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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Changing Our Rituals for the Sake of Planet Earth

In my earlier post Give the Earth a Christmas Present by Giving Nobody a Christmas Present, I commented on the environmental costs of Christmas shopping. I suggested that it would be better for our planet for you to give no one a Christmas present, or to give Christmas presents only to small children. I also mentioned how the practice of putting up Christmas trees is lamentable from an environmental standpoint (we should we planting trees to help fight global warming rather than cutting trees down for ceremonial purposes). I forgot to mention that another environmentally friendly approach is to give a gift card, which helps to avoid the problem of landfills being filled up with unwanted gifts (since the person who uses the gift card can get exactly what he wants).

Are there any other rituals that we might want to change for the sake of the environment? I can't think of much of an environmental case for modifying the celebration of other annual holidays in the United States. An Easter basket doesn't have much of an environmental cost, nor does the fireworks we watch on the 4th of July (because many thousands of people watch the same set of fireworks). Thanksgiving also doesn't have much of an environmental cost, seeing that poultry farming generates less greenhouse gases than beef, and only a single bird is consumed in the traditional US Thanksgiving meal.

But there are two other rituals that we might want to modify for the sake of the environment: weddings and funerals. First, let us look at the environmental cost of weddings.

In the United States the average cost of a wedding has grown to about $25,000. That's way too high for a generation that has record high levels of college debt. The modern American wedding has become an exercise in conspicuous consumption. Too many people are having weddings that are too large and ornate, for the sake of making a statement about their level of affluence. People feel under social pressure to have a big wedding so that other people will know or think they are well-off and successful.

A wedding ceremony by itself does not have a high environmental cost, nor does a wedding reception. But a big wedding might have a large environmental cost if quite a few people takes planes to go to the wedding. Imagine if you invite 20 of your friends from distant cities to attend your wedding. That adds up to 40 different jet plane trips all because of your wedding. The total carbon dioxide footprint of such a wedding might be ten times greater than the entire annual carbon dioxide footprint of someone living in a Third World country. That carbon dioxide helps to worsen global warming.

So I suggest a simple rule of thumb for weddings: do not invite to your wedding more than 10 people who will need to fly to the wedding. Also, try to set the location of your wedding at a place that will minimize the amount of air travel that will be required by your invitees. It may make a great Facebook post to put up pictures of your wedding in the middle of Yosemite Park, but if six of your most important invitees live near Philadelphia, it is much better from an environmental standpoint to have your wedding near Philadelphia. By doing in this case what's good for the environment, you will also be doing what's good for the pocketbooks and wallets of your wedding attendees.

You may be thinking: I must have a big wedding, because it will be the most important day in my life, and I will think about it hundreds of times in the future. But it doesn't work that way. From my own experience I can predict: you will quickly stop thinking much about your wedding day once it is over; you will become absorbed in your future activities; and you will almost never think about your wedding day for the rest of your life. So why bother making such a spectacle out of a day you'll hardly ever think about once it's over?

Now let's look at another ritual that we should modify for the sake of our ailing planet: funerals.

As for cremation versus burial, I see no big difference from an environmental standpoint between the two, provided that someone uses a simple coffin rather than some mahogany showpiece used as a final blast of conspicuous consumption. You use up less by cremating, but then you release more greenhouse gases, so there's no big difference ecologically.

The main way in which funerals can have a high carbon dioxide footprint is if many people use jet planes to travel to the funeral. If there are 20 attendees from distant cities at your funeral, that may end up being 40 plane trips, which may mean a carbon dioxide footprint far greater than the annual carbon dioxide footprint of the average person in the Third World.

Unless you are someone with a very strong religious belief about funerals, I advise you to explicitly instruct your family: do not have either a funeral or a wake for me if I die. This is exactly what I have told my own family, along with instructions that my body be cremated. I don't want people contributing to global warming by taking a jet just to attend a funeral or wake related to my death.

What about if someone dies who has not expressed any wishes about a funeral? I think such a person should not be given a funeral. Save the $5000 or more it will cost for a funeral, or donate the money to fight hunger or plant trees or help some other cause.

If many jet travelers attend a funeral, it just isn't green

Some people think that a loved one may be disappointed in the next life if he or she fails to see a funeral, or sees only a few people at his funeral. That does not seem a credible notion. It is quite possible that our consciousness does not survive death, and it is quite possible that we do survive death and go on to some higher state of consciousness. But if someone does move on after death to some higher state of consciousness, we can imagine that person confronting eternal issues of truth and morality, but we can hardly imagine that the person will be considering such a trivial matter as how many people went to his funeral.

If you can't give up on the idea of a funeral, but want to do something with a lower environmental footprint, consider this option: a virtual funeral. A virtual funeral is an online web site where people can write tributes to a departed love one. Anyone can create one by creating a new Blogger blog with a name such as JohnDoeFuneral.blogspot.com. The initial post can contain a picture of the departed love one, a written tribute, and an invitation for anyone who knew him or her to comment on his life. Readers can then add tributes as comments to the initial blog post.

A site like this will last for years, since Google's Blogger service does not delete blogs, even if they have few readers. Compare that to a regular funeral, which only lasts about an hour.