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Posted on on October 9th, 2011
by Pincas Jawetz (

David Suzuki’s Moral Relativism on the ethics of oil.

October 5th, 2011  |  By: Kathryn on the paertisan of the Canadian Oil industry.…

This appeared as an op-ed on today. AND IT SAYS –

It’s encouraging to see David Suzuki, the godfather of Canada’s environmental left, is finally willing to start thinking about the ethical implications of our oil sources. It would be more encouraging if he was willing to acknowledge, as almost any reasonable Canadian will, that some oil producing countries still behave far more ethically than others.

In a column for Vancouver’s Georgia Straight magazine, Suzuki shows himself open-minded enough to concede that our ethical oil cause “raises an important point about the moral implications of products and activities in the global economy.” He even applauds “the move to raise ethics to greater prominence in discussions around trade and economics,” which, as he rightly points out, have historically led to the curtailment of child labour and sweatshops, boycotts of Apartheid-era South Africa, and led to the fair-trade coffee movement.

But when it comes to oil, Suzuki insists that there are no ethics. He doesn’t take issue with our campaign’s argument that Canada treats its workers, its women, its minorities and its environment infinitely better than almost any other major oil producer in the world. He just seems to think that’s irrelevant. The reason? Because Canada isn’t perfect, either. Canadians, he reminds us, failed to live up to the commitments made by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government when it signed the Kyoto Protocol. “This meant that, as a nation, we were committed to achieving the targets set by the agreement,” Suzuki writes. “Is it ethical to ignore an internationally binding legal commitment?”

The answer to that might surprise Suzuki. Contracts are, after all, routinely cancelled. If they’re designed properly, they even anticipate as much. People cancel their mortgages early, but they are required to pay a penalty to do so because the contract was prepared with that very contingency in mind. Tenants may break their lease, if they have to relocate. Employees may have to quit their job early. Changing your mind isn’t something we normally consider unethical. Canada changed its mind about Kyoto. We weren’t the only country to do so.

Even if you think it is unethical for Canada to have a change of heart, it won’t do to act, as Suzuki does, as if all ethical deficits are all exactly the same. Speeding and murder are both against the law and are arguably unethical, but hardly to the same extent. Suzuki would have us believe that because Canada failed to live up to its Kyoto commitments, that we are just as unethical as the OPEC nations who produce conflict oil on the backs of oppressed workers, while discriminating against women, murdering gays, persecuting minorities, and funding terrorism and war. No serious person could believe such a thing.

“In today’s world, all fossil fuels are unethical,” Suzuki determines, because all fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide, which, he believes, will eventually set off cataclysmic climate change. Even if you think he’s right about that, the fact of the matter is that we’re going to be stuck with fossil fuels for some time yet.  Non-combustible renewables, such as wind and solar, still comprise less than one percent of the world’s energy supply mix, and for good reason: we still need power to move food to markets, heat our homes, and run our schools and hospitals even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. We have a ways to go before we’re done with oil. But until we are, we can make choices about which sources raise the biggest moral challenges. Conflict oil from the Middle East emits carbon dioxide and it fuels misery, repression and bloodshed. Ethical oil from Canada also emits carbon dioxide but fuels a country that promotes peace and social justice while upholding a standard of human rights that is second to none.

If we had ever let perfect become the enemy of the good, as Suzuki would have us do, we would suddenly lose all those historical movements that he himself praises: Why shut down sweatshops overseas when there are still American states without minimum wage laws? Why boycott Apartheid South Africa, when other countries haven’t created utopia on earth yet either?  That kind of moral equivalence is not only frivolous; it actually paralyzes good people from bringing about the positive changes we want to see in the world. The truth is that Canada does behave far more ethically than Saudi Arabia, Iran or Venezuela, our oil is more ethical than theirs, and we should be proud of it — even if David Suzuki isn’t.


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