How Much is an Octopus Worth?

People have been putting price tags on coral reefs and rain forests for as long as other people have been noticing the destruction of those habitats and getting a bit worried about the direction we’re headed.

Oct 3, 2022

Current affairs writer based in Andorra

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I do not know the cash value of an octopus.

Nor do I have any idea how an octopus’ contribution to the economy might be quantified in comparison to, say, a sea turtle’s. My brain struggles to even grasp the concept. Would the two of them be worth as much as a dolphin? Less? An equal amount? Could someone explain why, preferably without the use of charts?

My real problem is not with the unknowable price of octopus. In truth, it’s the practice of thinking and speaking about the environment in financial terms that strikes me as most absurd (and unhelpful for our species’ happiness or quality of life).

People have been putting price tags on coral reefs and rain forests for as long as other people have been noticing the destruction of those habitats and getting a bit worried about the direction we’re headed. Scientists might disagree about the precise number of species going extinct per day—some say 150, some say one, and others insist the data show something else entirely—but it does seem clear that far too many are going extinct on the whole. It also seems clear that we’re not going to cost-benefit analyze ourselves out of this mess.

Of course, that won’t stop many of our most well-compensated pundits from trying. Earlier this year Joe Biden signed a bill that spent a lot of money on stuff like subsidies for electric cars, and was hailed by thought leaders like Noah Smith and Matt Yglesias for a historic accomplishment that meant we could all go back to not worrying too much about climate change. The magic spell had been chanted: if you say “billion dollars” and some climate-related keywords enough times, most people will assume you’re taking the problem as seriously as it needs to be taken.

But here is another problem. It certainly doesn’t appear that Yglesias, or Smith, or anyone working at the various foundations that pump out regular warnings about the danger of governments doing too much to address climate change thinks the problems posed by it (e.g. unlivable heat waves, undrinkable water) are really that bad. And why would they? The sky is not, at the present moment, falling on their personal heads. There’s little evidence to suggest that it will in the immediate future. The biggest inconveniences they’re likely to encounter in the next few years are inflated air-conditioning bills or perhaps a canceled vacation. Annoying, yes, but not worth tweaking the economy too much.

Even people and organizations that at least pay more consistent lip service to the dangers of climate change are too often bamboozled by the temptation to frame the fight in economic terms. At best this is naive; more often it comes off as weak camouflage for the same old numbers-obsessed mindset that got us into this mess. For example, at last year’s TED Countdown Climate Conference, a green investor made the inspiring observation that “it’s now clearly cheaper to save the planet than to ruin it.” A green economist helpfully noted that “business is screwed if we don’t fix climate change.”

It might not surprise you to learn the conference’s organizers also invited Shell CEO Ben van Beurden to explain why guys like him should keep getting large paychecks to deliver shareholder value, or that he was booed offstage by the audience.

As much as some might wish otherwise, The Climate Conversation is not a money one. There’s a statistically insignificant number of people who are ambivalent about the Amazon as a habitat for living beings but intrigued by its investment potential as a carbon sink. Just as you don’t win friends with salad, you don’t win this kind of argument with statistics.

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Of course, the “saving the world saves money” argument isn’t meant to be a popular one—it’s aimed at a nebulous audience of marketers, managers, and people who influence how various budgets are spent. Key decision makers, in other words. People who are too smart to be swayed by charismatic megafauna, but enraptured by the mention of currency. The core demographic of The Economist, or the duller quadrant of The Atlantic’s.

The kind of people who think an octopus could, or should, have more numbers attached to it.

To me this is a ferociously boring way to live. More importantly, it betrays a lack of imagination, or understanding, about actual value. It’s just intentionally obtuse, for lack of a more elegant term. It fails to take into consideration any variable except the one most easily measured, regardless of whether that variable is in fact the most important.

To illustrate: If X number of tourists come to a certain bay to see a famous octopus, and spends Y number of currency-units apiece for the privilege, then we can say that the octopus generates Z amount of money for the local economy. But if you asked anyone* who lived near the bay, “What does this octopus mean to you?,” it’s highly unlikely they’d reply with a number.

*At least anyone who’d be halfway interesting to talk to.

I don’t think it’d be easy to convince someone who thinks of animal species primarily as numbers to be balanced against other numbers on some kind of cosmic spreadsheet to, say, take a boat ride at midnight in the hopes of spotting an octopus. In the event we were lucky enough to see one, I suspect they’d get bored rather quickly. And as the years pass I get less and less hopeful that anyone who thinks this way might one day think differently; that anything could shake them from their cozy conceptions of what really matters (the economy) and what’s sentimental flummery (everything else).

I do wish they’d just take a fucking look at the octopus, though. It’s really something.

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