Sunday, November 27, 2011

(Somewhat, kind of) Ethical Oil?

This morning I awoke to find a fair bit of chatter on Twitter among the #cdnpoli crew about "ethical oil." The catalyst for the discussion was this excellent article in the Edmonton Journal by Trish Audette.

Reading the article got me thinking more about whether proponents of the ethical oil argument were being too limited in their definition of the word ethical.

At its heart, the word ethical relates to morals and principles which are commonly held. In effect, it speaks to the notion of right and wrong.

The ethical oil camp has rightly suggested that democratic principles, the treatment of women and broader support for human rights are areas where "ethical distinctions" can be made between states. So far so good.

However, their definition of ethical seems to suggest that environmental issues are secondary to notions of conflict and human rights; that environmental "rights and wrongs" do not warrant equal consideration when we ask ourselves whether the oil sands are ethical.

This is the same type of limited thinking that is used when one is asked to make a choice between jobs and the environment. The argument often boils down to "well, dealing with climate change will kill jobs." It is a form of mutual exclusivity which has thus far impeded real action on what is a global challenge.

If defined more broadly, the concept of ethical oil can serve as a useful guide to influence decision-making - by governments, businesses, and consumers. What is needed is a definition which is not designed to reach a specific conclusion; something which the current one often seems intended to do.

For Canadians to participate in this debate, we should strive for a definition which takes a balanced look at what ethical means in the context of an increasingly integrated 21st century society. One which equally considers rights, security, democracy, health, environmental footprint and climate change.

Until we come up with that definition, we should use caution when we describe our oil sands production as ethical. "Somewhat, kind of, ethical oil" might make more sense.

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