10 08 05 The Ethics of Oil

Oil is an incredibly powerful resource that has allowed us to change the world dramatically over the past century. However, even Spiderman knows that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and our use of oil is no exception. Whatever we believe about climate change and global warming, everyone knows rather well by now that oil pollutes the world we live in: our air is filled with smog, the Gulf of Mexico is filled with crude oil, and the very landscape of our northlands has been radically altered. Oil and its derivative products are known to be poisons and pollutants, killing or damaging living things that ingest them, including plants, animals, and human beings. Most of the oil we use here in North America comes from the Middle East, where oil money is used to fund extremist militias like the Taliban – which means that we are paying our enemies while they kill our soldiers, prolonging the war and putting millions of people in danger. The ethical problems that come along with our dependence on oil are many, and quite frankly, unjustifiable.

We try to justify our constant use of oil because it is profitable to us all. We point to our great accomplishments: oil drives the economy, and allows us to feed the world. We say the wars that our oil money is funding may kill thousands per year, but if we didn’t have oil for tractors, fertilizer and transportation, millions would die of hunger. Carbon emissions may or may not lead to global warming and all of the catastrophes associated with it, we say, but absolute anarchy would result immediately if the global economy failed because of a lack of oil. There are many such arguments, but they are only good arguments if there are no alternatives to oil – if consuming less were not an option. The fact that there are alternatives, and that we can consume less, means that we are left with the full weight of our ethical responsibility. We have allowed a dangerous, poisonous material to pollute our world ultimately because it is profitable, even though the side effects threaten personal health and security, and world peace.

Perhaps the most comparable force in our world is nuclear: it too is extremely powerful, capable of incredible good and incredible evil – and yet it is highly restricted and safeguarded, while the oil industry is largely unregulated.

Who is ethically responsible for all of the dangers and damage caused by oil? There’s plenty of blame to go around. The oil companies who provide the product, and industries like the auto industry who keep us dependent on oil, shoulder much of the blame; like cigarette companies, they have us addicted to poison – yet unlike cigarette companies, they are not being held responsible. That is the failure of our government which fails to regulate, so there is continuing over consumption and production of oil and oil products. But ultimately, you and I, the consumers, are the driving force. We are ethically responsible for it, and cannot continue to justify it.

By Jeff Wheeldon