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Biography of a Bell Curve

By Rebecca Altman Gasior “I’ve never been to a political rally,” my husband says after I suggest going to the Climate Forward Rally in Washington, DC over February vacation. He is a scientist, an entrepreneur, a pragmatist. Sometimes he slips and introduces me as a “socialist,” though really I’m a sociologist.

“Me neither,” I sigh, “nothing of this scale, and never in Washington.”

He knew I wanted to go, but could sense I was worried about logistics. We have a two and a five year old. We live in Boston. One kid has severe food allergies, making the question “what’s for dinner?” tricky to answer on the road.

The rest of the exchange went like this:

“Wasn’t it enough that we supported Obama?” he asked.

“Doesn’t this moment demand more?” I respond.

“But will it make a difference, a couple more bodies?”

“What if everyone thought that way?”

“Will anyone really care if we don’t show up?” he quips.

“They might,” I say pointing at the kids. “And their kids might. And don’t you think your great-grandchildren might care?”

The next day he made hotel reservations.

*    *    *

It’s summer 2012. Boston is sweltering; Kansas farm country, not Death Valley, is the hottest place in the country; Midwestern cropland has been crippled by a drought that won’t quit.

We drive the kids to the Boston Museum of Science—for air conditioning and ample distractions. Our one year old becomes absorbed by the Galton Box, a mesmerizing exhibit that demonstrates how the likelihood of mass phenomena tends toward the average outcome.

It’s a plexi-glass box. Through it, a series of balls are dropped down a maze of pegs, each one bouncing randomly this way and that, until coming to rest in one of 17 columns along the base of the exhibit. Over time, the balls fill up the columns and, if you watch long enough, a pattern emerges. The filled columns eventually take the shape of the bell curve, with most balls falling somewhere in the middle columns, and far fewer filling the columns at the tails. Although the balls could drop into any column, each column fills to approximately the same height each time the columns are emptied and the balls are re-released. Scientists call this the normal distribution.

A wide variety of phenomena follow this trend—tending toward the average, though some do fall into the tails, the margins. We call these outliers.

*    *    *

The late sociologist, Bill Freudenburg, used to say of the bell curve that “the tail wags the distribution.”

He is known for many things, but especially for developing the study of what he called disproportionality in environmental studies. It turns out, as Freudenburg relays in a study published by Social Forces, that a disproportionate amount of pollution is attributable to only a handful of bad actors who emit far more than is typical for other industries within their sector. Not all U.S. industries behave the same, he writes. There’s actually quite a bit of variation in environmental performance across sectors, within sectors, and even from plant to plant within a company (see Freudenburg 2005, 2006). In each instance, there are often extreme outliers, mega polluters.

But, he argues, regulators and policy-makers often treat all industrial units as equals, and assume that most industries have about average environmental performance. This plays into the perception that typical firms typically pollute, and lead many to assume, often mistakenly, that environmental harm is therefore a necessary byproduct of industrial activities and economic growth, when egregious pollution is more likely produced—and politically protected— by a few.

What if regulators—and the public—focused not on the mean, but on the outliers? What if, he writes, we, “went after the worst 10 percent of the polluters and asked them to be no worse than what is considered average in the dirtiest industries?” This could yield a substantial drop in total emissions for those industrial sectors. His project was a work in progress, a set of ideas, still being developed and tested by his colleagues, and yet, compelling: to start, reign in the outliers, reign in those with the most disproportionate impact to the whole and/or to the most vulnerable communities.

And then there’s this: given the effect of just a couple outliers, environmental polluters and their releases might be better modeled by a different curve, a different shape, a different distribution altogether, suggests Lisa Berry in a study published in Research in Social Problems and Public Policy. The bell curve, the normal distribution, no longer fits.

Meanwhile, we march on as a society, extracting unconventional fossil fuels using ever more extreme, toxic, and climate-disruptive technologies. We blow up mountains to expose coal and bedrock to release natural gas. We drill wells deep at sea, and refine oil from dirty tar sands.

We’ve left largely unbridled the outliers on the wrong end of the distribution.

*    *    *

Mid-summer climate scientist James Hansen releases a new analysis of global temperatures, concluding the entire bell curve for anticipated seasonal temperatures has shifted rightward by an increase in extremely hot weather. A cluster of outliers pulls the average along with it, as if the museum curators ripped the Galton Box from its foundation and moved it over a foot.

*    *    *

“We decided to take the kids to DC for February vacation,” I tell my mother over the phone. “There’s a climate rally happening the first weekend of break.”

“Ugh,” she groans. “Maybe you should go down later in the week.”

“The rally is the draw, Mom; the rally is why we’re going.”

The following night my mother-in-law asks whether it is safe to bring the kids. My husband fields the question. I’m already on the Internet fretting about whether arrests are expected.

Earlier that night, my husband attends a curriculum meeting for our kids’ school. There, the teachers sketch their plan to engage students on climate change. Projected on the screen behind them is a picture of children beside a tree, one of them with arms wrapped around it. Afterwards he says to me: “we’re not hugging trees, we’re bringing them to DC.”

I think I detect pride in his voice.

*    *    *

In September, I leave home for the first time since having children. I travel to Moab to participate in a Women’s Congress, co-organized by SEHN, about our collective responsibilities to future generations, about what rights they hold to a livable world. Moab steeps me in a sense of deep time—the striations in the red rocks, millennia of erosion, evidence of a long-gone interior ocean—and in the continuity of human life, the ancient indigenous ruins, the petroglyphs, the abandoned mines, the site once slated for nuclear waste burial.

On the last night of the Congress, the women gather on a footbridge spanning the Colorado River to watch moonrise. There are taiko drummers and their rhythms ricochet off the rocks.  At our backs are uranium tailings, almost marking the gates of Arches National Park—such a startling juxtaposition, all that we leave behind.

The next afternoon, on the way home from the Congress, my friend and SEHN colleague, Madeleine Kangsen Scammell and I detour to Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons factory, slated to become a wildlife refuge, and also maybe a highway. The clouds coming off the Rockies were thick; the sun shone down in broad columns as we drive the perimeter of the property looking for signs—any sign that might mark the history of what happened on this innocuous, majestic parcel of land. We find nothing on par with our expectations—no memorial, no signs that acknowledge what’s happened here, what’s harbored here, the legacy left in place just inches below the surface where prairie dogs burrow. We turn back toward the airport, crossing Woman Creek, which drains from the property into Standley Lake, whose sediment is now laced with plutonium, whose water still runs from the taps of area communities (see Iversen 2012).

Along the eastern side of the property, we pass a woman on the side of the road. She holds a sign. It reads: “new homes for sale.”

She is dancing. I am crying. We drive away.

*    *    *

After I returned, I participate in a conference call from the parking lot of my son’s preschool where I wait to take him home. We are to discuss the most pressing environmental crises, and strategies to address them. But instead the focus is on it being too late, that too many thresholds have been crossed, too much irrevocable damage done, too much political gridlock, that the next generations will suffer handedly at our hands. While I listen, from across the parking lot, I watch three year olds skipping across the playground, chasing each other around the elms, scaling the climbing wall, and sliding down in a tangle of knees and elbows and giggles.

Soon after, Sandy swallows the Atlantic and spits it across the Caribbean, the East Coast, and into the interior.

*    *    *

New York wants to lead on climate change, but struggles to hold back the natural gas barbarians amassing at their gates. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology adds new hues, magenta and deep purple, to its temperature maps to accommodate temperatures like 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

I had been writing a book about environmental legacy—about pollution we transfer from generation to generation, about problems with uncertain endings. I consult with an editor. He tells me all stories travel a narrative arc, that the arc rises then falls toward a comedic or tragic conclusion. “Which is the story you wish to tell?” he asks me. “A comedy or tragedy? How will it end?”

I stop writing.

*    *    *

I start reading about stories that follow a different form, about writing that takes a different shape.

We return to the Museum of Science. Yet again, I find myself standing in front of the Galton Box. At my feet, my now two year old wriggles and widely gesticulates with excitement. Twenty minutes pass.

And just when I think I can’t stand there any longer, I begin to watch for outliers, wondering what path they follow to the margins.

*    *    *

After the New Year, SEHN’s Katie Silberman emails, asks if I would write something for the . “Has anything changed for you since you wrote the last essay for us? What should we do now knowing it’s too late?” I return to my desk for the first time in months. I open a blank document. I type: “I don’t know.”

Then I type: Idle No More. INM’s global day of action last month drew attention to issues of indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights, human rights and environmental protection in Canada, but is gaining traction and momentum globally.

I recall a conversation in Orion Magazine between writer, Terry Tempest Williams, and economics student turned climate justice activist, Tim DeChrisopther, AKA Bidder #70. DeChristopher spoke with Tempest prior to his sentencing to federal prison for attempting to outbid oil and gas companies during an auction of public land, an un-premeditated act born from a moment in which standing outside the auction, sign in hand, no longer seemed enough.

What I recollect from the exchange, is this: movements move the center, and they do so when a few move to the margins and push. It takes just a few outliers to shift the balance, to shift the entire curve, perhaps even to reshape it. It’s like a lever; wedge it in the right place and you can lift a disproportionate load. Step toward the tails. Or support those already there marching it outward.

*    *    *

“We’re going to Washington, D.C., to the Space Museum,” I finally announce to my five year old.

“That’s where Wonder Woman lives,” he exclaims before bounding up the stairs.

He returns with an armful of superhero-commanded spacecraft fashioned from Lego’s. “I’d like to bring these.”

“Also,” I stammer, “we are going to take part in history, maybe even be climate heroes.”

“What’s history? What’s a climate hero?” he asks.

My husband shoots me a look from across the table. I flex my biceps, and grin.

*    *    *

For more information about the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, DC on February 17th, please visit

To learn more, and to support the Climate Forward rally logistics visit:

Also, to learn more about Idle No More, you can visit them here:

Rebecca Altman, Ph.D. in Sociology, is the mother of two boys, serves on the Board of Directors for the Science and Environmental Health Network, and is taking time off from lecturing at Tufts University to work on her first book. She has written numerous columns for, the online site for the magazine, the Intelligent Optimist, formerly Ode Magazine:

Note: all citations appear as hyperlinked text to the source document.

Special thanks to: Carolyn Raffensperger (who titled the essay, among other vital assistance), Danielle Nierenberg, Katie Silberman, Riley Dunlap, and Phil Brown for spot on suggestions, comments and encouragements.

For further reading:

Lisa M. Berry. 2008.  Disproportionality and Inequality in the Creation of Environmental Damage. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy. 15: 239-265.

Debra J. Davidson and Don Grant. 2012. “The Double Diversion: Mapping Its Roots and Projecting Its Future in Environmental Studies.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2: 69-77.

Debra J. Davidson and Riley Dunlap 2012. “Building on the Legacy Contributions of William R. Freudenburg in Environmental Studies and Sociology.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2: 1-6.

William R. Freudenburg. 2005. “Privileged Access, Privileged Accounts: Toward a Socially Structured Theory of Resources and Discourses.” Social Forces 94 (1): 89-114.

-----. 2006.  "Environmental Degradation, Disproportionality, and the Double Diversion: The Importance of Reaching Out, Reaching Ahead, and Reaching Beyond." Rural Sociology 71 (1): 3-32.

Kristen Iversen. 2012. Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of a Secret Nuclear Facility. Random House.