Michael Meacher has been Labour Member of Parliament for Oldham West and Royton since 1970. He was Minister of State for the Environment between May 1997 and June 2003, and has been very outspoken on issues of peak oil and climate change. I managed to grab a short interview with him while he was eating his lunch at Schumacher College during his one day visit to the Life After Oil course and ask him for his thoughts on peak oil and localisation.
How do you see the results of peak oil manifesting around us in our daily lives? How will we observe that we are nearing that point?
First of all rising oil prices of course, because of relative scarcity, the scarcity of demand compared to supply. We are observing that of course because the price of oil 10 years ago was on the floor, around $12 a barrel, something of that order, it is now $60, and it virtually tipped $60, and that is not just conflict in the Middle East and the fact that the supply of oil from Iraq has still not reached, three years after the invasion, the level it was at before.
The main reason is the increased level of demand from China and India. We now are seeing a culmination of 2 trends, one of which is diminishing supply, that is, the really big fields in the world, Al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, Cantarell in Mexico, and others including the North Sea, those are all in decline, whilst decline is racing ahead because of the size of the population of China, about two-fifths of the world population and 7 to 10% growth for the last decade, and carrying on and on as far as the eye can see at that rate. China will be as big an economy as the US, because it will be four times the population of the US within 10-15 years, so the pressure on the supply of oil is immense from the level of demand.
Four-fifths of the oil we use today comes from fields discovered before 1970. There are no big new fields to be developed. You will see this because of data coming onto the world scene about reduced supply, we calculate pretty clearly by projecting forward growth rates what the level of demand will be, and of course where these two come together is over price, and occasionally in terms of war, as it did over Iraq. So that’s how we shall see it.
Do you think that globalisation is part of the problem or part of the solution?
Well, globalisation means that the trading patterns in the world become increasingly integrated across ever larger areas. That’s partly the effect of industrialisation across the world, and partly the trade itself generates this process, there is an internal momentum within the trade process. I don’t think that that is going to reduce of its own accord, unless there are counter pressures which are exceedingly strong, and the obvious one, the only really effective one, is climate change.
Climate change means that even if it is profitable to bring in potatoes from Poland and lettuces from Paraguay, the climate change consequences of doing that are sufficiently damaging that we shouldn’t do it. So, I don’t think globalisation is part of the solution. I think it is part of the problem, and I do think we are going to have to move towards more localised industry. Of course there are things that are not produced in certain parts of the world that are going to have to be imported from elsewhere. Some of these can be imported more slowly by ship, it doesn’t all have to be planes, ships do create rather less carbon emissions, although….
It is higher than I thought it was actually…
Yes. So globalisation I think makes things worse, and is going to have to change as these pressures mount. The resistance to doing that will be absolutely enormous, because it interferes with the kind of corporate dominance of the world economy, because after all what does multinational/transnational mean?
It means companies that operate across several countries, several continents, and they want to keep it that way! This is not going to happen easily, but it is incompatible with serious and really effective restrictions on the development of climate change, which have got to happen.
So for local communities who are looking at how they respond to this where do you think they should start?
Well, as you’ve said, the ecosystem on which we all depend is highly integrated, all these things impact on one another. Clearly energy efficiency and the use of energy, whether there’s a wasteful use of energy, whether there is an incentive there, whether there are alternatives to the use of energy in a certain context, are all very important questions.
That of course links in to the transportation system, links obviously to agriculture, to industry, all of these have widespread distribution systems. I mean strikingly when there was the scare about Foot and Mouth Disease, what we learnt was that animals are transported around the country to a degree that none of us realised. The point I am making is that the shift of food across the country is on an enormous scale.
Pret a Manger, who make sandwiches, now have their headquarters in Bedford and this stuff is trucked all over the country. This is just ludicrous! All that has got to change. So, the transport system has got to change, energy efficiency, which, as I said, affects industry, it affects agriculture, I don’t know whether new houses are being built in Totnes, presumably some are, but certainly here and elsewhere there should be requirements that the reasonably best requirements should be put in place in terms of energy efficiency, with regards to water consumption, with regard to transport impacts, waste generation, and carbon emissions.
All of these ought to underlie the way settlements live. They are all interconnected. I think you are absolutely right to try and make people aware of each of these components and then help them understand how they all interact. We can change these in components, but these components do overlap each other quite a lot.
If, through the Transition Town Totnes process we develop a 20 year plan, an Energy Descent Plan, for Totnes, how might it bridge between government, create an interface?
It ought of course to be 2-way. The Government ought to be bearing down on, that’s not the right word, influencing, local communities, local councils etc, to adopt all these standards. They don’t. It tends to be the other way round, that the pressures arise locally, like in Woking, like what you are doing here, and of course what is beginning to happen of course across the country, there is an awareness of these things and local communities want to get the advantages out of them.
So, the more it does happen locally the more it does impact on Government. My view of Government is the opposite of the official view or the conventional view, which is that the Government leads the country and we all follow. I don’t think that. I think it is the other way round usually. So, we need a much more receptive Government.
I think the record on environment, climate change, energy, are probably not bad, but I actually don’t think it’s been good, and Cameron is now pushing the Government. He is very cleverly, well it’s not really clever, but he had seen this as an area which clearly needs movement, and which is popular with the country, and where he can make his mark politically, and he has forced the Government to come after him, to make them move in his direction. Well I think it is a great pity that it required Cameron for this to happen, but if it did I’m pleased that it is happening….
You’re not tempted to jump ship?
(laughs). No, I’ll never do that! But I do want to see a lot of movement in my own party, and I want this to become a swing factor at the election, get the parties bidding against each other, who’s best on the environment. That’d be terrific.
Do you see that the National Grid has much of a future, or should we be looking towards more decentralised energy systems?
Well the National Grid will stay there for quite a time. It’s not going to disappear this year or next year, but I think we should switch towards decentralised energy systems in a big way. I think the revised Energy Review of the Government was a great mistake, this was the result of pressure from the nuclear industry, the power of the vested industries, and Tony Blair, I don’t think the Government, but Tony Blair had actually decided to go down that route, and that’s what’s happened. I think this is a grave error.
I think the future lies in decentralised energy systems. By that one means wind turbines, micro generation plants in kitchens of houses, ground source heat pumps, wood chip boilers, solar panels for heating water, and then, when the price comes down a bit, solar PV. I am absolutely convinced that is where the next 10-20 years is going to be. Once again, just what I’ve been saying, Government is dragging itself along behind, still harking after the wrong direction, the old idols, the old fashioned things.
New Labour likes to see itself as fresh and technological… I think a nuclear power station, despite its complexity, which is undoubted, is a dinosaur of the past, it is not the way of the future. The most huge loss of heat in transmitting, heat, light and power from them. They are a target for terrorists, it is far far better to have renewable technologies, on every count it is better. Its not that in 5 years we’re going to completely go over to renewables, of course that’s not going to happen, it is a gradual process, and as I said, if you look at electricity generation, oil and gas still applies to three quarters, that’s a very high proportion, its not going to change quickly, but we ought to get renewables to 20 or 30% within 10 years, and we shall have a crash programme to do that. The evidence in support of that is absolutely overwhelming, if the Government wanted to do it, it is the single biggest thing they could do. It’d be fantastic for climate change, it’d be great for industry and security of supply, and it would be good for the nation’s pocket, both industry and as individuals.
Isn’t one of the hard things for politicians about peak oil and climate change that taken to their conclusion, they basically mean less, that we have to consume less, and less is a word that politicians aren’t fond of saying?
In some senses I think that’s true. What I don’t want to do is to give the impression that this is a hair shirt solution, and that we’ve all got to go back to the Stone Age. That’s just ridiculous, but there is excess consumption by any standards. We had one example of that in the session we were both just at, where someone said that in his mother’s house there were all these recessed lights, and I said yes, and were there 3 cars in the drive, and 2 or 3 freezers and this kind of what used to be to me a cinematographic I-Mac in the living room, all using a massive amount of energy. We have to prevent these technological gains being swamped by consumption excess.
I don’t think we can carry on where we are, but if we are saying does that mean we all have to be unhappy and miserable, I don’t think that at all. I think we have an excessively materialistic society, which is not increasing our happiness, I mean are we happier than we were 30-40 years ago, I’m not aware of that, indeed a lot of people suggest that we’re not. Antisocial behaviour, social dysfunction in its various forms, crime levels, obesity, a lot of signs of things not being right, either socially or spiritually are there. So I actually think you could well argue that if we still remain very comfortable, I don’t think it is any question of giving that up, but we could actually lead a happier life if we took some of the luxury or unnecessarily or gratuitously excessive edges off our material lifestyle.