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Ethical Consumerism?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Ethical Consumerism?

When I turned on the CBC Radio the other day, I came across a discussion about the ethics of oil. Ezra Levant, right-wing activist and author of Ethical Oil: The case for Canada's oilseeds, was debating environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk on the ethics of purchasing and consuming oil.

Levant defended the tar sands, saying that it was the most ethical oil on the planet because it didn’t fund terrorism or Chavez. Nikiforuk, on the other hand, stated that there is no such thing as ethical oil.

In his book Levant totally ignores the sovereignty and health claims of Indigenous communities downstream in the Athabasca river from the oil sands. He also doesn’t count the high amount of energy and water needed to extract the oil from the tar sands, or the massive amount of pollution dumped into the land.

As I listened to the debate, part of me wondered: Why does Levant even bother to justify the tar sands using the language of ethics and social responsibility? What happened to the good old “up your ass, man needs his gas” conservative logic?

What is noteworthy is not Levant’s argument (his arguments are rarely worthy of note), but the form in which the debate is framed, and what this frame says about our current predicament. The old logic of capitalism of production and alienated, meaningless consumption (think Mad Men) is no more. Capitalism has perversely incorporated the critiques levied against it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, products were increasingly sold not as things but as experiences, as a way of life. Now, products are not just sold as personal experiences or lifestyle symbols: they are now marketed as ethical choices. This “cultural capitalism” allows consumers to do something meaningful while buying and consuming. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted, “the very act of participation in consumerist activity is simultaneously presented as a participation in the struggle against evils ultimately caused by capitalist consumption.” Shopping and doing good in the world can be accomplished with just one gesture of buying an ethical product.’

The freedom to choose in our society is now not on the collective political level, but at the grocery store. Individual consumption is now the place where we make our ideological preferences known. Rather than fighting to make trade fair, we accept an individual responsibility to purchase a fair trade product. Instead of having real alternatives, we are forced to choose among a range of options that may makes us feel better but do little other than sustain market operations that are creating the problems we are trying to counteract.

Most “ethical products” are also expensive, making ethical purchasing a largely western middle class gesture. In the west, the people who can live the most sustainable lives are those who can afford it. George W. Bush, for instance, has one of the most eco-friendly homes in Texas. In this neo- colonial model, the rest of the people on this earth are subject to the whims of western consumers and multinationals.

Let’s think about this on the political level. During last year’s United States health care debate, universal single- payer health care was a non-option not because it was more expensive, but because it was ideologically unpalatable. Hillary Clinton famously said that single- payer was not on the table, despite poll after poll showing that Americans supported some sort of single-payer health care system. Americans were then forced to choose between already broken options, such as government- subsidized private insurance.

With health care as with oil, when capitalism absorbs the realm of the ethical, the root of the problem is neither addressed nor discussed.

When we talk about ethical consumerism, it is important to keep in mind the framework in which that debate takes place. It locates problems and their solutions on the individual level. Your purchases or lack thereof may express your anti-consumerist position—nonetheless, you have still assumed that large structural problems, such as climate change and global poverty, can be solved with individual choices. This logic renders the systemic causes of these problems all but invisible. We can’t change the world by just changing our personal shopping habits. We can no more consume our way out of the coming ecological crisis than we can dig ourselves out of a hole.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop buying fair trade coffee. It does mean that we should stop expecting those choices to have tangible impacts, or replace the necessity of collective political action. We should be critical of utopian liberals and conservatives who insist we can buy our way out of capitalism’s problems. The only realistic solutions to our various collective problems are the seemingly impossible options. To understand what those options are, we have to ask the questions that are not being asked, the type of questions which grapple with the root of the problem.

The Brazilian priest Dom Helder Camara once said, “I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." In this sense, if we are serious about dealing with issues such as climate change and global poverty, we should not shy away from being called communists.

Another version of this article appears on my blog


This article originally appeared in the Dal Gazette:


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895 words


Where do you buy your oil products from?

All of what you wrote is fine... except for a few things:

-For now, our society is dependent on oil.  Even electric cars are made of plastic, a product that comes from oil.  You can't run an airplane without an oil product.  Eventually something better will come along, but until that occurs we will be needing oil.

-If Alberta were to stop producing oil from the oil sands, the demand from society would be the same, and the world would just buy it from sources like Saudi Arabia or the Sudan.

-Alberta oil has far better environmental protection than oil from Saudi Arabia or Sudan.  Would you rather buy oil from those other countries, because even though the global environmental impact is worse, they don't allow TV cameras in those regions to see it?

-Alberta has far better human rights records than the other above mentioned countries.  Would you rather buy oil from countries that engage in state-sponsored suppression of human rights, or even worse genocide?

-Many of the contracting companies working in the oil sands are comprised of aboriginal peoples, who are now making money, and making their communities a better place.  Would you rather they were not involved?

-Producing oil requires a high amount of energy, no matter where you do it.  If you pump it out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, and then transport it all the way over here, as well as power the naval vessels needed to protect that transport process, that also requires a high amount of energy.

-Water use in oil production has been decreasing steadily.  Almost all of the new projects in the oil sands use SAGD to recover the oil, which re-uses 90% of the small amount of water that is needed.  New methods of separation in the mining/refining process that use less water are becoming more mainstream.  With the current rate of progress and new technology adoption, this won't be much of an issue in 5-10 years.

-Alberta oil (which is the 'ethical' version) does not cost any more than oil from unethical countries.  It is likely that if you put country-of-origin labelling on gasoline pumps in the USA,  with everything costing the same, most consumers would choose products made from Canadian oil than products made from oil from the Sudan.

Conclusion:  with the world in the current state that it is, and with the demand for oil not being able to be changed any time soon, it is better for the world to buy it's oil from Canada.

Have you even read his book?

Have you even read his book? You wrote:

"In his book Levant totally ignores the sovereignty and health claims of Indigenous communities downstream in the Athabasca river from the oil sands. He also doesn’t count the high amount of energy and water needed to extract the oil from the tar sands, or the massive amount of pollution dumped into the land."

He does take that into account; he actually goes into detail about those issues. I would suggest either reading (or re-reading) his book before you attempt to "critique" it. 

Troll poster

First off  the point of this whole article I wrote is not about consuming or not consuming certain products. It is about the logic that consumption can be ethical at all. Levant does disregard the downstream communities. In fact he does so doubly one by accepting the validity of their claims and then saying fucking their communities is a just and ethical choice. It is even worse than denial. So yes he ignores them in the most paternalistic sense.

Joe again this not about some moral relativism. I wonder if you are actually Ezra Levant. This is about a real critique behind the logic of the ethical gestures of consumption.  



I am not a troll..

...nor am I Mr. Levant.

If consumption of oil is not ethical... how do you propose we change that?  Can we run our power plants, manufacture our plastics, and fly our airplanes without oil, today?  I do agree that we should continue research and development on new technologies... but until we have such things ready for general use, what would you recommend we do until then?

Isn't using Canadian oil and oil products more ethical than using products from the Sudan, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia? 

There have been some claims of pollution, cancer, and other effects from the downstream communities; but none of them have been validated from a scientific, logical basis.  The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons tried to validate some of the claims but found they were invalid.

Joe,  I think you're missing

Joe,  I think you're missing the point.  There is no means to make consumption ethical, especially since everything depends upon petrol production.   The article seems to be questioning any industry's use of ethic-washing terms branding themselves as the do-gooder corporation.  

"We can’t change the world by just changing our personal shopping habits."  Saving the world a dollar at a time is not working; I'd contest that it is worsening the problem. 

What we need is a broadening consciousness of consuming less.  Half of the world is getting by on less than $2 a day.   

I know, the truth is scary Joe.  We live in a land of decadence where we consume and waste more than any where else.  Yet still, the native population has indeed been denied any consideration as to their own wants and needs.  Suggesting that the tar sands is creating jobs for First Nations peoples in the area while eternally damning the future of their culture and lively hoods is preposterous.  Some day we will all realize that we cannot eat money, and it will be too late. 

Just because the global economy has taken on this monstrous form does not mean it is natural or sustainable.  Change is to come, whether you choose to deny it or not.     

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