David Suzuki: Is oil from Alberta's tar sands ethical?

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      In his book Ethical Oil, Ezra Levant raises an important point about the moral implications of products and activities in the global economy. I applaud the move to raise ethics to greater prominence in discussions around trade and economics. Questions around social justice, poverty, environment, and violence have propelled movements leading to action against sweatshops and child labour in the garment industry, to fair trade and shade-grown coffee products, to boycotts of California grapes and trade with apartheid South Africa.

      Two days after he was appointed federal environment minister, Peter Kent took up Levant’s slogan, trumpeting Alberta’s tar sands as “ethical oil”. We rightly criticize oil-producing countries that support or indulge in violence, murder, oppression of minority groups and women, and so on. But because Canada does not overtly support or indulge in such practices, does that mean our oil is more ethical? Levant acknowledges that exploiting and using fossil fuels has environmental impacts. Does that mean there is a hierarchy of ethical practices or that one ethical practice cancels out other unethical activities?

      The application of ethical standards in our purchase and use of products should be applied universally and not selectively. Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol, which became international law. When Jean Chrétien signed the document, he did so not as a Liberal but as the prime minister of Canada. This meant that, as a nation, we were committed to achieving the targets set by the agreement. On becoming leader of a minority government, Harper declared his intention to ignore Canada’s commitment. Is it ethical to ignore an internationally binding legal commitment? This is even more astonishing in light of Prime Minister Harper’s outspoken commitment to law and order.

      Canada is one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. Our rapidly melting permafrost releases massive amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane, amplifying our contribution to the global crisis of climate change. Alberta’s tar sands require enormous amounts of energy and water to extract, further compounding Canada’s already excessive emissions. Is there not an ethical component to our demand for a greater share of the Earth’s atmosphere than most other nations? Rapid exploitation of Canada’s tar sands—by companies from countries including the U.S., Korea, and China—is not crucial for our nation’s survival or even well-being, yet we ignore the impact on the rest of the world. If that isn’t unethical, I don’t know what is.

      Climate change is already causing more extreme fires and weather events, melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, drought, floods, altered plant and animal distribution, spread of disease, and killer heat waves, to cite just a few impacts. Canada’s vast resources and space confer greater resilience than most nations, but the world’s poorest areas are especially vulnerable. Floods in Pakistan’s great river delta, drought across central Africa, and extreme heat in India are killing people who did little or nothing to contribute to the climate crisis. These deaths may not be as grisly or violent as those in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, but that shouldn’t matter in ethical debates.

      Despite the Kyoto agreement and international efforts at Copenhagen, this unrelenting rise in greenhouse gas emissions means countries around the world intend to continue contributing to the enormous problems of unpredictable climate extremes and fluctuations that people for generations to come will have to live with. This is the most unethical practice I can imagine. In the face of overwhelming evidence that human use of fossil fuels is creating an incredible crisis of climate change, wealthy countries like Canada and the U.S., whose use of these fuels created the massive economic expansion that brought about the climate crisis, are now unwilling to reduce their emissions. It’s all in the name of economic growth, not survival or the future for our children and grandchildren. That is not just unethical, it’s criminal.

      In today’s world, all fossil fuels are unethical. There is no such thing as ethical oil. People like Ezra Levant, who say they care about ethics, should press for rapid transition from these unethical energy sources to more ethical, equitable, and sustainable sources, such as renewable solar, wind, and geothermal energy.

      Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Jenifer Johnson

      Oct 4, 2011 at 10:57pm

      Does that mean there is a hierarchy of ethical practices or that one ethical practice cancels out other unethical activities?

      What was so ethical about the Credit Derivatives market to have you promote a Kyoto Derivative Market?

      Kyoto Protocol revolves around the trading of derivatives of emissions allowances because securities fraud, antitrust and price-fixing makes a more environmentally friendly ethical world.

      Mike Puttonen

      Oct 4, 2011 at 11:23pm

      We also sell "ethical" asbestos.

      IM Loos

      Oct 5, 2011 at 12:31am

      Hypocrisy and feigned contempt for government are conservative trademarks. Levant is a tool used by the conservative movement to further its profit seeking objective at any cost.

      Anyone believing Levant needs to, at the very least, rethink his motives in a much broader perspective.

      Nada Future

      Oct 5, 2011 at 2:44am

      For a single person with no intention of having kids, any source of oil is fantastic if it makes living cheaper. But what is incomprehensible are the decision-making executives with children going ga-ga over this environmental disaster. They're all blinded by the fast buck they can pocket for themselves and are forgetting about the wellbeing of future generations. Is selfishness and greed inherent and hardwired in our species?


      Oct 5, 2011 at 10:08am

      "...should press for rapid transition from these unethical energy sources to more ethical, equitable, and sustainable sources, such as renewable solar, wind, and geothermal energy.."

      None of these are a solution to our energy needs with wind/solar with its' current ghg spewing gas backup replaced with green storage costing near $1.50 a kwh, and large scale geothermal still massively polluting with sulfur emissions, causing earthquakes,and dependent on not yet invented technology.

      Clean and green nuclear at 3 cents a kwh, and a 40% rate of return on investment is the only ethical, equitable, and sustainable source we have.

      All this from the world's foremost climatologist James Hansen.

      James G

      Oct 5, 2011 at 10:33am

      Anyone letting either Ezra Levant or David Suzuki define for them what is ethical has likely failed to keep enough vitamin B12 in their system to prevent brain shrinkage.

      When the modern environmental movement began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was with the understanding that recycling was always only a step in what must be accomplished. I recall a phrase from my very own speech to a High School assembly of the time where I said that if there was no shift in how things were done from merely cleaning up post-consumption that future generations were doomed to be merely the trash collectors for the past. The idea was to promote pre-consumption economic models that massively reduced or eliminated wasteful packaging and then moved further to pre-production models that virtually eliminated waste altogether. Reduce, re-use and re-cycle were never meant to stand alone. What foolishness to expect that capitalism would just bend to our view. We actually believed the simplistic scarcity/abundance economic analysis and thought we had found in the meager talents of E.F. Schumacher our solutions.

      Instead, capitalism went full steam ahead toward the aggressive market mania of Milton Friedman. This gave no leverage whatsoever to environmental concerns but it did make the wealthy so very much wealthier that they could spawn their own phoney political movements like the Tea Party on the right and Vision Vancouver on the supposed left.

      Demagogues trying to define what is best social policy, what children should be taught and what is ethical for humanity isn't new to this century. If anyone has been watching the wonderful PBS documentary on prohibition, the type of environmentalism now practiced has parallels with the temperance movement. I wouldn't suggest we have in our midst anyone as skilled and thoughtful as Carry Nation but Canada might have it's own version of Harry Dow. Carrying forward with this 'trickle-down' aspect of environmental activism, where multi-million dollar foundations are telling you right from wrong while doing nothing about the massive and growing gap between wealth and poverty is worse than seeking a ban on alcohol in order to protect women from abusive husbands. It's long proven the wrong approach but of course that won't stop those who follow it from demanding the imprisonment of those who do not.

      tannis monkman

      Oct 5, 2011 at 12:38pm

      thinks this article is evidence of hypocrisy as David Suzuki foundation receives money from RBC which bank rolls the tar sands

      Ezra Lerant

      Oct 5, 2011 at 12:52pm

      If you want to know more about the genesis of the shady "ethical oil" campaign, and the people behind it, read:


      It's too bad no media (other than maybe The Tyee) sees fit to report on these critical issues.

      Also interesting to see the criticism levelled at funding for environmental groups by the likes of Ezra pal and conspiracy theorist Vivian Krause, when the enviro groups are transparent about revealing their funding sources, but astroturf groups like the Ethical Oil Institute and Tom Harris's International Climate "Science" Coalition refuse to reveal funding sources.

      Not a proud Canadian

      Oct 5, 2011 at 12:56pm

      Like many notable others and the esteemed Mr Suzuki, I agree: all fossil fuels have become unethical. Period.
      Today the Van Sun rag revealed its pro-corp-oil stance by printing the Fraser Institute's Kathryn Marshall column, or rather, regurgitating the Harper Gov't's ethical oil propaganda verbatim. Using a pretty woman as their mouthpiece is manipulative, and may influence idiots who don't think with their brains, but brings nothing new to their tired argument.
      Canada's oil is "conflict oil". Most of the companies involved in extraction have poor ethical records, and are responsible for global unrest and environmental destruction. Tarsands crude that will likely flow through the Keystone pipeline will end up being refined by Saudi interests, and shipped to China. China is a major tarsands investor at the moment too, with a poor human rights record. I could go on...
      The Contemptuous Conservatives abuse the English language on a daily basis, and bathe in a cesspool of lies and spin. They don't support the average Canadian, just mega-corp interests, particularly uber-profitable oil companies (who they unashamedly fund with taxes, which should be flowing into gov't services instead).
      Canada's oil is unethical, will destroy life on this planet, and the Harper Gov't and any gov't which shills it must fall.

      Ray I

      Oct 5, 2011 at 4:31pm

      Since the world economy currently, and for the foreseeable future, demands oil the only real question is what oil is more or less than other sources of oil. Alberta oil must be amongst the most ethical. Compare our oil to the oil produced by dictators in the Middle east who sponsor terrorism (Saudi?), who use near slave labour (Nigeria, Venezuala) and those without democracies, with limited or no personal or religious freedoms, who treat women as second class citizens......you get my point.