This is Robert Llewellyn's personal blog. The views contained in here are mine alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of anyone else I work with or for. Just thought I ought to make that clear.

Wednesday
Apr162014

Years of Living Dangerously

Until I saw the Showtime documentary Years of Living Dangerously I never knew there had been a terrible drought in Syria for 4 years running up to the current brutal civil war.

No one suggests that this was the only reason for the unrest but only a fool would say it had no effect on the problems there.

I also realised a couple of things that relate to writing dystopian or utopian fiction, a thing I am battling with on a daily basis.

Making a documentary series about climate chaos and the socio-political upheaval that will follow, showing horrendous images of human stupidity and waste is easy.

I’m not saying the producers of this brilliant documentary series have done a poor job, far from it, it’s very well put together, the presenters are heartfelt and serious and what they are questioning and challenging is vitally important.

They confront public attitudes with a torrent of peer-reviewed information about the devastating effects of man-made climate change.

Even now the majority of people in the developed world don’t want to accept the screamingly bloody obvious, but ‘Years of Living Dangerously’ shows tiny rays of hope in this otherwise ‘up shit creek without a paddle in a barbed wire canoe’ scenario.

However the struggle I have fallen into is to try and throw light on the fact that there is already perfectly viable alternative technology being developed all over the world at such a heady pace it’s impossible for any one individual to keep up.

There is another story to be told here the picture above illustrates dramatically. This is the biggest solar and wind farm.... in the world. Where is it? Germany? California? Australia?

No, it's in China, and remember, all we hear from Daily Mail mor... sorry, readers is 'what's the point of us doing anything when China is building 3 new coal burning power stations a week!'

True, China is burning a shit ton of coal but they are also hell bent on doing something else, they have the largest and fastest growing wind and solar generation of any country and it's set to increase ever faster.

So yes, we are pumping ever-increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, yes we are devastating what’s left of our rainforests, emptying our seas of life, melting our icecaps like it’s going out of fashion.

However we are entering a tremendously exciting, and yes terrifying period of transition, the next 40-50 years will transform our planet in ways none of us can imagine.

It could easily get much worse, it could also get much better.

I won’t live to see most of that but I am driven above all else to politely suggest that the sooner and the more profoundly we change some of our habits, the sooner we adopt new technologies, with all their drawbacks and early-adopter hazards, the better.

It’s not about guilt and redemption, it’s not about re-cycling plastic bottles, it’s actually about economic sense and sustainability.

Not using plastic bottles at all, not cutting down trees and burning them, not fracking for the last pathetic remnants of fossil fuel, not burning crude oil but using it to make useful things like pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, plastics we don’t throw away, harvesting energy as well as crops, using energy and raw materials sensibly and making that normal is the best hope we have.

Monday
Apr072014

Should we be Angry?

I’ll reveal something about my private life.

I’ve been seeing a therapist for the past 8 years dealing with the catch all term ‘anger issues.’

This may come as a surprise to some who know me as that jolly old bloke off the telly, the happy go lucky mechanoid and engineering enthusiast who’s always excited and full of optimism.

Anger issues doesn’t really explain anything, it’s almost Victorian in its polite description of the emotional turmoil I’ve been through.

Now I’m much less angry and a great deal happier, on a day to day basis if something goes wrong my heart rate doesn’t go through the roof, I don’t shout or slam doors, I don’t sulk or ruminate on how horrible I am for days afterwards.

Essentially, talking therapy has helped me.

So when we are confronted with the greed, stupidity and selfishness of our politicians and corporate bosses, when we see the short termism of their policies and the widespread corruption of the political class, should we be angry?

I’ve spent years learning how not to be angry in my private life, it’s been a really tough journey and I’m only partially recovered; however I can see the benefits, they are manifest and delightful.

So surely, I tell myself, being angry at the wider world, at monstrous corporations and conniving politicians is equally damaging, not to them, but to us, the futile angry.

I am aware of the arguments, it’s all about focus, it’s all about, as Jesus suggested, being aware of the plank in your own eye before pointing to the mote of sawdust in your neighbours.

It’s about knowing where your anger comes from and being aware of your own input into the emotion.

I battle with this all the time, if someone does something to me that is, by any standards, offensive, cruel or selfish I need to respond with an appropriate amount of anger to that particular incident. Not blow my top because it’s pressed some embedded button that is actually caused by my early childhood.

‘Yourself’ is a very difficult thing to understand, I constantly fail but I think if we get it right, if our anger is focused, clear and about the situation at hand, it is very appropriate and can be creative.

I think we can be angry at Maria Miller for example.

Not just her of course, also the dodgy bunch of untrustworthy politicians who are either keeping their heads down or openly supporting her.

Due to her political stupidity she can’t see the big picture, the fact that she is looking after her aged and frail parents in her second home should be what this story is about.

Many people are in that situation and an intelligent or dare I say it, empathetic politician would be aware of the plight of many of their constituents and try to do something about it for the benefit of all. Not just themselves.

So I don’t think my anger at her selfishness is due to the way I was breast-fed, it’s based on long and unhappy experience at the increasing corruption of politicians the world over.

Bribed and bullied by their corporate paymasters, the very last thing on their minds is the wellbeing of the people they laughably are meant to represent.

We should be angry as long as it’s for the right reasons.

Monday
Mar312014

It's that Rape Time of Year

This may be a little rural for some of you but it’s that time of year and it’s everywhere.

I’m talking about rape.

You see, straight away that’s going to cause confusion. Some of you may be alarmed that I’ve dropped the R word in such a casual way.

I’m sure many have already surmised that I am referring to oilseed rape, or rapeseed or even Brassica Napus.

The name originally comes from the 14th century, the Latin ‘Rapa’ or ‘Rapum’ meaning turnip, the two plants being related.

In my book ‘News from Gardenia’ the hero, Gavin Meckler makes an emergency landing in a field of oilseed in chapter two. I refer to it as oilseed, a big yellow field of oilseed.

This wasn’t a mistake; it was a deliberate editorial decision on my part, I did not want to write ‘as the prop came into contact with rape my whole world turned bright yellow.’

I grew up surrounded by rape at this time of year, vast fields of bright yellow flowers stretching to the horizon but I always found the term confusing.

When I was eight years old I had no idea what the word rape meant other than it was ‘rude.’ My parents were very strict when it came to bad language but confusingly we were allowed to say rape if we were referring to the big yellow field at the back of the house.

It was much the same with the word ‘bloody.’

My parents would have been horrified to hear such an offensive word leaving the mouths of their offspring but when we visited my Aunt and Uncle in Tewkesbury who lived near ‘Bloody Meadow’ the sight of a brutal Wars of the Roses battle in 1471, we were suddenly allowed to use the word.

This joy was heightened if the family visit was around the time of year when the oilseed had just flowered.

‘Mum, we’re going for a walk to Bloody Meadow, just the other side of all the rape.’

Two rude words in one sentence! Result!

Yesterday our lovely neighbor mentioned that during a recent journey she noticed “Leicestershire is already covered in rape.”

This observation was relevant because where we live, high on the Cotswold escarpment; we have another few weeks before the crop flowers.

Just in case you don’t know what those vast yellow fields produce, it’s oil.

In 2010-11 we produced 58.4 million tons of the stuff worldwide.

It’s used for animal feed, biofuel and cooking oil. The vast majority of it (68% in Europe) is used for biofuels, it’s added to petrol and diesel and uses vast amounts of nitrogen based fertilizers to grow, and enormous amounts of electricity to crush and refine.

The rapeseed meal (what’s left after the oil is extracted) is a by-product used in animal feed.

Oh yes, and it’s 90% genetically modified in the USA, a bit less in Europe.

But aside from all that, what I am suggesting is that we move on, we ditch the 14th century term and start calling it something else.

I used ‘oilseed’ in my book, but that’s slightly misleading as there are other varieties of oilseed.

It’s called ‘Canola’ in North America, other common terms are ‘Hannover Kale,’ ‘Siberian Kale,’ ‘Swedish turnip’ and in Japanese, ‘Nanohana.’

I vote for Nanohana.

Of course other equally common names are ‘annual rape,’ ‘summer rape,’ ‘Swede rape,’ ‘winter rape’ and ‘rape kale’ so I think I’m onto a loser.

Sunday
Feb162014

Ironic or Unlucky?

A friend who’d never visited our house rang me the other day to see if we’d been affected by the recent flooding nightmares.
We live in Gloucestershire; it’s one of the counties that’s been very badly hit.
I was touched by their concern and tried not to sound smug when replying ‘if we get flooded the next thing you’ll see is a big wooden ship with a giraffes head sticking out the top, we’re 800 feet above sea level.’
I was trying to be funny, okay, it’s debatable if I was successful. 
So we have been very lucky, we’ve had trees down in the storms and big puddles near us but it hasn’t flooded. We haven’t even had a power cut and that’s something we’re quite used to.
As everyone in the British Isles is aware, the rain has been brutal, endless and unprecedented
However we don’t have water. 
Well, that’s not quite true, we have a dribble coming out of the taps. It takes about 10 minutes to fill a kettle.
I have resorted to flushing our toilets by filling buckets from the big barrels that collect rainwater from our guttering. We can’t have showers and we can’t wash clothes.


It‘s due to a power failure at our local pumping station, the water authorities are ‘aware of the problem’ and we are all being patient. We don’t have 2 foot of water in our kitchens so I’m not complaining. 
But, we don’t have any water and it hasn’t rained this much in December and January in the British Isles since records began.
And when did records begin? Well, depends who you ask, but it’s either 1603 or 1729. I’m sure someone will correct me.
I couldn’t help thinking about Alanis Morrisette’s classic 1995 song ‘Ironic.’
So here’s the thing, is it ironic that after the heaviest and most persistent rain these beleaguered islands have ever experienced, we have no water, or is it just unlucky?
“It’s like ray eee aayn on your wedding day, it’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid.”
I remember the comedian Ed Byrne did a very funny if rather cruel deconstruction of the song a few years ago. It was fine when he did it in a comedy club, it was a little awkward when he reprised the routine as he introduced Alanis at a big concert in Dublin.
I laughed at Ed Byrne’s witty explanation of what irony is but I have a soft spot for Alanis, she’s a real musician who writes her own songs, plays her own instruments and has never met or had business dealings with Simon Cowell or a plethora of fake tan, tedious, utterly uncreative vacuum-beings that soil our collective cultural scene.
So I am going to go for unlucky. Isn’t it unlucky that after all that rain, we have no water.
If I was an increasingly ridiculous and marginalised anthropomorphic climate change denier who said 'well at least there isn't a drought any more, at least we have plenty of water.' and then my taps stopped working, that might be ironic.

Friday
Feb142014

A tri-partite Struggle

One of the most unpleasant arguments to understand in the ‘energy debate’ centres on nuclear power.

The easy argument between the ‘drill and burn’ fossil merchants, conservative, short term and driven by profit on one side, and the wishy-washy let’s take the power of the sun and all live in harmony brigade, rainbow flags and naff slogans on the other.

I’m generally with the wishy-washy and often annoying greenie Clarkson goaders.

But nuclear. Oh Lordy, that’s complicated.

The pro nuclear lobby is impossible to define in terms of crass political jibes.

They’re not redneck drill and burn idiots, they’re not middle class happy clappers with flowers pinned to their bicycle baskets.

They are generally slim white men with degrees in science who can do maths and understand complicated things like cesium, uranium, thorium, plutonium etc.

They no only know the names, they know all the specific numbers that follow the names and where and in what quantity these particles occur in the natural world and which ones are actually dangerous and which ones are incorrectly used by anti-nuclear numpties who do not understand science.

However, no one disagrees that a nuclear power station releases so little CO2 it’s not worth discussing, and so much electricity it’s barely worth measuring.


A pea sized lump of nuclear fuel is energy equivalent to a massive mountain of filthy coal. We know what happens when we burn coal like there’s no tomorrow, but what happens when we’ve ‘burnt’ the energy equivalent pea sized lump of nuclear fuel…. Um… we can ‘reprocess’ it and use it again…. Um, yeah. Okay….. we’ll get back to that.

T he nuclear lobby has no truck with the fossil lobby.

The nuclear lobby is the fossil lobbies greatest enemy, they have a perfectly realistic, plausible and proven ability to replace fossil burning on a massive, global scale.

Visit France for some verification.

Without question we could generate all the electricity we’d ever need using nuclear power.

There are hundreds of obstacles, variables and arguments around being able to generate all the power we need using renewables.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, far from it, but it’s a huge task.

The nuclear power industry’s safety record is exemplary, very few people have been killed either directly or indirectly as a result of nuclear power.

The number of people who have been killed by the fossil industry directly or indirectly is at the other end of the scale, it’s monstrous, brutal, ridiculous and overwhelming.

Nuclear power is safe, fossil power is anything but.

However, what nuclear power represents for me is the continuation of large, centralised, corporate owned, mining reliant power generation.

The continuation of the leverage that owning massive power plants gives to a very small minority of very wealthy people is not going to change the way we live.

Instead of being under the influence of King Faisal or Vladimir Putin, it will be a new and as yet unimagined pillock who will restrain our governments and exert undue political influence.

Nuclear power represents the continuation of the status quo, it will maintain the 1% in their impregnable position, controlling power, controlling prices and controlling governments.

Very rich people understand the status quo, they understand power politics which is exquisitely tied to power generation.

I have nothing against nuclear technology, I have plenty of reservations about nuclear politics,

In Europe we have 2 wonderful examples of the routes we can take.

France, who produce abundant near zero CO2 electricity from their 58 nuclear power plants. Electricity is cheaper in France than the UK by about 1p per kWh.

Germany has slightly higher electricity costs than us again by about a penny a kilowatt hour, they are also generating around 50% of their electricity from renewables and the wholesale cost of electricity in Germany has been static for many years. The generating capacity is largely locally owned and operated, it’s complicated and requires expensive infrastructure to run, but it is working.

These two examples from neighbouring countries with opposite approaches are worth watching.

Germany does not have to deal with nuclear waste, they have an avowed intention to become 100% renewable by 2050

France does have to deal with Nuclear waste, actually quite a lot of it.

At the moment about 44,000 cubic meters of fairly nasty stuff, 2,300 cubic meters of which is high-level waste.

This isn’t just fuel but components that have been contaminated, reactor linings, pipes, valves and support structures.

It’s a really expensive business, they are spending many billions dealing with it.


They melt down the really toxic stuff, mix it with glass, shove it in steel barrels and bury it in rock 1,600 feet down near the town of Buré to the East of Paris.

They will leave it there, forever. That’s it. Buried and forgotten.

Until they have another load and they need to find somewhere else to shove it.

Again, I don’t want to give the impression that doing this is unsafe, I’m sure it’s a perfectly reasonable course of action, but is it a sane course of action? That’s questionable.

I would argue it is mildly more sane than the American approach which is to leave all 60,000 tons of their nuclear waste above ground in 121 temporary facilities in 39 states and argue about it indefinitely.

It could also be more sane than our approach of taking nuclear waste from other countries and storing it in the Lake District.

So now when I hear of a slim, white male scientist who is working on grid level batteries, often using toxic chemicals and metals that require mining and energy intensive transportation and refining, I am slightly more hopeful.

Big batteries will change the renewables picture, wind, solar and geo thermal do work, they do produce electricity in abundance with no need to buy or bury unpleasant fuel.


But far more importantly the means of production, the generating capacity can be locally owned, widely distributed and understood by the general population.

That’s us, the numpties, then people who’s opinions are constantly bombarded by ‘facts’ and ‘science’ from a very small minority who I take great pride in not entirely trusting.