Photo: Canadian asbestos: the ethical carcinogen

Although the health impacts of oil sands development are not as well understood as those of cancer-causing asbestos, the terrestrial impacts and greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oil sands are known to be environmentally harmful (Credit: Adam Arroyo via Flickr).

By Tyler Bryant, Energy Policy Analyst

So where should I buy my asbestos, if not from Canada? The countries with the most asbestos are Russia and China. But they're not more ethical than we are. They're undemocratic regimes. I guess there's always asbestos from Kazakhstan. But it's an authoritarian country, too.

Hang on. I think I know why environmental groups bash and slander Canada's asbestos industry, but don't even have a press conference in these other countries. Enviro groups are afraid of them.

You know, Canada's asbestos isn't perfect. But it's ethically superior to any other source of asbestos in the world. And the fact that environmental groups are scared for their lives to have a protest in Russia or China or Kazakhstan sort of proves that point — doesn't it?

Sounds absurd right? Well that's the gist of Ezra Levant's logic as to why we should continue to develop the oil sands. With asbestos, Canada exports poison mostly to Asia, where building and public safety standards are more lax than here. The health impacts of oil sands mining are most acutely felt by people (mostly First Nations) living along the Athabasca watershed. Although the health impacts of oil sands development are not as well understood as those of cancer-causing asbestos, the terrestrial impacts and greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oil sands are known to be environmentally harmful. I don't know which is ethically better or worse, harming people halfway across the world, or your own citizens who have not had a palpable role in deciding the pace and extent of development. I would venture that neither is acceptable.

But the "ethical oil" logic would have us ignore those health and environmental impacts because Canada is the best country of the bunch of exporters and that should be enough to offset the harmful health and environmental impacts of our exports. What really matters, of course, are outcomes, impacts and actual morality. Exporting asbestos risks exposing people in the developing world to carcinogens so that we can keep a mine open. Developing and exporting from the oil sands means that we aren't serious about making the inevitable shift to a low-carbon economy to avoid dangerous climate change. The ethical thing to do would be to recognize the impact on our children and grandchildren and decide that short-term revenue is less important than the health of the planet. The tired justification of "Well, they are going to do it anyway" does not sit well when the ecosystem is at stake.

Besides, the rich, industrialized world largely created the problem of climate change. The vast majority of human-created greenhouse gases came from the world's rich minority. Canada remains in the top 10 global greenhouse gas polluters in terms of both per capita emissions and total emissions. That's because we use lots of dirty energy very inefficiently. The oil sands is just the latest industry where officials have decided that increasing emissions is just fine, even in a world where everybody, including the oil and gas lobby, is discussing how much we need to decrease them.

So instead of shifting blame, it's time that we looked in the mirror and accepted the appreciable impacts our resource development industries are having on our environment. It's time to step out of the façade created by people like Levant to confuse and shift focus away from the real issues. Mining and exporting a known carcinogen to countries with less stringent health and safety measures than we have here is wrong. Mining and exporting a fuel that makes up the largest growing single sector of emissions in the developed world is wrong. It's time to wean ourselves and our economy off these harmful products, not construct arguments made on sand.

July 11, 2011

Read more

Post a comment


Jul 12, 2011
9:28 AM

This article is a great eye opener for people like myself who weren’t entirely informed about the dangers of asbestos.

Jul 12, 2011
4:22 AM

I find it rather hypocritical that our government would criticize countries like Russia and China, saying that “our” product is ethically better because THEY (Russia and China) are undemocratic. We still do business with them. We still want to export oil to them. The majority of our goods are “Made in China”. If we were so morally correct, we simply wouldn’t do business with them.

But, we are not. We are simply looking for any excuse to justify that “short term revenue” is more important than “the health of the planet”. And for that, we should be ashamed.

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to remove product/service endorsements and refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »