How do you quantify, monetise or in any way try to value something as intangible as, say, preventing climate change?

This question may seem a bit ridiculous: Who cares? Climate change is a serious problem and we need to do something about it NOW! Yes, and no. The problem is: we live in a world where money does all the talking and, more importantly, any action will cost somebody, somewhere, money.


The essential issue is one of values. An example: Sometimes I treat myself to a grocery delivery from Ocado. When I checkout, it gives me an option for delivery times using little purple trucks (available!) and green trucks (greener! The truck is already in the area!), alongside the cost for each time slot. Sometimes there are only a couple of green slots and they happen to be more expensive (say, £4.50) while there is a purple slot that is cheaper (say, £1.50).

Here, my values come into play. Is it worth £3.00 to go with a ‘greener’ slot? The decision is made more complicated by a few things:

  1. I’m not quite clear what the difference between a purple and green slot is — Is it a matter of a few extra miles or something more substantial?
  2. I also have no idea what type of gas mileage this car gets anyway! Is it an electric car?
  3. How do I ‘value’ the environmental impact of driving a few (or more) fewer miles?


Now, if we compared everyone’s delivery decisions we could start to get a better picture of how much these things are worth to people. Maybe, on average, people will pay £1.00 more for a ‘green’ truck, rather than a ‘purple’ one. Maybe people buying more organic food are more likely to be willing to pay more or people who don’t buy any meat or people who spend over £100 or people making a late-night purchase.

The same type of ‘valuing’ goes on in our daily habits and, in particular, our daily consumption. For instance: choosing between a turkey or falafel sandwich will depend on my values in several areas, including:

  1. Health: How much healthier do I think the falafel sandwich is (if at all)? How much is this added ‘health value’ worth to me?
  2. Cost: Which costs more?
  3. Taste: Which do I think will taste better?
  4. Convenience: Which is easier to get / eat?
  5. Impact: What type of external impacts do I think this food’s production has had on things like animal welfare, the environment, climate change? How much do these impacts matter to me?

I could then do a really complicated equation, something like: Falafel(Health+Taste+Convenience-Impact-Cost) vs. Turkey(H+T+Con-I-Cos). The one with greater value is the one for me!

Obviously, you’re not going to do that. Aside from the fact it would be virtually paralysing, you simply can’t access all the information necessary. How can you really know the impact?  How it was produced?

A note on impact:

Your perception of the impact something has depends on your awareness of the issue, how important the issue is to you and, here’s the tricky part:  Do you think once something’s already been made, the impact is already said and done and the purchaser has no impact? For instance, do you think buying an already-made turkey sandwich will have an impact on the number of turkeys used for food?

Many people say, ‘no’: the turkey sandwich is already made, might as well buy it. The issue is, however, one of supply and demand: by not buying the turkey sandwich, one less sandwich will be needed to replace it and down the line, yes, these purchasing decisions DO have an impact on the number of animals used for food. The store will see they are selling less turkey sandwiches, buy less turkey sandwiches and, eventually, less turkeys are killed. Of course, this is  more complicated with things that are going to be thrown out otherwise or that were already discarded.bakery-793856_1920


So how does all this affect me?

Well, however you want it to. In the modern world, it’s probably nearly impossible to make 100% ethically sound purchases 100% of the time. But, it’s all too easy to ignore the impacts our decisions have just because we can’t see them. But, that doesn’t mean giving up. It does mean thinking about your values and, perhaps, learning a bit more about the impacts of producing different goods (here’s some more info on the impacts of producing turkey sandwiches and other products with animal foods) and, perhaps, trying to live a life as closely aligned with your ethical values as possible.

It also means that we need more information about people’s values of the ‘abstract’. For instance, one study found that people would pay just $0.57 to move a laying hen from a cage to a free range system and just $0.31 to move a pig from a crate to a shelter-pasture system.

Ultimately, what IS  saving the life of a chicken or preventing the suffering of a chicken worth to YOU? What is preventing climate change worth to you, in your daily life?  And, how do you know?

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