Is the petrostate moral?

Forget about the economy. Worry about what the flood of unaccountable wealth does to the nation's soul.

Venezuela is a petrostate, a place where unexpectedly easy oil rents define the way the economy, the political world, and ordinary citizens interact with each other. The petrostate is Venezuela’s essence. Understanding its influence on the way we are (dis)organized is the key to deciphering Venezuela.

But the petrostate’s effects extend beyond the societal. The question I want to explore in this post is, how does it affect us as people? Does the black goo tarnish our soul? Is there right and wrong in being a petrostate?

In other words, is the petrostate moral?

The petrostate has moral consequences for sure. By encouraging corruption, it affects our sense of what’s right and wrong. By limiting our economic choices, it makes us less free and it therefore goes against human nature. By encouraging a culture of “como vaya viniendo, vamos viendo,” it makes us lose sight of future generations.

But these are all indirect consequences of the petrostate, moral consequences that play out like side effects of the way it is run.

But could oil itself, and the business of selling it, eat away at our soul and damage our human nature?

I thought about this as I read Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si.

The encyclical talks about how humans are destroying our “common home” because of our greed and the culture of waste in which we live. Much of it has to do with the very nature of what the petrostate does, and with how that relates to the moral order we hold dear – not as Catholics, but as humans.

(A side note: some of you might get their moral cues from elsewhere. Others might be downright offended at the notion of getting morality lessons from the guy in white who lives in Rome. If that’s the case, then this post is not for you.)

The Pope is not shy about plunging into the science behind global warming, and his take is apparently rock solid. Take it away, Francis:

“It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they hamper the escape of heat produced by sunlight at the earth’s surface. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system.” (¶23, emphasis added)

In other words, man-made global warming is real, and one of the main culprits is big oil. Which basically makes us, one of the more important players in the oil markets in the world, kind of like the guys selling guns to underage psychos who then go and shoot people at random, ¿o no?

Another one:

“Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy.” (¶26)

Here, Pope Francis points to a conspiracy of sorts between people with “power” who don’t care for solving the problem.

Now, if you’re like me, every time you read about a conspiracy of people with power you think … “damn those people with power.”

But in this case, we need to look in the mirror – we, the citizens of Venezuela, are as guilty of this as the average shareholder in ExxonMobil. For years, we have been empowering people with the power to play these games on the planet.

As citizens of Venezuela, we’re responsible for electing politicians who feed the petrostate, and feed off of it. This cycle is contributing to the death of the planet.

The petrostate is so powerful, it is practically the only issue that cuts across party lines in our country. All of our politicians – chavistas and non- celebrate the petrostate. All of their proposals have something to do with administering it. Nobody in the country – none of us certainly – is seriously considering killing it. Nobody looks beyond it.

The debate is on the figures, and on the players required to build or rebuild the petrostate. The argument is on using the petrostate to further other goals – political, economic, geo-strategic. But the petrostate itself does not come under scrutiny from either side.

Francis again:

“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”(¶165)

Harming the environment to feed our lifestyle is not a side-effect. It is an existential moral choice that we make day after day, one that forces serious questions we fail to ask. To what extent are we compensating for the harm our economic lifeblood causes by supporting the development of green technologies? To what extent are we preparing for the “necessary replacement” of fossil fuels by thinking ahead?

Let me answer those questions: to no extent.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Venezuela, for example, joined other petrostates in sabotaging the Copenhagen climate summit in 2010. It is not rocket science to think what Venezuela will do in the upcoming Paris COP21 Summit. As an ally of Russia and China, it is bound to reject regulations that fall on developing countries. It will also reject colonialism by voting in block with China and Russia.

But is it really a moral issue? Francis again:

“A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” (¶75)

Trampling on the environment is wrong because it presumes we own it, that we possess the planet that we have been given to care for and administer. In a way, environmental degradation debases and degrades us because it answers to a pretention that we own the joint. It is merely a manifestation of our greed and arrogance.

Human actions are the main cause behind climate change, and climate change is merely the consequence of a moral wrong which puts our consumption, our own well-being above the needs of future generations, entire species, and the planet itself.

And what role do we, as Venezuelans, play in this drama?

We’re like the junkies dealing heroin to the addicts. We’re the pimps to the sleaze-balls johns running off with underage hookers. We’re the NRA. We’re the guys building the cluster bombs that end up in the skulls of Syrian children.

This might sound over the top, but…is it? Oil is a commodity, and there’s a market. Sellers will be sellers, buyers will be buyers, and all that.

But we know the market isn’t moral, at least not absolutely moral. If that were the case, regulating certain markets (such as the market for hand grenades or nuclear weapons) would be immoral. There are certain markets that, due to their profound negative externalities, should be regulated to the point of being eliminated…for moral reasons.

Ours is a business that relies on the consumption of the poison that is killing our planet. Not facing the ethical consequences of this is a continued stain on our national soul, and it is completely foolish to boot because it leaves us completely vulnerable to the changes in how the world consumes energy. We need to question the karma incessant oil production brings to our lives.

In her magnum opus The Paradox of Plenty, Terry Lynn Karl quotes a conversation she had with one of the fathers of Venezuela’s petrostate, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo. She confided in him her desire to study OPEC, but he scoffed.

“Don’t study OPEC,” he said. “It is boring. Study what oil is doing to Venezuela, what oil is doing to us.”

Karl heeded his advice, producing one of the definitive books on the political and economic consequences of the petrostate. But somehow I think she fell a little short.

Perhaps Pérez Alfonzo was urging her to drill deeper.