By John von Heyking, October 6, 2010 in Professional Development, What is Education?
A common perception in our society has it that people who create wealth directly, such as the businessman or the laborer who works with his hands, produce more wealth than a university professor, who is seen as a parasite on their efforts. The university professor, especially one who teaches humanities and social sciences and thus does not invent some machine that enhances industrial production, produces nothing of value. It’s even worse if he teaches at a public institution, because then he draws his inflated salary from the backs of those who actually work for a living.
A recent encounter of mine challenges this perception in a fundamental way. I recently attended a conference where I heard an executive of one of Canada’s energy producers announce that only now are they starting a public relations campaign promoting the good work being done in Alberta’s oilsands. The oilsands industry is responsible for approximately 20 percent of America’s oil imports. At a time when alternative sources of oil are owned by unreliable trading partners (e.g., Venezuela) or carry enormous domestic environmental risk (e.g., the recent offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), energy producers present the oilsands as a reliable source of energy. A new PR campaign, with ads running in Times Square, is meant to respond to frequent high profile criticisms of the industry.
Until very recently, energy producers, as well as provincial and federal governments, have assumed that US need for oil is reason enough to assume that the oilsands will sell themselves. A large and powerful opposition to oil from the oilsands in Europe and the United States, which includes decision-makers at all levels of government as well as celebrities like James Cameron who influence public opinion, regards the environmental damage produced by oilsands extraction as unacceptable. For many, Alberta’s oilsands are the primary cause of climate change. Newspapers such as The Guardian even refer to them by their polemical term, “tarsands.” The oilsands epitomize all that is wrong not only with the energy industry, but, for some, with industrial civilization itself.
The energy industry and provincial and federal governments have only recently realized that the oilsands are not only environmentally questionable, but they are a morally tarnished good. Because executives in the energy industry tend to be engineers and MBAs, they tend not to think of the practice of business as a moral practice. The production of energy requires technical knowledge, and the marketing of energy requires only good communications skills. Theirs is the knowledge of the CEO and the laborer. They seem not to have realized that the economics of producing and selling energy, like the economics of anything else, takes place within a moral economy. Goods produced must be seen not only to be useful, but they must also have a moral value. If consumers come to identify oil produced by the oilsands as morally equivalent to goods produced by South Africa under apartheid, the oilsands is as good as dead. This claim may seem exaggerated because there will always be a demand for oil, at least for the foreseeable future. This is true, but many of the people critical of the oilsands would prefer to get their oil from Hugo Chavez, who shares many of their political views, than from Alberta energy producers, which generally do not share their views.