In the tortured days and months after the Exxon Valdez spill,
one task seemed especially bittersweet to me: deciding how much to fine
them for each animal they killed. Published March 22, 1990.

What’s an otter worth?

Of all the sad questions surrounding the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, surely none is so pitiful as this: What is an otter worth?

In government offices from Washington to Juneau, serious people with impressive titles labor to put dollar signs alongside the casualty list from Prince William Sound. Their task is to attach price tags to the destruction that spilled from Exxon's ruptured tanker: $10,000 for a bald eagle, perhaps. Common murres, six-for-a-buck.

The oil spill anniversary has been defined by debate: jurors debated Joe Hazelwood's guilt and innocence, regulators and beach cleaners debated the depth of oil-soaked gravel, oil companies and revenue officials debated North Slope taxes.

In it all, nothing is so discouraging as the effort to quantify the loss of wildlife and environmental values with dollars and cents.

No matter how pitiful the task, it must be done. Money is the way capitalists keep score; our society doesn't have a better way to sort out responsibility and mandate response. Finding an adequate way of translating the loss into terms Exxon can understand and compensate is as essential as it is heartbreaking.

That may be the saddest realization of all. In the end, we have nothing more substantial to trade for beauty than bucks. We stack debits and credits up against clean water and wild otters and somehow pretend to call it even.

Surely we recognize by now that dollars can't buy back the innocence that died under tides of oil on the beaches of Prince William Sound. Surely we have come to realize that "value" calculated in currency is no substitute for "values" calculated by conscience.

Everything is defined by the marketplace when value overrides values. We are left to look at the world through the bars of a teller's cage, imprisoned in the cells of a profit-and-loss spreadsheet.

Did we really intend to live our lives in the aisles of a giant K-Mart, rushing for the in-store special under the flashing light? Do you want Mastercard to be your only visa to satisfaction?

We love the money we make selling oil. We've grown accustomed to letting petro dollars finance our governments. We wouldn't think of shutting down the pipeline just because the shippers tell us they couldn't possible contain a winter spill.

Does that mean all our values are for sale? Alaskans have long lived with the contradiction between the values that wed them to this land and the value they export from it. Robert Service tells us the miners "came to get rich (damned good reason)" but stayed for very much more.

Like them, Alaskans can transcend their economic lives to encompass values that are richer, deeper, more firmly fastened to the enduring pleasures of open sky and dramatic vista.

A summer sunset filtered through Kachemak mist remains a far more reliable value than the spot price of oil.

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