The seventh month of the lunar calendar marks the annual Buddhist Ghost Month. This is a time where the spirits of the dead roam the Earth and commune with their living loved ones. Unfortunately, it's also a time where the living create enough pollution to lower their own life expectancies. This begs the question: how much should we modernize tradition?
Although part of the traditional Buddhist canon, the Ghost Festival has grown from its religious and principally folk roots thousands of years ago to a large-scale, highly unregulated celebration across much of Asia today. Celebrants offer food to their deceased and burn incense and items made of joss paper. Sometimes the items are bits of fake money. Other times, they are full-scale replicas of Buddhist statues and deities.
Over the course of five years, the authors of Annual Air Pollution Caused by the Hungry Ghost Festival looked at smoke, ash, particulate matter, and metallic elements during the Festival period, compared to other times of the year. This research only confirms what many have suspected for some time. Back in 2010, an article cited Singaporean doctors noting an average 10 per cent increase in patients complaining of ear, nose, throat, and eye irritations during the Festival period. Interestingly, one doctor said his “...patients actually pinpoint the festival as the cause of the problem”.
It's not as if the Ghost Festival is without peers around the world. Oftentimes traditional celebrations and modern society vie head-to-head for supremacy. There are the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, seal culls in Canada, and the Running of the Bulls in Spain, just to name a few. Granted, the Ghost Festival is a prettier sight than a bullfight, but trust that the damage is just as severe. In many parts of China, air quality readings jumped dramatically with the start of the festival. On Wednesday, Shanghai's air quality rose from an AQI of 33 (excellent) to 182 (unhealthy) in the course of an afternoon. Sichuan saw a rise from 42 (excellent) to 233 (heavily polluted) over Monday evening.
So, what's to be done to marry an ancient festival with the environmental and health needs of a region housing the majority of Earth's population? Webster, et. al promote the idea of more environmentally friendly materials, as well as burning inside closed furnaces (although we know that this can create a dangerous situation with indoor air pollution). I have a few simple ideas of my own.
Did you celebrate the Ghost Festival this year? What are your thoughts on regulating one of Asia's biggest celebrations?
Images courtesy of Penang Tourism and SinaWeibo.