Ethical Oil? Not Really.

Posted on January 18, 2011


Well, it looks like things are about to get a lot more exciting around here. The liberals are rattling their sabre, the Conservatives have responded the only way they know how, and it is starting to look more and more like we are headed for an election. I know it’s a long shot, but I really really really really want to see Stephen Harper out of office this time around. I don’t care if he loses the PMO to a Liberal majority, a Liberal minority, or (most likely) a coalition. I just want him out, and I’m prepared to do my small part to make that happen. I’ll devote as much effort as I can to using this blog to take apart Conservative campaign rhetoric. Their logic is usually pretty populist and flimsy, so I’m not expecting much of a philosophical challenge. It’s the sheer volume that will prove difficult. Better get started.

The Conservatives have found in Ezra Levant’s Ethical Oil a pre-packaged argument to counter the multitude of environmentalist criticism that has been thrown at them due to their massive subsidies for the oil sands, their shameful obstructionism at COP16, and their refusal to take any domestic action to tackle Canada’s massive per capita emissions. Levant’s argument is really only useful in countering the first charge, but a shrewd strategist could use it to discredit all the environmentalist criticisms of the Tories. It goes like this:

1. Despotic regimes in oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Sudan and Venezuela do horrible things like stoning women to death, executing political dissidents, busting unions, mistreating migrant workers, and engaging in military aggression.

2. Demand for oil is not going away anytime soon, so unless an alternative source is found, these despotic regimes will continue to be supported by oil money.

3. Development of the oil sands will allow Canada to be such an alternative.

4. Therefore, despite the environmental and health problems they cause, the tar sands should be developed so that the world will be able to get oil without supporting brutal dictatorships and warmongers.

On its surface, this line of argument seems fairly convincing. It is particularly seductive because it appeals to values cherished by liberals. I have to tip my hat to Mr. Levant for constructing a brilliant little piece of sophistry. The most obvious response to the argument is to say that simply because you can do something more ethically than someone else, doesn’t mean that you should do it. Despite the fact that I am less violent than most dealers of Crystal Methamphetamine, it would still not be ethical for me to become one myself. This line of argument has been effectively pursued by DeSmogBlog:

“You can no more argue the tar sands are ethical to First Nations communities than you can to the people of Michigan, ravaged by the Michigan Kalamazoo spill.  The 400,000 watershed residents across 19 cities, 11 villages and 107 townships are still dealing with the after-effects of the spill. It’s estimated that roughly 1 million litres of oil have yet to be cleaned up from the environment.

Perhaps we “don’t kill gays” or “stone women to death” as Levant emotionally argues.  So we’re not buying (as much) oil from Saudi Arabia or Iraq where there are human rights abuses.  That’s beside the point.  Gitz Crazyboy, a member of the Blackfoot/Dene First Nation vehemently disagrees that tar sands oil is ethical.  According to him, the environmental impacts of dirty oil are damaging his people’s health, and are causing increased cancer incidences and even death.”

There are serious concerns about the environmental and health effects of the tar sands, which will be valid regardless of what Saudi Arabia is up to. But Levant has likely seen this criticism coming, as he has formulated his argument so that he can dismiss these concerns with an appeal to utilitarianism. He might argue that no amount of cancer can be as bad as what goes on in oil dictatorships, and so it is better that we allow the harm to happen here, where we can at least manage it, than export it around the world. Obviously this factuality of this is far from certain, but let’s grant its validity for argument’s sake. I’m going to take on Levant on his Utilitarian home turf. My first exhibits are the following graphs:

The graph on the left shows a strong negative correlation between GDP per capita and religiosity, while the graph on the right shows a very strong positive correlation between GDP per capita and rank on the human development index. Levant suggests that the most ethical thing for us Canadians to do is to provide a competing product which will remove the main source of income of oil producing states. The primary effect of this will be to massively decrease the per capita GDP of these countries, and move them all to the left of the first graph and to the right of the second. According to the data, Levant’s divestment proposal will result in more religiosity, which will strengthen brutal theocracies of the Middle East. Meanwhile outcompeting oil dictatorships will reduce their levels of human development and therefore actually strengthen them. All this while causing massive environmental damage and adverse health effects at home in Canada. Rather than making the hard choice between the two harms, Levant had found a way to embrace them both.

The fundamental error with the concept of Ethical Oil is the suggestion that the best way to deal with unethical practices in other parts of the world is to cut off all ties. This is a perniciously common ethical fallacy which conflates abdication of responsibility with ethical action. In this particular case, the likely consequences of pursuing this fallacy will entail the worst of both worlds. The ethical situation in oil dictatorships will probably not change for the better if we develop the tar sands. The ethical situation at home will change for the better if we don’t develop them. Ethical Oil, whether used by Levant to sell books or by Harper to garner votes, is little more than an elaborate red herring.