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Ethics of energy


Energy companies, particularly those producing fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, coal—are under attack by the environmentalists and their sympathizers in the media. It is one thing to criticize companies such as BP, deservedly, for lax safety procedures or lacking emergency preparedness that lead to disastrous pollution. But it is entirely different to attack these companies precisely because they produce fossil fuels—which are beneficial to us all, for heating our homes; helping produce our food; powering our cars, buses, and trains; as raw materials of plastics and synthetic fibres in our clothes; as fuel for electricity that we require for lighting and for all the information technology we use, from cell phones to computers.

Attacking energy companies because they produce energy—and us because we consume it—is exactly what journalist and environmentalist Andrew Nikiforuk does in his new book, Energy of Slaves: Oil and The New Servitude (http://www.dmpibooks.com/book/the-energy-of-slaves). His basic argument is that by consuming more energy, made possible by the continual increase in hydrocarbon production, people in industrialized countries (in North America in particular) have become dependent on it—hence the “servitude” to energy—while at the same time treating their fossil-fuel powered devices and equipment as slaves. We will run out of fossil fuels, he claims and argues that our inequitable production and consumption of energy is unethical: those in India, China, and Africa consume only a fraction of what we in the industrial countries do. His solution: we ought to eat more slowly (and less), travel only locally, and enjoy only recreation and entertainment that requires no or minimal use of fossil fuels. Barefoot walking in the nude in your neighborhood, anyone?

What’s wrong with Nikiforuk’s argument? First, the claim that we will run out of fossil fuels. Similar predictions have been made ever since Thomas Malthus created his scarcity scenarios, but they have all been proven wrong because of human ingenuity and the fact that Earth’s core is full of resources, waiting to be converted into energy. It is human ingenuity that has made possible the exploitation of energy trapped in the bituminous oil sands in Alberta, Canada, and in shale gas across North America, as well as new discoveries of rich sources of both natural gas and oil. We will not run out of fossil fuels due to “overconsumption” in the foreseeable future. And when the need for alternative sources of energy increases, such as nuclear and hydro power, and wind and solar energy, it is human ingenuity that will find ways of developing and exploiting them further.

But it is Nikiforuk’s second argument that our consumption of fossil fuels is unethical because it is inequitable, that is more dangerous—dangerous because of its anti-human, altruistic premise. He makes spurious claims that it is in our self-interest to consume as little energy as possible. He argues, for example, that Americans are less happy now than in the past because they consume more energy, and that we will be caught in a dark, cold world when we run out energy due to “overconsumption.” However, Nikiforuk’s standard of value is not human survival and flourishing. He wants us to sacrifice our enjoyment and comfort for the sake of others: people who do not yet exist, those in the developing world who have not yet learned to create and harness energy, or even non-humans: robots and machinery.

This argument from altruism is based on the false premise that creating values, such as energy, constitutes exploitation of others and that we are not entitled to the products we create. This mistaken premise does not recognize that it is precisely the creation of more values  (and the incentive of owning the products of that creation) that benefits all human life—not only of that of the producers but also of consumers and everybody around the world who is participating in the chain of value creation, from employees to supplies to middlemen.

Production and consumption of energy are not immoral but profoundly moral activities—if human life is the standard by which any action or choice is evaluated. There is no human life that is not benefited by the rational production and consumption of energy, which allow us to save labor and allocate our time and energy to other productive or recreational activities.  Production and consumption of energy do not enslave us but liberate us instead.

For more information of the benefits of fossil fuels, please see the website of the Center for Industrial Progress: http://industrialprogress.net/

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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