Emotions, Devotion, and Climate Change

What can we do when traditions clash with the future?

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
8 min readJan 28, 2024

Early one cool Saturday morning in January, my family and I went up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a famous temple on one of the more accessible mountains in Chiang Mai, Thailand to pray and make merit. The temple is a popular tourist spot, and for us there was no special occasion besides the fact that we haven’t gone to this, or any other temples, in a while. We’re not strictly Buddhists, so this visit serves as both a religious purpose and an attraction for the free time we have over the weekend.

The entrance area to the temple was crowded, not as much we expected but enough to warrant all kinds of shops to be open for business. One shop in particular caught my eyes — or rather, ears — because the merchants walked into the path of the visitors on their way to the 300-step stairs trying to sell flowers with which they can pray once they get to the temple at the top (flowers and candles are available at the actual temple too).

They said something like: fresh flowers here, at the top the flowers are reused.

Besides the obvious pain point of carrying the flowers, however light, up the steep steps, this sales pitch had the opposite effect on me as an amateur devotee to the cause of sustainability and a light practitioner of Buddhism. I understand that the merchants were just trying to make a living, but I didn’t quite resonate with the value proposition.

I wondered if “fresher” flowers — in this case, first-hand or non-recycled — are supposed to bring more merits or show a higher grade of devotion in some way. Because surely, Buddhism as a religion or a philosophy, does not teach such beliefs. The freshness factor, I conclude quickly, is probably in the hearts of the devotee.

At the top of the stairs, I saw the usual congregation of people resting, walking around the grounds, saying their prayers, taking photos. There are, of course, flowers and candles available next to a donation box and the flowers looked perfectly fresh to me. Interestingly, there is a different kind of awareness of sustainability here. Four different signs saying no incense is allowed — one with an apology, another asking for cooperation — and one reference to global warming in red letters.

I learnt of this new normal since before Covid when I moved into a new office in Bangkok and we weren’t allowed to light up incense sticks to accompany our offerings of fresh fruits at the shrine, a moment of collective recognition to disrupt our religious tradition for the sake of the environment. I saw the same sentiment here and went about visit, business as usual. It was a fairly quiet day for such a popular tourist spot so after quickly praying, we got to walk around the temple with all the other visitors.

From one viewpoint, the city of Chiang Mai looked incredible and for a brief moment I imagined I was on a hill in Kyoto in the spring. I saw a sea of green slowly giving way to small low-rises clustered in a disorganized pattern next to an airstrip, a mountain range a blurry presence on the horizon. The city-nature view was a peaceful backdrop to a temple visit and to my reflection on our relationship with the ecosystem.

I didn’t question much this ban on incense, mostly because I never did see the nature of my devotion and the quality of my prayers, if you will, tied to the material objects that facilitated these rituals. Sure, my family would pick out the best-looking fruits and highest-quality dishes for events like New Years ceremonies and Qingming— but on most occasions, the foods are later consumed or given away amongst the family, rarely ever wasted.

I grew up with a fairly laxed attitude towards devotion and rituals, but I can name other moments in Thai culture and religious practices that, when practiced at scale or in modern times, truly pose the risk of altering our natural environment.

Besides lighting up incense, for instance, we also pay our respects to the River goddess every year by floating vessels called “kratong” on large bodies of water (think: rivers, lakes) which over time evolved from being made with banana tree trunks and leaves, then with plastics decorations and nails, and now to sustainable paper and even fish food (of course, the traditional banana-based product is still available). At the end of the night, the kratong, having served its purpose, quickly becomes trash that the city/municipal has to round up. There is an equivalent paper lantern festival that we do in the North that can be as majestic in the night as it is polluting after the fact.

In the past, these rituals and celebrations may be materialistically harmless but now, with the surging population (and tourists) and the availability of cheaper materials that are easier to use, what were once delicate, meaningful, community-building events became little hotspots for distributed environmental disasters.

I have to wonder: is it possible to keep the meaning of our rituals without destroying our environment when there’s more and more of us in the world?

I don’t think there is a simple answer for anything about scale, or the environment for that matter. Of course, one simple solution is to revert back to the ways we did things by using sustainable, organic materials and try to collect the waste afterwards. But in some cases, this path is not so easy, such as when the materiality itself serves as the backbone of the meaning of the ritual — as in the case of a funeral wreath.

Full disclosure, this example I am about to share is a product of a former client of mine.

In Thai funerals, we send the grieving family a flower wreath that shows our condolences, with our name, family name, company, or community name on display. There isn’t an expectation per se of what kinds of wreaths to send, but a shared understanding that its aesthetics and size implicitly reflects our thoughts and prayers.

My mom tells me that I don’t need to receive an invitation to a ceremonial. If you hear about a funeral for a friend’s family, it is ok and proper to send a wreath anyways if you cannot make it — it will feel like you are there to support. And so the wreath functions as a physical representation of the sender and a gesture of condolence, as well as a pillar of emotional support for the host.

We have seen this sustainability angle before — more funeral services, more fresh flowers used, and then disposed of after the ceremonies, to make room for the next service.

To make the funeral wreath from paper — recycled or recyclable — is the obvious choice and one which has been done. But the mental image of a paper wreath isn’t pretty or grand, and thus doesn’t suit a proper send off for the ones we care about. The sender, if they care about the environment, doesn’t want to risk appearing “cheap” in an emotional sense and will choose the traditional wreaths of colourful flowers (I do not hate or blame flowers, promise).

Tradition:1 — Environment: 0.

A former client of mine, Carenation, devised a workaround on this dilemma by imbuing new meaning to the act of sending funeral wreaths.

They created a paper — based wreath designed to emulate the visuals of its flower-based predecessor, colours and size and all, that is tied to a tax-deductible donation to a charity organization of the sender’s choice. In addition, the design is so simple to assemble that the company is able to give work to the formerly unemployed in local communities in Bangkok. The paper is sturdy, vibrant, and, of course, recyclable.

Whereas once the wreath served purely as a symbol at a funeral, it now derives its meaning from the social good created in the name of the deceased: the act of donation, new employment, and an environmental good.

At the risk of hyperbole, the product innovation here is a leap from individual meaning of devotion to one that raises our consciousness of the individual to the society’s well-being. At the time of writing, the company has raised over 20 million baht for charities and non-profits.

There are also many alternatives of this product that imparts similar levels of meaning, such as a plant that can be planted, a fan that can be used at temples, or simply other paper-based competitors. To think of this in entirely capitalistic terms, the crowded marketplace is proof that it is possible to balance our devotion and beliefs with the environmental concerns of today.

And there’s still improvements to be made across the board, of course, such as with the types of paper used and how the funeral service as a whole can be better designed with social good in mind.

It is funny and somewhat ironic to me that while a lot of our cultural rituals are done through and for nature, we don’t do a good job of taking care of it as the context of our modern society changes. We thank our Goddess, we celebrate the deceased, and yet we are causing irreversible changes to the environment and the world that we’re paying respects to through those same acts.

I am hopeful that similar mechanisms and human-systems mindset can be applied to our other rituals for the greater environmental good.

And that we can start with a change as small as a flower.



Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.