The Bell Tolls – But For Whom?

Bells, it would appear, toll more for some people than for others.

Significant accomplishment, and recognition of such by the wider world, is given to those people who position themselves outside the comfort zone of the common herd. Call them the outliers. Only outliers have the drive and imagination to energize the push for a change in the direction our human society takes. We rely on those outliers that can identify and serve the common good.

We always hope, naively perhaps, that the change they bring will turn out to be for this common good. In the case of an outlier like Adolf Hitler, by consensus the arch villain of the 20th century, such hopes were (notoriously) dashed, common good being trampled under the jackboot. In the case of an outlier like Mahatma Gandhi, such hopes, by contrast, were realized. The common good of the entire sub-continent, and perhaps of places further afield, was served and, in the process, the oppressive burden of a rapacious British Empire was unceremoniously dumped. Let’s hear a round of applause, then, for Mahatma. Here was a brave and talented man.

Can you think of other examples of people who are/were outliers? To set your thought processes in motion, here are some contemporary samples for you to try on for size: Rupert Murdoch, David Attenborough, Ivanka Trump, Malala Yousafzai. Where do you imagine they’d sit on the spectrum running from common bad to common good? Do you have other examples you’d fancy putting forward?

People aside, it’s not just we upstart apes that can be outliers. Phenomena in our inanimate world, too, can harbour outliers.

Think of the ‘worst drought in decades’ or the ‘one-in-100-year flood’ which are, by definition, outliers. Recently and regrettably, we have been hearing a lot about these villainous excursions of nature. Some of us have been exposed to them directly, and have not enjoyed the experience. Disconcertingly, they seem to be occurring with greater frequency than their tags would suggest. Only recently, here in Australia, centennial floods have been observed to occur mere weeks apart.

It’s much easier, in general, to quantify outliers, that is to say to count and/or measure them, in the sphere of the inanimate (or physical) world as opposed to the human. Because they are more tangible, characteristics of this physical world are inherently more amenable to counting and measuring than are human characteristics. By way of example, consider this. We have a scale of temperature with numbers attached, but where is a scale of courage to be found? Or a number to measure love?

A whole science has been developed allowing us to attach numbers to the physical world. The ‘bell curve’ is part of that science.

Imagine a bell resting on a flat level surface. The huge space inside the bell is given over to unremarkable events. No outliers are to be found here.

But bend your eye to the ground, and find the tiny horizontal slivers of daylight barely visible between the lip of the bell and the earthy plinth on which the bell sits, one sliver residing on each side of the bell. This is where you’ll find the outliers.

The curve described by the bell’s profile is known colloquially as the ‘bell curve’ or, for the more technically inclined, as the ‘normal distribution curve’.

It can represent, say, temperature variations from day to day. In the part of the world where I live, the average daily maximum temperature hovers around 25 C. That’s where the centre line of the bell must sit. And where I live, daily maximum temperatures as low as 5 C or, going to the other extreme, as high as 45 C, are very rare indeed, and would be regarded as outliers. They inhabit those tiny slivers of daylight to the left and right respectively of the bell’s centre line.

Got the picture?

Now imagine the bell is tilted to the left. The clapper inside will strike the left side of the bell, and a single prophetic chime will sound. The sliver on the left will be squeezed tight, and that on the right will become more than just a sliver. It will become a yawning gap. It’s no longer a fit place for outliers to live.

In these circumstances, maximum temperatures of 45 C will no longer be rare. And a whole swag of subsidiary effects will come into play. Sea levels will rise. Extreme weather events will become more frequent. More cyclones (hurricanes) will come our way. More bush fires (wild fires) will threaten our way of life.

We don’t need science to tell us this is so. We can see it happening already and all around us. And we know why it’s happening. The cause is the emission of greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere as a consequence of industrial development based on practices begun in the 19th century, and no longer fit for purpose in the 21st.

We even have names for the beast: ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, ‘global heating’. These phrases are familiar to us. They’ve become part of our common language. We use them every day.

Climate change is a threat to our existence, a clear and present danger. We acknowledge this. An international conference was held recently in Glasgow to deal with the problem this beast presents. At this conference, delegates agreed on limits to greenhouse emissions, for the purpose of stopping the insidious process in its tracks. But, only months later, it’s fair to say no country in the world seems willing to keep to these limits.

The name of action has been lost.

There are plenty of ‘shouters’ around the traps, drawing attention to the urgency of the problem. I’m one of them. But it’s no longer shouters that are needed. Shouters are a dime a dozen.

If our global institutions won’t step up to the plate, and our shouters can do nothing but shout ever louder, then we have truly entered the realm of desperation. So then, desperate measures being called for, let it be that an exceptional person, from somewhere – anywhere! – round the globe, comes forward. This person, we’d envisage, would have the smarts to carry the whole world of people with him/her, forging the necessary action on their behalf, gripping the beast firmly by the throat, and allowing neither fear nor favour to interfere with his/her mission.

A big ask? Vain hopes? Desperation? Maybe, but to where else should we turn? The wolf is at the door.

Perhaps we need an outlier, and a brave one at that. We’d hope for a messiah, not an oppressor. A Gandhi, not a Hitler. One with the common good at heart.

We live in a beautiful world. But I can’t see it being with us for too much longer unless our recalcitrant institutions decide to come to their senses, or this rare person chooses to emerge from the woodwork.

For whom shall the bell toll at this eleventh hour?