books climate change

Book review: Our Biggest Experiment, by Alice Bell

Alice Bell is a science writer and communications director at Possible, and describes herself as “part-time historian of the apocalypse, part time campaigner for a better future.” I’ve been looking forward to her book for a while, and here it is: Our Biggest Experiment – A history of the climate crisis.

I notice that in the US edition (available in September), there’s an extra word in the subtitle, and it’s called ‘an epic history of the climate crisis’. Perhaps it was left out for a more modest British readership, but epic is what we’re talking about here – an ambitious, panoramic history of how climate change went from rumour to fact to emergency.

There are various places that one could start a history of climate change, and this one starts in 1851 and the Great Exhibition – a celebration of the age of steam and industry with little sense of its downsides. Using the exhibition as a starting point, Bell tells us about the machines within its Crystal Palace, the stories of Boulton and Watt, the industrialists of the Lunar Society, pioneers of steam ships and railways.

As it progresses, the book weaves together histories of technology, fossil fuels, science and environmentalism. We meet inventors, oil tycoons, scientists and their breakthrough discoveries. Multiple stories are nested within the overarching narrative of climate change, such as the evolution of meteorology as a discipline.

It’s striking how much this is a story about British and American elites, mostly men, almost entirely white. The history of fossil fuels and thus climate change is inseparable from the power structures of the time. Other players enter the picture, but most of the relevant inventions, corporations and investment comes initially out of the global North. Climate change was set in motion by a relatively small group of people, with little idea of the eventual global ramifications.

Not that Bell is interested in blaming anyone, in what is an admirably balanced history. “I’m not going to offer you villains and heroes” she writes, with fossil fuel companies on one side and environmentalists on the other. Because it too reflects the power structures of the time, the roots of environmentalism are often dubious: eugenics, racism and colonialism are recurring themes in the early history of conservation told here.

Within the nested histories of Our Greatest Experiment are a panoply of fascinating stories, from failed technologies to scientific eureka moments. There are entrepreneurs and aristocrats, dogged activists and diplomats. Some overlooked figures get their moment, such as Eunice Newton Foote, who was the first to warn that increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere could lead to global warming, right back in 1856. Or Ida Tarbell, whose fearless investigative journalism exposed the monopolising tricks of Standard Oil, and led to the break-up of one of the most powerful corporations in history. (If you appreciate a good book recommendation, then one of the book’s great joys is in the footnotes, where readers are frequently sign-posted to biographies or histories.)

If I had a quibble, it’s that the story of fossil fuels and industry concludes before we reach globalisation. That leaves out the big – as yet unresolved – twist to the climate story: how a rising Asia complicates the crisis. It began in Europe and the America, but it will be Asia that writes the final chapter on climate change, for good or ill. Our Biggest Experiment doesn’t cover this, though it’s not necessarily an oversight. “At some point you have to draw a line between history and ‘recent events'” writes Bell at the end. The book doesn’t venture much beyond the year 2000, because that’s slippery ground for a historian – “you don’t have the distance; it’s not been digested.” That’s fair enough, and a good reason to write a sequel in a few years’ time.

In short, I really enjoyed Our Biggest Experiment. Whether or not the word appears on your version of the front cover, it well and truly is an epic history. It traces the narrative line through a highly complex global crisis, a feat of storytelling that is as entertaining as it is illuminating.

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