A Crude Concept

4 Jan

This one’s a guest post of sorts, authored by Brian Foster and revised by me.

News broke this week that PetroChina has taken 100% ownership of an oilsands project in Northern Alberta. Relatedly, Ezra Levant has some new material to work with.

Levant’s concept of “ethical oil” is premised on a rather convenient hierarchy of morals, in which human rights and democracy (rhetorically, anyway) are both universalized and prioritized above environmental protection, thereby elevating Canada’s oil as more ethical than oil from other parts of the world. Fitting with the neoconservative worldview, wherein most events can be understood like an episode of Bonanza, “ethical oil” allows supporters of the Alberta Tar Sands (and any other fervent nationalists) a way of artificially disentangling the complex knot of oil dependency, free trade, environmental degradation and global capital into a simple binary of good and evil.

The concept’s champions (which now include many in our conservative government) maintain that oil that originates in non-Western countries, particularly in the Middle East, is tainted by the fact that these countries are also apparently havens for human rights abuses, to a greater extent than Canada.

The concept’s critics take issue with the fact that environmental damage is not taken into account as a threat to Canadian oil’s ethicality; they point out the arrogance and ethnocentrism that props up the concept and its underlying assumptions; they rightly call its proponents out for their hypocrisy, seeing as neoconservative and neoliberal powers alike would be the first to dismantle the institutions that guarantee or at least aim to protect human rights in Canada and around the world – unless and until protecting such rights secures some economic advantage, which is precisely what the “ethical oil” argument does.

But regardless of how one feels about Canada’s oil, or oil in general, there is one undeniable implication of the “ethical oil” idea, which is incompatible with the larger ideology in which it is born (and it is ideological, as is our perspective here – there’s no escaping that).

The contradiction

The ethical oil argument focuses on oil as a product of the national and state context in which it is created. The moral or ethical judgments on oil from different parts of the world is thus linked not to the industries or companies extracting and processing the crude, per se, but the nation-state from which it emerges. The corruption of local politicians, the subordination of women, civil wars – these are all problems of the political sphere that ostensibly make or break oil’s ethicality. The promotion of Canada’s oil as “ethical”, accordingly, is touted as a way to pressure other regimes to be more democratic and to protect human rights.

The problem is, this neglects the fact (not an opinion) that oil is drawn not by nations or states but by multi-national, stateless corporations.
It might seem like an unintentional slip, but we argue that it isn’t. Rather, it’s intentionally obfuscating, because if the “ethical oil” proponents acknowledge that Shell, BP, Husky or any other multi-national are responsible for whatever morality or ethic their oil carries onto the market, they end up in an ideological conundrum.

If they acknowledge that companies, not states and governments, are at the centre of whatever ethical dilemmas and attachments oil presents, they then have two ways of preserving the “ethical oil” argument.

Option one is to accept that oil companies, left to their own devices, are going to trample human rights in order to make a profit. After all, it is our laws and regulations that ostensibly guarantee or aim to protect human rights in Canada – not some culture or gemeinschaft or will of the people alone, nor some benevolence on the part of the companies that set up here.

Option two is a bit more complicated. It means accepting that oil companies and nation-states together impart or impose the ethics and morals attached to oil. It means admitting that multi-nationals must necessarily, tend to or always will adapt to and take on the conditions and culture of the nation-state in which they are operating in order to make a profit.

But either way, the “ethical oil” camp treads into a sacrilegious argument in the world of neoconservatives, because they must accept that the free market is not going to be the guarantor of human rights and freedoms. They are impelled, by force of their own argument, to admit that it is only because of the state that multi-nationals and other corporations actually respect human dignities and freedoms.

The idea of “ethical oil” is tantamount to an admission that multi-national corporate bodies, left to their own devices, are unethical.

So in a perverse way, the “ethical oil” argument is an argument for a strong state. If we put so much emphasis on ethical imperatives as the proper foundations for consumption, and truly wish to see these values globalized, but also believe that corporations cannot help but adapt to the governance and regulatory context of a country, then it is the laws of the country that must be changed to properly steer the ethics of these companies. (Because if we decide that it is not law or government that needs fixing, but culture(s), then the “ethical oil” argument loses the point about demand for “ethical oil” forcing change at the level of nation-states.)

Really, those of us who doubt the goodness of the free market should thank Ezra Levant and the others touting “ethical oil” for helping to build our case.

These are the loudest champions of the market as the guiding force in directing social policy, as the sphere in which all individual action and decision is properly based, as the leveling and democratizing force that has created and defines Western values – and yet they are now admitting that, left to their own devices, the market and its largest merchants are necessarily unethical, and therefore should be undesirable to consumers.

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