Losing control of ethical oil: lessons for environmental ethics

Since it began distinguishing itself as a sub-discipline of philosophy, environmental ethics has faced a tough question: will changing our values affect how we treat the environment?

When Christopher D. Stone took stock of the effect of environmental ethics on public policy over its first three decades (1970-2000) he concluded that not much direct influence took place [pdf]. But that isn’t a reason not to do ethics since it could take much longer for effects to become apparent. There might be a time lag.

OK, this is a round-a-bout way into what I was thinking about last night, which is how the Canadian government has completely lost control over the discourse about what it once termed ‘ethical oil’. I think there might be similarities between the relative ineffectiveness of both environmental ethics and the ‘ethical oil’ campaigns to steer public policy in neat and tidy ways. Not that anybody thinks policy is either neat, or tidy, of course.

The ‘ethical oil’ campaign started some time ago and I have written on its lack of cogency here and here. Earlier this week, it has come under attack by Al Gore, who stated that there is no ethical oil, only dirty oil and dirtier oil. But the conceptual bankruptcy of the concept is not what I’m interested in here. What seems more interesting is the attempt to funnel public policy through a single set of moral claims.

The ethical oil campaign was somewhat successful in capturing the mainstream discourse in Canada – shouldn’t we promote our own resources rather than those that come from places with poor records on human rights, labor conditions and so forth? Now, if we ignore the fact that eastern Canada imports most of its oil, this does seem like a plausible piece of rhetoric. And yet it has failed.

The reasons for the failure are numerous, but here are two:

1) Canada launched a sustained undermining of environmental policy in 2012. So the notion that resources are being stewarded in any meaningful environmental framework lacks credibility. Yesterday, for instance, environment minister Peter Kent stated that Canada wears many of its “fossil of the year awards” with honour. (Yes, in Canada we add “u” to honor). The awards are given out to countries who perform abysmally on environmental issues.

2) Canada has engaged in a direct war or words with leading international figures, like James Hansen. Hansen, in turn, called the Canadian government ‘neanderthals‘ when it comes to environmental policy. I doubt Hansen was trying to be ironic, but it was a funny comment since it is an open question as to whether our minister of science and technology, Gary Goodyear, actually believes in evolution. He says he does, but not everybody is convinced.

So what should we take away from this? Are there any commonalities between the failure to secure public policy through normative discourse?

I think we would do well to acknowledge that the claim to morality is not situated hierarchically in public policy, as though values are what steers things. Values matter, but they are not all that matter. This has been part of the broad critique of environmental ethics as being primarily for the rich – for those who can afford the cultural category of a “wilderness” that is made untouchable. Likewise, the ethical oil motif is only one piece of a bigger policy game involving international actors and this thing called science.

Second, it would seem worthwhile to consider how the attempt to be internally consistent in your moral claims inevitably closes off some good policy options. For instance, the attempt at logical consistency in environmental ethics often doesn’t reflect how individuals reason in complex scenarios where they use judgment, heuristics (rules) and customs to determine what matters. Likewise, the ethical oil campaigners tried to secure a basic set of western values to oil development, such as human rights and labour relations (yes, we add a “u” there too). But this is also problematic, because the  category “western” is not homogenous (even if hegemonic). So when the time came to promote Canadian oil development in the face of opposition, the government had to stick to its guns – we are already ethical! See? See?

At any rate, I think it is worthwhile to keep thinking about how real-time failures in environmental ethics – even if they are of the ‘ethical oil’ sort that environmental philosophers might seek to eviscerate – can provide lessons for how values link up to environmental policy.

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