During the festival of Holi, hundreds of millions of Indians celebrate the return of spring by playfully covering each other in bright dyes, lighting a ritual fire, perhaps drinking hallucinogenic bangh drinks, and eating and dancing and laughing into the night. Holi, like almost everything else about India, involves a number of complex traditions, traditions which seemed, to my uninformed perspective, to sum up to a day on which everyone treats one another as equals, forgets about the cares of the world and tries to savor the happiness of living. It's a heck of a good time.
But if the traditions are complex, one story about Holi is simple: it's an environmental nightmare. The bonfires -- many households light their own -- use forests of wood, while the water games (water balloons, spraying with hoses and so on are part of the fun) present a huge draw-down of potable water. But worst of all are the colors themselves. The dyes used are almost always industrial dyes sold in bulk, many of which contain heavy metals, asbestos and other chemicals which are highly regulated or banned in other countries.
The Indian environmental group Toxics Link has a report Holi: The ugly truth behind the colourful world (PDF), which points out that the dyes contain lead oxide, copper suphate, aluminum bromide, mercury suphite, cadmium, chromium and lead, as well as a witches' brew of other chemicals.
These chemicals can have dramatic health effects on the people who get smeared and covered in them, but in the volumes in which they get used during the holiday, they also present a secondary environmental health risk. India is an extremely water constrained country, and the pollution that washes off the streets and into sewers eventually finds its way into the waters which people will need to drink and cook and wash and irrigate crops. The public perception has been that the dyes wash away and disappear, but since many of these chemicals are extremely persistent, they can remain in the food chain for years, and in a nation where every drop of water is spoken for, there simply is no "away." Add to all this the pretty awful pollution created by the manufacture of the colors themselves, and the result is pretty much a one-day catastrophe.
Here we must stop to note that the average Indian's ecological footprint is a small fraction of the average North American's or Australians. It'd take an awful lot of Holi parties to equal the ecological destructiveness of the McMansion-and-Hummer suburban mindset. That said, because almost one in six people on the planet is Indian, most Indians doing anything has a planetary impact. And in the case of Holi, a better idea already exists: Green Holi.
Traditionally, the colors used by those "playing" Holi came from the flowers of trees which bloomed at the beginning of spring and some other organic dyes like Henna. Many groups in India are now pushing for a return to the traditional pattern, arguing not only that it is healthier, but that encouraging a market for natural colors will help support hard-pressed Indian farmers and biodiversity in a conservation economy symbiosis. And, while the ecological impact of covering hundreds of millions of people in Hibiscus and Jacaranda juice is not nil, it's a far sight better than mercury.
A greener Holi is already at hand. The Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group has partnered with the women of the Malnad Seed Exchange Collective to bring three all-natural colors (red, yellow and green), and their Safe Holi Campaign even tells Holi players how to make non-toxic colors at home:
*Mix haldi powder with besan for a lovely yellow. *Slice a beetroot and soak in water for a deep pink. *Boil Marigold or Tesu flowers in water for yellow colour. The other easy way to get a yellow liquid colour is to soak peels of pomegranate (Anar) overnight. *For an orange red paste, henna leaves (mehndi) can be dried, powdered and mixed with water.Clean India's website has even more recipes for more elaborate colors.
Such greener celebrations have already begun to catch on for other Holy Days in India, like the Ganpati celebrations, where "70 - 80,000 Plaster of Paris idols of Lord Ganesha [are] immersed in the sea as a holy ritual. .... That means that ... water bodies all over India will get another annual dose of polythene bags, thermocol, plastics, and toxic chemical dyes. Many idols are big enough to require cranes for their immersion, if not scores of human shoulders." Increasingly, though, celebrants are using greener materials and less toxic dyes there too.
The overall point here -- whether we're in India or Indiana -- is that we can no longer in good conscience create holidays and celebrations with such massive ecological footprints. The direct ecological impacts of celebrations are huge, but the indirect costs are to my mind something much worse, for they go to the very heart of our culture and lives: what does it mean for me to have flown around the world (with all the baggage that entails, offsets aside) and spent a lovely sunny afternoon smearing my newfound friends from the Doors design conference in toxic chemicals? How can that reality resonate properly with the intention behind the wonderful experience? Isn't there something fundamentally wrong at the core of all that, something all the more wrong for being part of a celebration of life?
If we can plan for a one-planet olympics, if we can begin to green Burning Man, if we can even start to take on the consumption horror show that Christmas has become, there is no reason why we can't keep going and keep raising the bar, until celebrations are days when we not only have a great time, but we leave the planet a little better than it was before. Perhaps that's the new test of a great party: you have problems remembering everything that went on, but you're pretty sure the planet is better off than it was the day before...
Celebrations are one of the greatest parts of being alive and human. They ought to be not the times when we leave behind a trail of our worst actions, but the days we shine at our best. Holi Hai!
I've spent time at several religious retreats (of various faith traditions). On thing all seem to have in common is a penchant to burn things. I remember walking into a temple in Japan in which there had to be several hundreds of candles and incense sticks alight. It is the same from monasteries in Bulgaria to the local church around the corner. We like to burn things in places of worship or celebration.
I was recently at a retreat where candles were continuously kept lit in the chapel (which, I think, very few people used regularly). I recognise what candles and incense can do for spiritual spaces; however, what alternatives are available to these? What are the best kinds "spiritual incendiaries" (i.e. I have seen incense that is made sustainable by Buddhist monks; they support their charitable and monastic work by the sale of the incense).
I regularly meet with people of faith who might be open to changing these traditions if options were presented; so any suggestions are welcome.
I think the average person's awareness of the damage caused by their religious or other revelry to the environment is abysmal. Even in case of those who are a little aware, the attitude is, "But it has been so for centuries." "Or what difference would my restraint make when everyone else is doing the damage?" So it is extremely important to tell people the truth about environmental degradation and depleting natural resources as frequently and as starkly as we can. As for reasoning with people of faith to change from "burning" things ritually to some other symbols of worship, I don't think they'll give them up completely, but at least some moderation can be brought about with effort.