tradition versus civilization

We all heard about those traditions that hinder the development of individuals and society such as excision or the famous funeral and burial practices in West Africa that spread Ebola.

Seen from outside, from another culture, this "stubbornness to do what has always been done" seems absurd: "what does it cost them to stop their medieval practices?"

But from the inside, it's more complicated...

Let's take, for example, a Western traditional activity: the wood burning for heating or enjoyment — without the technology needed to reduce the emissions of particles (at least, at the level of diesel).

Woodsmoke, air pollution & health: some data:

○half day near the fire emits as many fine particles as a diesel car travelling 3,500 km. Even an EPA certified stove (USA standard) operating 60 hours emits as much particulate as the motor of car, with an average engine size, traveling 18,000 kilometers.

wood heating is responsible for 84% of PM 2.5 emissions while only 5% of all fuel used for home heating ... Natural gas, which accounts for 80% of the fuels residential heating, emits less than 3%.

○ the air pollution causes 2 million deaths each year. 100,000 deaths and 725,000 years of life lost per year are attributable to exposure to fine particles. (The two main causes are diesel and wood burning).


(You will find the sources in his article, and much more arguments based on hundreds of studies and recognized institution report).

Given these figures, one might consider that burning wood without adequate technology is deeply selfish, even scandalous, especially in (peri-)urban areas of (so called) "developed countries". Yet these toxic smokes and practices are still going on cheerfully, without really shocking anyone... Surprisingly, no legislation regulates the practice in many western societies (like France), despite the hundreds of studies proving its toxicity. This practice is left to the "good will of people" and therefore to an extended ability to care about others and what surrounds them, to care about their own health, the one of their family, but also of their neighbors, the environment, and the neighboring countries. A faculty which is, according to the mainstream social sciences, natural, innate, and therefore universal...


A moral sense transcending political divisions

Debates on topical issues are always interesting because they reflect the maturity of the moral sense of a culture, and this maturity often transcends political divisions. It is a least the case in France. A poll launched by "Le Figaro" (a right-wing newspaper) shows an overwhelmingly proportion of people hostile to a regulations of wood fire. And we find the same hostility in most leftist media. We found on each side the same outraged comments below these articles which gravitates around these ideas, "how can we limit the right of people to have fun or the right to warm their home at low cost"? Once is not custom (in France), we find the right parties which promote authoritarian policies advocating the "forbidden to forbid" and defending "human right", well at least this fundamental right of individuals to be selfish. We also find the right liberals, exceptionally mindful of the "poorest", caring for "those who can't afford to warm themselves". We also find on the other side the "progressive" left very attached to the idea of ​​preserving the old ways, and ready to fight for "what we have always done", incidentally, at the expense of the minorities who suffer the most of this issue. 

Some articles and comments will stand out from the crowd. One in particular which recalled that "we can't really live in the same way in a megalopolis of 10 million people than only the middle of a desert." Unfortunately; few comments will manifest a sympathy going beyond the humanocentrism sphere. It's a pity since mankind is not the only one suffering from its pollutions.


The combination of traditions - beliefs - selfishness

We ultimately find behind this kind of issues the three things we reproach so easily to (the other) developing countries: the burden of traditions, beliefs, and selfish practices. The burden of tradition is our difficulty to change, to stop doing what we've always done. As for the beliefs, we shouldn't always look for them in religion, the Western "naturalist" belief is a good example. It's the one we find behind those reasoning proclaiming that "what is natural is good" (or less harmful / pollutant) — like wood smoke. And the selfishness shows up here within these immature goals trying to have fun or to save money, at the expense of others.


Concern for others and civilization ...

One might suspect that the French or Australians are not the only ones loving fireplaces, for their enjoyment, to warm up during the winter while saving money (there is always a log somewhere, or an old wood palette, some paper junk mail or supermarket cardboard). So what about elsewhere?

In some parts of Europe (the civilized part?) such as in the UK, open fires are simply not allowed in certain areas (see "smoke control area"). In Denmark the wood fire are strictly controlled throughout the country. Danish municipalities even have the power to harden the restrictions in specific places, near schools and retirement homes for instance. Surprisingly, the people of these regions appear to have survived to this regulation. Using neighbor-friendly technologies to care about people and the environment did not kill them, so far... (Sources, and other regulation here)


We could see in this step, just "one more regulation". But we could see much more, starting with a more mature political approach:

● Caring for the common good is not easy —especially when it goes against our own interests, like a political carrier. That's especially true when it comes to implementing necessary but unpopular measures. 

● We could also see the presence of a more mature electorate, of voters willing to sacrifice some of their short-term pleasures to gain, in the long term, a better quality of life.

● We could still see in these decisions a broader sense of concern for the others: it is nice to care for oneself and one's family, but it's even better to care also about one's neighbors, fellow citizens of other nations, and the environment.

● Finally we could see a much more advanced and less selfish approach of the concept of "freedom" and "human right". Many westerns nations built their societies on these human right. Denmark managed to extend this right, also, to those around this person, and the environment. 


In short, we just need to remember the hostility of the French toward a regulation of their traditions, namely the wild wood burning (without any neighbor friendly technology) to understand the attachment of other cultures to their unhealthy habits, traditions and belief and their difficulty to overcome and get over them....



In France: 

>Edit 1 (2014): in January 2015, the use of open fires should be prohibited and regulated in Paris and Ile-de-France (no legislation planed for the rest of the country...).

>> Edit 2 (2015): this law seen as "too restrictive" by the liberal and socialist* tendency of the French Green Party, will be finally rejected. (* Usually going with a "top-down" conception of social struggles)

Sources :


The sources are detailed in this article