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Can Socialism Be Sustained Without Fossil Fuels?


It’s long been stated that one problem with the Chavez regime in Venezuela–or really many socialist regimes around the world–is that you can sustain the revolution in a global commodities market that is inherently unstable. In other words, if Chavez relied on oil to build the nation, when oil prices collapsed, so did everything else Chavez tried to build. In the case of Cuba, which has little oil, the revolution had to be built on the even less fruitful sugar commodities market plus massive subsidies and imports of oil from the USSR. Also not very sustainable.

With a new round of leftist governments in Latin America coming to power at the same time that the world burns, can they build socialism without relying on that single commodity that others have used in the past? That’s the goal in Colombia.

In the span of a generation, the nation’s economy became dependent on oil revenue.

This year, voters moved to break that habit, electing Colombia’s first leftist president in two centuries of independence, a former guerrilla fighter and environmentalist who wants to phase out oil while heavily taxing coal mining companies.

“What is more poisonous for humanity: cocaine, coal or oil?” President Gustavo Petro asked world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in September. “The opinion of power has ordered that cocaine is poison,” he said. “But instead, coal and oil must be protected, even when it can extinguish all humanity.”

Mr. Petro, 62, is at the vanguard of a new crop of climate-conscious Latin American leaders. South America and Central America’s political pendulum has swung left once again, but instead of arguing that extractive economies are needed to fund welfare programs, as many of their socialist contemporaries and predecessors have, Mr. Petro, President Gabriel Boric of Chile and others say fossil fuels have not lifted enough people out of poverty to justify their impact on the climate.

It is a radical proposition, if only because Colombia is still relatively poor and theoretically has decades more of oil revenue to reap. That money now accounts for around a fifth of government income, roughly half of its foreign investment and nearly a 10th of gross domestic product.

Colombia would be the first major oil producing country in the world to stop drilling if Mr. Petro successfully decoupled the national budget from oil money. On the opening day of the U.N. climate talks in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, Mr. Petro doubled down on his promise.

I mean, I guess I’m pretty skeptical even though it’s entirely true that fossil fuels have not lifted nations with meaningfully diverse populations (i.e., outside the Arabian peninsula) out of poverty. Looking at the history of Nigeria, Indonesia, Venezuela, etc., it’s not a great model. It’s also going to be awfully hard to replace that revenue. We will see.

On the other hand, I believe humans will be extinct in 2500 without eliminating fossil fuels on a global scale.

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