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Is There Such a Thing as 'Ethical Oil'? Canada Claims it Has Lots and the US Is Buying It

Underlying the tar sands debate is a more profound question: Is it OK for some people to suffer as long as many others benefit?

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Levant dismisses such viewpoints as “an unconventional version of ‘morality’ that weighs values entirely differently.” That might be true. Hudema and Lepine are, in fact, unconventional dudes, and their idea of justice may be out of the mainstream. But that doesn’t give credence to Levant’s use of what could be called high school ethics. In the end, he retreats to the popularity defense -- the tars are alright because most people approve.

Of course, the majority can be wrong. The ethical argument in favor of the tar sands reminds me of a short story by the science fiction writer (and deep moral thinker) Ursula LeGuin. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas imagines a civilization that is about as close as you can get to heaven on earth. But the utopia is dependent on a fatal flaw. The ease and comfort of its beautiful citizens rests on the horrific abuse of a small child who is kept in a basement dungeon where it “sits in its own excrement.” Everyone in the perfect city knows this, just as they know that their “abundance … depends wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

With its bell-clear parable, LeGuin’s story is a ringing indictment of the loose morals of our modern society. Beyond being just an attack on utilitarianism, the story is a challenge to imagine a different kind of ethics by which to live. The tale ends with a vision of those who decide that the debasement of a single child for the good of an entire city is not acceptable. They leave, and “go towards a place that is even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.”

The oil industry and its apologists like Levant are depending upon that very same “most of us” to continue going about our business and accepting the sacrifices. Because until many more of us choose to turn our backs and walk away, the mining of the tar sands -- its immense profits, its unavoidable costs -- will continue.

Jason Mark is a co-manager at San Francisco's Alemany Farm and the editor of the quarterly environmental magazine, Earth Island Journal. He is also a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.

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