By By Paul Blackburn
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
We can all agree that exploiting human suffering for commercial gain is unethical and immoral. Yet, this is exactly what the oil industry’s “ethical oil” argument does.
The “Ethical Oil” argument simply put is that since Canada is not as oppressive a country as Saudi Arabia or Nigeria or Venezuela, that therefore it is ethically and morally superior to consume oil from Canada. At first, this claim may seem to make sense, but rather than demonstrate that the oil industry and its political supporters are compassionate, ethical and moral, it actually proves the opposite.
The “ethical oil” argument is immoral and unethical for three reasons. First, it exploits human suffering in developing countries merely to advance oil industry commercial interests. Second, by suggesting that consumption of tar sands oil will improve the lives of oppressed people when it will not, it manipulates the decent desire of Americans north and south of the border to relieve suffering and protect the environment. Third, it trades on Canada’s humane democracy to sell its product when it is the Canadian people – not the oil industry – that are responsible and deserve credit for this democracy.
Global demand for oil is so great that faster extraction of Canadian oil will not reduce demand for oil from oppressive countries. If the U.S. buys less oil from the Middle East, then India and China will step in and keep demand for Middle Eastern oil high, and business in the Middle East will continue as usual. The industry knows this. Therefore, buying Canadian tar sands oil cannot and will not create economic pressure on oil dictatorships to increase political freedom, reduce human oppression or protect the environment.
Unlike prior efforts to use consumer pressure to force change in oppressive regimes, the oil industry has not suggested that buying tar sands oil will support a boycott oil from oppressive countries, allow the oil industry to cut commercial ties with oppressive regimes, result in economic aid for uprisings to overthrow dictatorships, or otherwise protect people in oil dictatorships. Instead the oil industry seeks to hide the truth that it has and will continue to work hand in glove with these same oppressive regimes.
Thus, the “ethical oil” argument showcases human suffering in developing countries and implies that buying oil from Canada will relieve this suffering when in fact purchasing oil from Canada will not improve the lives of anybody in an oil dictatorship. The Canadian oil industry is merely exploiting human suffering solely for the purpose of advancing its own commercial and political interests. This exploitation is immoral.
Moreover, the industry is manipulating the decent heartfelt desire of good people who want to relieve the pain of other human beings and protect our global environment. What is manipulative is that the oil industry tells consumers that supporting Tar Sands oil will somehow help relieve human suffering and prevent environmental destruction when it will not. It encourages U.S. consumers to feel morally superior when in fact they make no moral choices.
Consumers don’t know and have no choice about where the oil they put in their cars comes from. Gas station pumps are not labeled by country of origin or the morality of these countries. Instead, the oil we consume comes from a variety of countries, primarily depending on the cost of transportation, oil company commercial decisions and geopolitical factors.
Oil companies choose where the oil that we buy at the pump comes from and this choice is based on market factors, not ethics. In particular, the reason that the U.S. consumes oil from Canada is because of geographic proximity – not morals or ethics. It is cheaper for Canadians to ship oil to the U.S. than to other countries and Canada’s overseas export options are very limited. Since we as consumers have no choice about the source of our oil or the reasons for buying this oil, it is not logically possible for us to take moral credit for buying oil from Canada or anywhere else. The “ethical oil” argument implies otherwise and therefore is misleading and manipulative.
Finally, it is important to look more deeply into why Canadian oil is claimed to be “ethical.” The basis for this claim is that Canada is a humane democracy whose laws and culture provide greater protection for human rights and the environment, such that the oil industry operates more ethically in Canada than it does in other countries. But Canada is the way it is because of the past and current efforts of the Canadian people, not because oil sales made Canada this way.
Since oil is not responsible for Canada’s more “ethical” culture, buying oil from Canada is not what will sustain this culture. Oil or no oil, it is the will and democratic effort of Canadians that have made and will make Canada more ethical. If oil made countries ethical then we should expect that oil exporting countries would be more ethical than other countries, but the opposite is more often the case. If anything, the oil boom in Canada threatens Canadian democracy because oil industry money and power profoundly corrupt democratic governments in part by saturating the wallets of politicians. Trading on Canada’s ethical heritage to sell a product is a way of taking credit for moral and ethical choices that the oil industry did not make.
The truth about the “ethical oil” PR campaign is that the industry is using human suffering and environmental destruction in other countries to justify the oppression of indigenous people in Canada, the destruction of enormous areas of virgin Canadian forest, the pollution of some of the purist water in the world, and the emission of disastrous amounts of air pollution into our global skies.
Exploiting human pain for commercial gain is immoral. Manipulating the good intentions of honest people for commercial gain is unethical. Trading on the humanity of a democracy bought with the conviction, sweat and blood of its people to sell a product is profoundly disrespectful of the generations of everyday people who have kept Canada free and humane.
The “ethical oil” argument is manipulative, dishonest, base and vile. The falsely pious who smugly trumpet it, including Prime Minister Harper, Governor Schweitzer of Montana, and a choir of other politicians and oil industry executives and PR flacks, should stop their hypocritical crowing and reflect on the lack of ethics in “ethical oil.”
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