Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Tar Sands

There have been various protests about the proposed pipeline into the US from the Alberta tar sands. The protests, I suspect, have little to do with concerns about the pipeline and much to do with concerns about the environmental degradation that results from the oil extraction process in the tar sands. That's a legitimate concern. We're morally culpable when our purchases support immoral practices. For example, it's wrong, even illegal, to buy products that have been stolen, especially to the extent that we know the object in question is stolen.

Yet I've read two articles ("Open Up Canada’s Oil Lifeline" and "Top NASA climate scientist arrested at White House") in which the following argument is made: "The Canadians will develop this product and sell it with or without us as trading partners." and "... officials maintained that even if the U.S. refuses the pipeline, Canada will just sell their oil elsewhere". But how can these facts have any bearing on the objection that the oil is produced in an unethical fashion? If a shoe company exploited child labour, clearly it would remain illegitimate to buy shoes from them if we discovered that a market for the shoes existed even if we didn't buy the shoes. If I know that X is doing something unethical when producing Y, and I buy Y or facilitate the production of Y, I'm a participant in the unethical action and morally blameworthy. That seems like an obvious ethical truism, but apparently it bears repeating.

Update: David Frum produces another variant on the "well, it won't do any good" argument: link.

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