Review of Bell, Our Biggest Experiment

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Alice Bell, Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2021. 359 pgs. ISBN 9781640094338.

Reviewed by Donald Wright.

Our Biggest Experiment is ambitious. Its author is smart. And its conclusion, more implied than stated, that we can’t win because we’ve already lost, is stark. Still, I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how we’ve ended up where we have, not falling off a cliff, because climate change isn’t a cliff, but sliding down a steep slope that is only getting steeper.

With a PhD in science communication and a day job at Possible, a climate action non-profit in the UK, Alice Bell describes herself as a “part-time historian of the apocalypse” and a “part-time campaigner for a better future.” She can now add “author of a wonderful book.”

Our Biggest Experiment takes its title from something the late Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Roger Revelle said in 1957: We are conducting “a large-scale geophysical experiment.” But if Revelle wasn’t particularly worried about the possible outcomes of that experiment, Bell certainly is. To this end, she recounts – in a breezy, accessible, and occasionally salty style – the epic history of our current crisis, from Eunice Foote’s 1856 discovery that CO2 traps heat to Greta Thunberg’s 2018 decision to ditch school.

If Our Biggest Experiment sometimes loses its through line in a maze of details, it’s still climate storytelling at its best, with a fascinating cast of characters. Some are familiar, for example, John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, and Ida Tarbell, the Progressive Era muckraker who took him on. Others less so, including Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle – yes, that Beagle. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, FitzRoy led a fledgling meteorological office where he collected a ton of data and conducted early and largely unsuccessful experiments in weather forecasting. Sadly, he suffered from depression, slitting his throat with a razor in 1865, but the office he led is now the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service, and the data he gathered is an invaluable historical record, in effect a meteorological baseline.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s Svante Arrenhius’s early calculations on the relationship between atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures were a “soothing distraction” from a messy divorce. Incredibly, what began as a simple distraction led to this important conclusion in 1896: a geometric increase in CO2 will cause an arithmetic increase in the global temperature. (Fun fact: Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is related to Svante Arrenhius.) For his part, Charles D. Keeling preferred to be called Dave, developed instruments to measure CO2 in the air, and in 1960, after just a few years of taking measurements at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, among other places, determined that atmospheric CO2 was increasing because of the combustion of fossil fuel, although he cautioned that his results were preliminary. Fast forward 60-plus years, the Keeling Curve confirms beyond any doubt the unforgiving rise in atmospheric CO2.

Our Biggest Experiment is full of intriguing stories like these. Even the footnotes – conveniently located at the foot of the page – contain interesting bits of information. In one, I learned why a sperm whale is called a sperm whale. (Hint: it’s got nothing to do with cetacean ejaculate, although someone thought it did a couple of hundred years ago.) In another, I followed Bell’s suggestion and Googled the unfortunate death of nineteenth-century scientist John Tyndall, whose work is now considered foundational to climate science. (Spoiler alert: his wife accidentally gave him an overdose of the wrong medicine.)

Canadian scholars will like this book for its big picture. After all, our biggest experiment is a global experiment, meaning Canada’s historical weather, the early climate science of Kenneth Hare, the climate activism of Leap, before it ran out of steam, and the federal-provincial politics of carbon pricing can be better understood when situated in their larger, comparative contexts.

The outcomes of our experiment are overwhelming, something Bell understands intellectually and emotionally. As an academic, she studies the past to understand the present and discern the future, which isn’t pretty. As an activist, she refuses to throw in the towel, insisting that we have the tools to turn this thing around. Her two selves are at loggerheads, her can-do optimism vs. the weight of her own evidence, of warnings not heeded, decisions not made, and doubts not eliminated. As a result, her final chapter is an internal dialogue, a sparring match between “we’re doomed” and “we’ve got this.”

Curiously enough, the key to resolving the narrative tension in this very good book lies not in its final pages but in its epigraph, taken from Long Day’s Journey into Night by American playwright Eugene O’Neill: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.”

It sent me back to a play that I first read as an undergrad, when I was too young to appreciate its darkly autobiographical themes of familial disfunction, addiction, resentment, and resignation. On the surface, O’Neill is referring to the continuum of the past, present, and future. But when the line is put back into its context, and when it’s quoted in full, it means something very different. After her husband implores her to “forget the past,” Mary replies, “Why? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

The epigraph is not about the continuum of time. Or at least, it’s not only about the continuum of time. It’s about the impossibility of escaping the past, in this case, our biggest experiment. Try as we might, it won’t let us.

Feature image: The bush after a fire, Desert Lake, Quebec, 1913. Library and Archives Canada, Gilmour and Hughson Limited fonds. Library and Archives Canada, e011201811-020_s1 /
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Donald Wright is professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick and is the author of Canada: A Very Short Introduction.

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