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Uncle Sam: This Valentine’s Day, translate loving each other into loving the planet

For those who celebrate, Valentine’s Day is an exciting way to reaffirm and display one’s love for their partner – a very laudable expression. The Day of Love, however, also implies more stressful sentiments: preparations for the day are notoriously frantic – think of all those rom-coms where someone scrambles at the last minute to make sure everything goes just right.

Particularly in the United States, getting Valentine’s Day “right” largely hinges upon the gifts we buy – we are, after all, living in a material world. The average American spends $142 on Valentine’s Day gifts for their partner. In this regard, the cliché stress and often profligate spending engendered by the holiday should cause us to reflect on the necessity and impacts of what we are doing.

And what should cause us to actually change course is climate change. Well beyond Valentine’s Day, Americans consume – a lot. We eat an average of 3,600 calories per day – about 80% more than what is necessary. Aside from food, Americans use about four times more primary energy than the worldwide average. We also go through more than our fair share of materials: 52% more per capita than our European counterparts, for example. All this consumerism is probably why Americans emitted 15.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita in 2016 – well above the average of even other wealthy nations.

Buying Valentine’s Day gifts does not necessarily improve this situation. On the contrary, most traditional gifts come with a significant carbon footprint. Consider the path of a common Valentine’s Day gift: a stuffed teddy bear. Most teddy bears these days are made of some polyester blend, which itself is generally derived partly from petroleum – a fossil fuel largely responsible for climate change. So, to make that teddy bear, petroleum must be extracted. It must be processed. It must be manufactured. And then it must be shipped. At each of these steps – extraction, processing, manufacturing and shipping – more greenhouse gases are emitted.

And all that is just to get the teddy bear to you – what about after it leaves you? Polyester can take up to hundreds of years to biodegrade. In that time, it may take up space in one of our thousands of landfills, which notoriously emit the dangerous greenhouse gas methane as waste decomposes. Or it may go straight into the environment to contaminate natural processes. Either way, not good.

But compared to some other common V-Day gifts, the teddy bear is, well, rather fluffy: others come with significant environmental and social justice implications, as in the ethicality of the sourcing of gems from warzones or the exploitation of poor farmers of the cacao that becomes chocolate. Put briefly, it is time to move away from the consumption that has come to define Valentine’s Day.

Fortunately, this paradigm shift isn’t so hard to achieve! What companies that profit from Valentine’s Day probably don’t want you to know is that, of the five common love languages, Receiving Gifts is the least common – Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service and Physical Touch are all more prevalent! With only 18% of the population having Receiving Gifts as a primary love language, this means there is an 82% chance that your partner’s main way of expressing fondness is not uniquely material.

If that’s the case, you may not need to buy an object to symbolize your feelings in the first place. Indeed, finding a Valentine’s Day gift that operates within one of the other four love languages than Receiving Gifts is certainly a more sustainable option, and it may even be more meaningful if your partner prefers one of those languages.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we should fully stop getting things for each other. Rather, I am suggesting that we limit what we buy and that we do so conscientiously. Before you purchase something, ask if your partner really needs it and if there is an alternative, less consumptive way you could express the same sentiment. And consider buying from local businesses and businesses owned by women and people of color – the opportunity to do so is significant in Athens. You could even go to friends, classmates and neighbors who craft items informally. Doing these things would render your consumption more ecologically sound and more socially just.

Ultimately, the expression of passion for other people that we show on Valentine’s Day (and should be showing every other day) should extend to the planet itself. After all, without her, we wouldn’t be here. So, this Valentine’s Day, think about how your demonstrations of tenderness could be more socially and environmentally just – not to mention that it saves you money and spares you from the stress of shopping for the perfect gift! Ultimately, your loved ones, and the planet, will thank you.

Sam Smith is a senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.  

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