tidal wave. That was the first and only time I had seen so much of my family gathered together, the sight of everyone’s warm smiles something I still carry in my heart to this day.

 But despite my own sentimentality, the environmental consequences I’ve been a part of cannot be ignored. The Air Quality Index, or AQI, is an Environmental Protection Agency-developed report on daily air quality based on the average concentration of a particular pollutant over a standard time interval. With the normal to moderate range for the AQI being from zero to 100, it concerningly reached up to 481 in parts of India during Diwali in 2021. These emissions make the current air very dangerous to breathe in and cause long-term atmospheric difficulties. The dire effects of Diwali on the environment have been explicit for years, yet most of the nation’s general population dangerously continues to ignore them. 

To be completely honest, I do understand their attitudes. Diwali is an essential cultural symbol of prosperity and wealth, a celebration of success in life. What would the festival of lights be without their magnificent lights? What would a wedding be without a ring? What would Thanksgiving be without the turkey? In the tumult of life, these traditions are so often comforting tethers, uniting us with friends, families and future generations.

But guaranteeing an actual future for those generations and sustaining our precious planet must come first. Our traditions and customs may unite us with others, but they are presently dividing us from our planet. This is not to say that they have to be given up in their entirety, but even the smallest of changes can make all the difference.

In recent years, my family and I have completely stopped using fireworks for Diwali. We instead plant seeds into the ground that will grow vibrant flowers in the colors of the Indian flag, an equally beautiful alternative that not only continues to celebrate my culture but celebrates the planet as well. If immediately giving up all fireworks seems like too much of a leap, celebrating by lighting one per family instead of several per member could be a more lenient change. The goal is to at least bring more environmental awareness to the table, which can later be developed into action.

Although lab-manufactured diamonds have their own environmental setbacks, they are presently a much more sustainable alternative to naturally mined diamonds. Their creation does not result in the loss of wildlife and rich soil. If more time and resources were invested into perfecting this production method, such as devising a renewable energy source for the extensive heating step, lab-manufactured diamonds could eventually become an entirely green process.

Turkeys at Thanksgiving dinners could be switched out for more environmentally friendly options. Tofu and potato farming, for instance, do not result in as many carbon emissions during production and utilize significantly less water, therefore having less of an ecological footprint.

And as cheesy as it is, it should not be the food that makes a holiday a special occasion, but the people. Although the practices and customs may explicitly outline our traditions, it’s the unity people value the most, even if they don’t know it. This harmony should not be affected by changes to the mere technical aspects of our customs. Clinging onto such unsustainable habits only stains these moments of unity, blackening them with ignorance or selfishness. It’s time to bring the environment into our celebrations.

Tanvir Shahed is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.