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Ecological Ethics and Oil in Newfoundland and Labrador

in Climate Change/Letter/Opinion by

This column is largely a response to Tom Baird’s recent article in the Indy, “[Don’t] keep it in the ground.” I inserted the word “don’t” in Baird’s title because it more accurately reflects the content of the piece.

In a nutshell, he suggests NL should continue to produce oil because there is a global demand, and if NL doesn’t produce oil someone else will step in. He suggests that NL oil is better than lots of other oil with respect to its CO2 impacts, particularly when compared with higher-CO2 impacts from Alberta’s tar sands. Although he argues that shutting down NL oil production would have some benefit, it is more costly to the NL economy than other options, and more costly than carbon prices discussed by any federal party.

Rather than trying to stop oil production, Baird suggests NL should instead focus on reducing consumption. He points to electric cars and electric home heating from hydro power at Muskrat Falls. Viewing the climate crisis through the prism of supply and demand, he concludes the best thing we can do in NL is consume less oil, “thereby reducing demand, driving down global oil prices, and making further production unprofitable.”

To imagine the climate crisis is to be confronted by electric cars and consumer markets is to miss the forest for the trees. Not to say NL shouldn’t try and do those demand-side things (and simple supply-side things as well), but the scale of change demanded by the climate crisis requires an urgency of action that a market approach does not come close to fulfilling.

Youth climate activists, who are aware of the abysmal failures of adults to deal rationally with the crisis since at least 1979, have put it more poignantly: How dare you?

Crude Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.)

Thinking about the climate crisis as a question of supply and demand is the thinking of petroculture. Petroculture in NL (and globally) is as much a world view as it is the material fact of producing and consuming oil. Petroculture is characterized by extractivism and consumerism, and so its thinking and rhetoric is that of cold market rationality. Extractive industries are the cornerstone of global trade, and the last hundred years of global politics has been conditioned as much by fossil fuels as by any political ideology. The basic unit of value for petroculture is a barrel of oil.

Oil is quite literally imbricated in everything NL consumes. It’s not just in cars and heating tanks. Products made with petroleum are in clothes, shoes, fertilizers, plastics, pavement, computers, phones, and directly or indirectly in most everything that’s shipped and consumed in NL.

Just as it’s ridiculous to suggest that NL ending oil production will have any real impact on total global production, it’s ridiculous to suggest that NL putting in electric charging stations is going to make a dent in the oil monolith. It would almost be laughable if it weren’t for the growing possibility of a 4+ Celsius world.

The reason that climate action in NL means ending oil production has nothing to do with markets. It is about acting in accordance with the values of an ecological ethos that needs to replace petroculture. It is simply an ethical stand. It is intended to promote this ethics to others and through our actions to demonstrate resolute commitment to climate action, to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Lead By Example

What does an ecological ethics look like? It looks like Indigenous approaches to land defense. It is written on the protest signs young people bring to climate strikes. It is expressed in the eco-ethics of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and J. Baird Callicott and Murray Bookchin. An ecological ethics is everywhere pushing against petroculture, even as it is derided as emotional rhetoric and youthful naiveté.

An ecological ethics confronts petroculture because it does not in the first case view the world through a selfish and cynical approach based on markets. It is opposed to the petulant logic of petroculture’s prisoner dilemma, which says if others make money from oil that we must do so as well. An ecological ethics does not privilege our own well-being ahead of the well-being of others or conceive the world in such crass technocratic terms.

It’s not likely at all that the pervasive petroculture will be rationally convinced of its own obsolescence or give way to an ecological ethics without struggle. It’s not likely at all that the provincial government will play any part in ending oil production. NL petroculture will continue business as usual and any half-measures to address the climate crisis will be half-implemented, because the current system has neither the capacity to understand the issue or the tools to deal with it.

As I mentioned in my previous column, the measure of the task of confronting petroculture is evident in that even many erstwhile supporters of climate action cannot admit the possibility, even as an aspiration, of ending oil production in NL. Post-oil NL is for many, in this sense, absolutely unthinkable.

Nonetheless, petroculture in NL will crumble one way or another. It’s not a question if there will be an end to NL oil, but when and how that will happen and what kind of world will remain. It is to the children of that near-future we need to hold ourselves responsible, and it is that responsibility, rather than the current indifference to their fate, that must guide our actions today.

Photo by Aiden Mahoney.

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