Our biggest experiment An epic history of the climate crisis

Alice R. Bell

Book - 2021

"It was Eunice Newton Foote, an American scientist and woman's rights campaigner living in Seneca Falls, New York, who first warned the world that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could send temperatures here on Earth soaring. This was back in 1856. At the time, no one paid much attention. Our Biggest Experiment tells Foote's story, along with stories of the many other scientists who came before and after her, helping build our modern understanding of climate change. It als...o tells the story of our energy system, from whale oil to kerosene and beyond, the first steamships, wind turbines, electric cars, oil tankers and fridges. The story flows from the Enlightenment into World War Two and beyond, tracing the development of big science and our advancing realisation that global warming was a significant global problem, along with the growth of the environmental movement, climate scepticism and political systems like the UN climate talks. As citizens of the twenty-first century, it can feel like history's dealt us a rather bad hand with the climate crisis. In many ways, this is true. Our ancestors have left us an almighty mess. But they left us tools for survival too, and Our Biggest Experiment tells both sides of the story"--

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Subjects
Published
Berkeley, California : Counterpoint 2021.
Edition
First hardcover edition
Language
English
Physical Description
xix, 359 pages ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 335-359).
ISBN
9781640094338
1640094334
Main Author
Alice R. Bell (author)
  • Introduction: Experiments
  • A steam-powered greenhouse
  • Discovering our hothouse Earth
  • From whale to shale
  • The weather watchers
  • Electric avenues
  • Tree huggers
  • The rise, fall, and rise of big oil
  • Big science
  • A carousel of progress
  • Growing concern
  • Crisis point
  • Already happening now
  • Conclusion: End point?
Review by Booklist Reviews

British writer Bell initiates this look at the "epic history of the climate crisis" with the Great Exhibition of 1851, the wildly successful celebration of the United Kingdom's power and innovation. From there, the author leads readers on a fast-moving journey through the Industrial Revolution on into the twentieth century, dropping names both familiar and forgotten. While emphasizing inventors and scientists, Bell also notes those who issued early calls of concern about rapid development, from such Cassandra figures as William Blake and Henry David Thoreau, who pondered just how high a price would ultimately be paid for the eager embrace of unchecked technologies. Their comments were easily overlooked in the rush for technological advancements, however, as Bell shows in her assessments of the eager burning of coal, whale oil, and fossil fuels. The expansive research involved is laudable, while the packed narrative moves so rapidly it serves as a survey rather than an historical treatise. Bell's overview of how industrialization led to the climate crisis is a good match for those seeking a brisk approach to the subject. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

This book by climate activist Bell stands out from the herd of recent titles on climate change, for its unlikely origin (as an alternative walking tour of London) and its lively account of the innovators, inventors, instigators and investigators of industry, energy, and climate in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States. Bell's account of the climate crisis is both historical (spanning the 18th through 21st centuries) and personal and fully demonstrates her PhD in science communication. It's especially readable and engaging for its fascinating narratives of little-known climate scientists and activists who first sounded the alarm, and its particular attention to Black innovators whose scientific contributions have been overlooked. She adeptly recognizes the impact of scientific and technological developments on social ills; for instance, she considers the real and projected implications of switching from fossil fuels to electricity. Bell's outlook for the future is dim, given the irreversibility of some climate effects, but she's ultimately hopeful that climate scientists and technologists still have options for altering the current trajectory. Bell runs a UK climate action non-profit called Possible, whose name says it all. VERDICT If readers seek just one book to explain how the world arrived at the current climate crisis, this one would be a great suggestion. Bell's accessible writing will find a wide audience.—Teresa R. Faust, Coll. of Central Florida, Ocala Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

The discovery of climate change arrived not with a bang but slowly over many centuries of lesser-known findings, writes activist and journalist Bell (Can We Save The Planet?) in this thorough and sweeping history of the climate crisis. Bell traces "how we built systems, technologies and deeply embedded cultures for the burning of coal, gas and oil at scale" to track "how we discovered the climate crisis was happening in the first place." She begins in 1851, at England's Great Exhibition, which was among the first events to rely heavily on coal-powered steam engines and marked "an age of prosperity" powered by fossil fuels. Subsequent biographies include John D. Rockefeller and his control of the oil industry and Eunice Newton Foote, who discovered the greenhouse effect in 1856. (Meanwhile, "the first recorded tree huggers" emerged in India in 1730.) Bell makes a convincing case that in order to effectively deal with climate change, people must understand how the world got to this point: "We've inherited an almighty mess, but we've also inherited a lot of tools that could... help us and others survive" through modern climate science. Impressive in scope, this deserves wide readership. Agent: Donald Winchester, Watson Little. (Sept.) Copyright 2021 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Drawing from science, politics and technology, this illuminating book sheds new light on the little-known scientists throughout history who helped build our modern understanding of climate change.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

"It was Eunice Newton Foote, an American scientist and woman's rights campaigner living in Seneca Falls, New York, who first warned the world that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could send temperatures here on Earth soaring. This was back in 1856. At the time, no one paid much attention. Our Biggest Experiment tells Foote's story, along with stories of the many other scientists who came before and after her, helping build our modern understanding of climate change. It also tells the story of ourenergy system, from whale oil to kerosene and beyond, the first steamships, wind turbines, electric cars, oil tankers and fridges. The story flows from the Enlightenment into World War Two and beyond, tracing the development of big science and our advancing realisation that global warming was a significant global problem, along with the growth of the environmental movement, climate scepticism and political systems like the UN climate talks. As citizens of the twenty-first century, it can feel like history's dealt us a rather bad hand with the climate crisis. In many ways, this is true. Our ancestors have left us an almighty mess. But they left us tools for survival too, and Our Biggest Experiment tells both sides of the story"--

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Traversing science, politics, and technology, Our Biggest Experiment shines a spotlight on the little-known scientists who sounded the alarm to reveal the history behind the defining story of our age: the climate crisis.

Our understanding of the Earth's fluctuating environment is an extraordinary story of human perception and scientific endeavor. It also began much earlier than we might think. In Our Biggest Experiment, Alice Bell takes us back to climate change science's earliest steps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, through the point when concern started to rise in the 1950s and right up to today, where the “debate” is over and the world is finally starting to face up to the reality that things are going to get a lot hotter, a lot drier (in some places), and a lot wetter (in others), with catastrophic consequences for most of Earth's biomes.

Our Biggest Experiment recounts how the world became addicted to fossil fuels, how we discovered that electricity could be a savior, and how renewable energy is far from a twentieth-century discovery. Bell cuts through complicated jargon and jumbles of numbers to show how we're getting to grips with what is now the defining issue of our time. The message she relays is ultimately hopeful; harnessing the ingenuity and intelligence that has driven the history of climate change research can result in a more sustainable and bearable future for humanity.