Winds of change

Winds of change

About 7.38 billion... this is the population in the world today, living in 196 countries. We have come a long way in 50,000 years, the approximate time when ancestors walked out of the forests and savannahs of Africa.

As our civilisation evolved, our ways of life evolved too. Major changes in our ways of life came about because of climate changes, like the Ice Age, natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, medical calamities like plagues and pestilence, discovery of practices like agriculture and animal husbandry, and unsustainability of prevalent modes of living like the exhausting of water tables. Our thoughts, actions and lives have definitely changed, and a lot of these differences have been brought about by juggernauts of Nature and the inexorable pressures of discoveries and inventions.

Yet... we cannot ignore the fact that most of the changes in our lives have been wrought by ideas. When people’s way of thinking changes, so do the belief system and the behaviour. Ideas thought of by some get vocalised and acted upon, changing prevailing customs and actions of many, thereby changing the entire landscape of the world. In these ways, a few people have changed the entire world.

Can anyone forget the young man who was unfairly thrown out of the first class compartment in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa? Or the other young man who failed the entrance exams to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna two years in a row? Or for that matter, a geography teacher who heard ‘a call within a call’?

When Mahatma Gandhi was in South Africa, he experienced racism and injustice for the first time when he was thrown out of the first class compartment even though he had a valid ticket. Later, he realised that using arms to gain rights would be futile. So he chose the methods of civil disobedience and non-violence to break the might of a worldwide empire. His first act of civil disobedience was a satyagraha against the Salt Tax imposed by the British.

When he set out of Sabarmati Ashram on March 12, 1930, the world was watching. On the day of the march, he started off with 78 of his followers. His words and his actions drew more followers and converts along the way, until, at the end of 24 days, tens of thousands followed him, a ‘white river’ of khadi-clad supporters entering the sea to collect salt illegally.

More importantly, the ideas of peaceful protest had been firmly planted in the minds of people all over the world. They would later cause the United States of America to introduce desegregation of Negroes, and South Africa to relinquish its reprehensible practice of apartheid. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela would win Nobel Prizes for Peace, and eventually a black man named Barack Obama would become President of the USA.

And in India, if you listen deeply, sifting through the roars of materialism, globalisation and communal tensions, you can still hear the ideas of equality for all, self-reliance, and non-violence echoing, remnants of change that one man brought about.

Now, let’s shift gears and think about the other young man, the one who failed in his bid to become a brilliant artist. If he had succeeded in entering the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Hitler might never have become ‘the butcher of Jews’. Instead, he failed to secure admission into that hallowed institute. Later, he single-handedly changed the landscape of the world and people’s notions of the depths to which the human spirit could descend. Thanks to him, the borders of countries have changed, as have political equations. The world can never go back to being the way it was before him.

Mother Teresa was a simple Christian nun, who taught Geography and Catechism at a convent school. Her life changed when she experienced God’s voice, asking her to go out into the public and serve His people. Since then, her work has given a voice to the millions of ‘the poorest of the poor’, and created a sea-change in the way people view the dispossessed. One of the most significant contributions she made was showing the actual way in which people can be helped. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she accepted it, but refused the conventional ceremonial banquet that is given to laureates. Instead, she asked that the prize money of $192,000 be given to the poor in India. Through this action, she showed practical ways in which the poor can be helped.

These and many other instances show us that it is not so much natural events as it is people who change the world. And they do it through their words, actions and ideas. These set off chains of events which end up changing the world.

Agents of change

Obviously, people with power — political, wealth or social influence — can and do change the world. The Beatles changed music. Michael Jackson changed the way we looked at dance. Bill Gates showed us the huge rewards that entrepreneurship can bring. These people acted as social catalysts which bring about radical changes through their own behaviour which, in turn, changes the behaviour of those around them. However, what is most astonishing is that it is not only people in power who change the world.

Small people with little power can do it, too. A small player who made an immense difference was a black woman who was ordered to give up her seat to a white man in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The 42-year-old seamstress, Rosa Parks, decided at that moment “that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind...” Her actions and subsequent arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A young and unknown minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church named Martin Luther King, Jr., was chosen to lead the boycott... and the rest is history.

In 1939, a Nazi supporter named Oscar Schindler became the owner of an enamelware factory in Poland, which employed a thousand Jews. Schindler was no saint, but a man who drank too much, cheated on his wife and spied for the German military. However, with his party connections, he was able to protect his Jewish workers from certain deportation and death. Initially, he did this to make a profit from his factory, but later he began shielding his workers for humanitarian reasons. He had to give Nazi officials large bribes and luxury goods he got on the black market just to save Jewish lives. He even went bankrupt for this purpose. But he was able to save 1,200 Jews from execution.

Small people can cause change inadvertently, too. During the dreaded days of the Berlin Wall, when East Germany reeled under a rigid communist regime and East Germans were shot if caught trying to leave the country, a small mistake by one person changed the world. On the night of November 9, 1989, an East German government spokesman named Gunther Schabowski made a statement to the press, stating that visas would be given freely to East Germans wanting to leave the country. “As of when?” asked an Italian journalist. Inadvertently, Schabowski said, “As of now.” He was not supposed to say that, because the government was trying to relax travel rules gradually — later, he was expelled from the ruling communist party and even imprisoned for his actions. However, within hours of the newscast, thousands of East Berliners moved to the gates in the wall, leading to the border crossing being opened up. One ordinary man’s words opened the doors of the free world to millions of oppressed people.

Somebody once said that nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. During one speech, Mother Teresa told the story of a beggar who approached her. “ ‘Everyone asks something of you,’ he said. ‘Some people have something to give; I have nothing. But today I earned ten paise. Here, take it.’ So I took it. And that, to me, was much more valuable than the Nobel Prize.”

Therefore, people, big or small, influential or not, can change the world. This becomes obvious when we look at how change actually starts and how it happens.

One way in which small changes can make big impacts is through the Ripple Effect. When you drop a stone in a pond, it creates ever-widening circles that reach all the way to the shore. Here the effect from the initial action spreads outwards, its effect multiplying as it moves across space. In economics, this is called the multiplier effect. Similarly, social interactions can turn out to affect situations that are not directly related to the initial one also. Such would be the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, a man both never met.

The power within

As average individuals, we mistakenly believe that we lack influence. However, social scientists Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler proposed a theory in 2007 called the Three Degrees of Influence. They propose that everything we say or do tends to influence our immediate social network, ripples through our friends (second degree) and our friends’ friends (third degree of influence). For example, if you start a new habit, say exercising, your friends will be encouraged to do it, too, and they will influence their friends into activities, too. The influence tends to dissipate after the third degree.

Another way change is effected is by the Domino Effect, the cumulative effect produced when one event triggers the next, which triggers the next, and so on, until a chain reaction occurs. Dominoes are thin, rectangular blocks of wood. These can be arranged in a row next to each other at a precise distance. When one is pushed gently, it falls on the next one, causing it to fall. That one knocks over the next one, and so on, until the entire row falls down. Though this is a mechanical effect, social change can be brought about by word-of-mouth transmission of ideas from one person to another.

Another kind of chain reaction that could occur is the Avalanche or Cascade Effect. An avalanche is the term for a snowslide (similar to a landslide) which occurs when unstable snowpacks on mountains weaken due to physical changes like earthquakes or increased load. Excessive snowfall may trigger an avalanche, but so can people skiing on an unstable snowpack. Here, it refers to the situation when one small action or input leads to a very big change in output. For example, disciplining children with positive feedback instead of punishment may result in an avalanche of positive results like reduced anxiety and stress, better concentration and less disciplinary problems. The result is well-balanced happy children who turn into useful citizens of the world.

A small snowball rolling down a snow-covered hillside will pick up more snow, gaining more surface area, mass and momentum as it rolls down the hill, in an effect called the Snowball Effect. In the same way, a matter of small significance can build upon itself and become larger, causing major consequences. On December 17, 2010, a struggling street vendor in Tunisia, named Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire when a local official confiscated his vegetable cart and humiliated him in public. This incident shocked Tunisians, who began pouring onto streets to demonstrate. The situation escalated, until the dictatorial regime that was in place at the time was overthrown. The protests spread throughout the Middle East, resulting in what is now called the Arab Spring.

Perhaps the most interesting way in which a small change can cause a large result is the Butterfly Effect. Also known as the Chaos Theory, it was described by Edward Lorenz in 1961. His frivolous title for a talk in a conference on Environmental Sciences was ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ But his theory was entirely serious. He found that when very small changes were introduced into a computer model doing weather predictions, a completely different weather scenario emerged. In other words, even something that perturbs the atmosphere as little as the flap of a butterfly’s wings could have huge effects on weather events much later and/or in a totally different geographical location.

Similarly, every one of us, and everything we do, matters in this world. Any single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe. Even the smallest step we take in our lives can change our own lives and those of others around us.
If we were to just sit down and think about people who have influenced us by saying something that motivated us, we will find at least five in our lives. When we turn this around, it follows that we may also have motivated others. Most of us love to share our opinions on just about anything and everything. Unfortunately, we love to whine about how bad people are and how bad things have gotten. But, what if we focused on the positives? We may also end up inspiring and motivating people.

Napoleon Hill once said, “If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Dr Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of business concurs. She says that most revolutions are sparked by the actions of a few. The best way to spark a large response is to find the ignition point of a chain reaction and go ignite it.

So, any change in the world can start with one person. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi. And as Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

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