Is the petrostate moral?


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.

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  1. The growth of human life and civilization involves the making of many faustian pacts , conducts which involve both benefits and some adverse consequences. Before the industrial revolution pollution was minimal , but most people lived in a state of deep want and misery compared to the situation now. If we wanted to take human life to the stage it was before the industrial revolution the worlds population would probably have to be reduced to one third of what it is now , life conditions would be far more precarious, there would be no cars, trains , electricity and all those manufactured products that make human life sustainable in our day. Take the example of cars , if we abolished cars thousand of lives lost in car accidents would be saved , CO2 emmissions would be substantially reduced but are we prepared to dispense all together with the use of motor transportation ….?.not likely !! The advantages to our quality of life and comfort are too great.!!

    Looking at oil there are a few facts to be considered , the main use of fossil fuels is in transportation and power generation , but oil now accounts for only a small fraction of the total fossil fuels used in power generation. The most common fossil fuel used ( and the most polluting by far) is coal , Venezuela does not produce Coal except in relatively small quantities , the other one is natural gas , but gas is the least pollutant of all fossil fuels , less than half as pollutant as the most common kind of coal . Venezuelas production of natural gas for export is not very large .

    Where oil is the most common fossil fuel used is in transportation , but this is were greater strides are being made in technically substituting and substantially reducing the use of gasoline and diesel by adopting the use of transportation which runs on electricity or which consume much less gasoline and diesel than is the case now and was the case in the past . Standards for car emissions have been upgraded so that only in a few years time the amount of oil related pollution will be reduced very substantially . Generally appliances and engines are being redesigned to consumme much less energy than before , this process is ongoing and continuous and will lead to a lowered consumption of oil and oil products overall.

    Some of the oil related pollution is produced by the manufacture of industrial products , (in the US some 15% of the total ) but again advances are being made which will make this pollution decrease substantially in the next years.

    If you look at world oil consumption patterns , the growth in oil consumption is in China , India and the Far East , Europe and the US are entering a pattern of oil consumption which either stalls or increasingly lowers such consumption, as the world starts adopting new technologies and starts applying new standards the consumption of oil will tend to decrease over the years . Venezuelas role in helping this process along or blocking it is very small . This is a fight or struggle of big guys or big economic blocks and interests .

    Am reminded of General Gomez response when the US ambassador complained of Venezuela not entering WWI on the allies side : “en pelea de burros no se meten los pollinos’. Still there are things we can do inside our country to reduce our own consumption of oil products and which need more attention , but that is the subject for a different piece.!!

      • Oil development isn’t evil, the problem lies in the excessive amount consumed.

        And remember global warming is a “Global” thing, and Venezuela will hardly make a difference in it. I wouldn’t move a finger sacrificing stuffs, unless big ones do it first, or unless I really think it would make a difference (Hardly the case).

        And expecting people to change their consumption based on morality is very naive.
        The incentives have to be aligned before consumption-morality is created.
        It’s irresponsible to put the blame on people who has opposites incentives.

        • I totally agree that demand, rather than supply, is the fundamental problem. However, petrostates including Venezuela have worked closely with the USA to sabotage climate agreements since 1992. Developing world rhetoric demanding an equal right to pollute has worked hand in glove with the rich-country denialism.

          As for whether Venezuela can make a difference? Think about this: if Venezuela and Canada each were to produce all their current economic reserves of oil, that would produce enough CO2 to blow through all the space in humanity’s “carbon budget.” Sorry to say, Venezuela is more important than you think when it comes to this issue.

  2. “Venezuelas role in helping this process along or blocking it is very small. This is a fight or struggle of big guys or big economic blocks and interests.”

    That’s the same thing they say in Alberta.

  3. Great post. I’ve been joking for years with oil analysts that the Venezuelan failure to develop the Orinoco Belt has been good news for the global environment. By the same argument, some suspect that mismanagement of oilfields in recent years has probably slashed Venezuela’s realistic oil reserves. More good news for the environment, bad news for the Venezuelan petrostate.

    Venezuela, as opposed to some oil states around the Arabian Peninsula, has many other ways to develop. You know the list: clean water, renewable energy, biodiversity, farmland, the Caribbean etc etc etc. For decades people have aimed to “sembrar el petróleo,” to use the oil wealth to invest in these other opportunities. Well, maybe that’s not realistic. Maybe oil — by putting so much wealth creation into such few hands, and by forcing its producers to doublethink away the global environment — is inherently corrupting. I don’t like environments that reward avarice and apathy.

    Do you think there is any chance that Venezuela could voluntarily choose to leave some of its oil in the ground? I ask this from Canada, a much richer country, where the temptation to produce oil has proved stronger than the desire to leave the planet habitable for another century.

  4. Cleptozuela’s petrostate is totally amoral, undoubtedly, even by or lamentable ONU Human Rights standards. And especially in terms of Intellect erosion. The Resource Curse is alive and well. Happens every time too many riches befall on the uneducated, who are not government with some level of benevolent, constructive but tough authority.

    You have Venezuela, Nigeria, Mexico, Brasil.. rich, messed-up countries, then you have Norway or Qatar.

    Always remember to factor in Real Education levels, and/or type of Government structure.
    Historically, the “oil” curse never fails in such equation, everywhere you look, it’s ruthless and infallible.

    Tons of books and articles have been written, google brought this one first, for instance:

  5. Juan, interesting article, that made me think if this is just related to oil. And I realized it is not. In fact, I think that any situation or commodity that, when exploited, brings too much money too easily has a high probability of creating moral problems.

    The key issue, in my view, is the rate of effort versus gain. This can be applied to individuals, corporations, countries, etc.

  6. Juan Cristobal, I like the premise of the article, but I believe that you don’t even need to point out the global effects of the petro-state to see how deleterious it is. The local effects are more than enough.

    Here’s a very simple example: Venezuela is packed with gas-guzzling camionetones and old-ass V8 muscles and sedans, which are the opposite of environmental friendliness. This is a product of the petrostate, simply because in a normal economy, gas prices would force most people to find smaller, more fuel-efficient alternatives.

    We could talk about this all day. My old man remembers (yours too, I’m sure!) when the Lake was swimmable.

  7. Many of the moral arguments made by Juan can and have been made about every single human technological advance since the advent of agriculture and the beginning of civilization. And, in fact, most technologies bring with them negative knock on effects and problems that make people question the value and morality of the new technologies. However, the problems eventually get solved. Sometimes the solutions involve new social systems and solutions and sometimes they are new technologies which, in turn, engender new problems. This is all part of the nature of human progress.

    Personally, I don’t think any technology can be considered “immoral”. This is a judgement that can only apply to human behavior, and only in the context of the social matrix within which the behavior occurred.

    • Except that JC’s arguments aren’t about technology, but about the social and environmental effects of easy oil rent.

      Let me give you another example of how terrible the “petrostate mindset” is: since oil prices began to plunge a year and a half ago, Maduro and co. have been repeating that this situation is unfair, and that the “fair price” of oil is about $100/bbl. That might be “fair” for him in the sense that it allows the party to go on, but for net oil importing countries (the majority on earth), high prices means expensive transportation, and thus expensive food and staples. The fact that our politicians (and a lot of us) have the balls to complain about such a thing with a straight face means a lot.

      I’m not even talking about environmentalism here. The petrostate has, for the most part, destroyed our sense of solidarity too.

      • No arguments from this quarter regarding the morality of the Chavista Regime. All I am saying is that being a petroleum exporting (or any other commodity, for that matter) country is not inherently immoral. It isn’t what you have, it’s what you do with it. And, yes, Venezuela has made every mistake in the book.

  8. Its delusional to think that we can make it , without any help from the development of our oil resources , competition for agricultural markets is fierce and there are lots of much richer agricultural countries that we can ever become fighting for a piece of the international market. development of an industrial export capacity is also extremely difficult . Look at Colombia which for years has worked hard and phocused to develop a balanced export economy and which exports for the most part come from outside the agricultural and industrial sectors.

    If we didnt have the huge debt service accumulated during the Chavez years and a ruined oil industry and a wrecked industry and devastated agriculture today we would be doing fine . Make the calcualtions !!

  9. I don’t think is moral or immoral, it depends on what we use it for. I think in this matter Acemoglu is right when he writes that the main difference between a developed and developing nations are not based on resources or geographical locations, but on their ‘institutions’.

    When you look at our history, oil has played a great role in our development for bad and for good. You can see other countries like Chile or Norway who have some sort of relationship with a commodity (copper and oil respectively). The difference between them and us are the institutions put in place to reduce the possibilities for corruption and mismanagement to happen.

    I think the most important question is not whether the petrostate is moral or not, but how can we change it.

  10. Hi, I’m a journalism student from the University of Hong Kong, and I’m looking for on the ground sources in Venezuela for one of my projects. Would any of you be interested in answering some questions about the news and current sociopolitical situation in Venezuela? Please drop me a message at [email protected] Thank you!

  11. Oil has become an emblem for the material achievements of modern civilization , as an emblem it is not so much understood in its intrinsic properties and (sometime ambivalent ) impact but made into a cultural megaphone for the advertisement of those critical sentiments we take romantic pride and sattisfaction in exhibiting vs that civilization. Rousseau condemned the elaborate social customs and material advancements of his age as corrupting , people should go back to nature to purify themselves , Marie Antoinette dressed like a country maiden and had a country cottage build in the gardens of Versaille to play the simple shepperd girl!! Educated people of our age do the same , they adopt the pose that we should view oil as a wicked thing, we must defend the purity of nature and condem whatever brought oil into our lives .!! Looking at oil as the excremento del diablo is just another example how much we enjoy playing the sweet defenders of natures purity …..!! We Venezuelans are suckers for that sort of thing !!


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