28 Mar 2008

How Many Bottles?

Chris Jordan has a project called Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait
This series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 410,000 paper cups used every fifteen minutes. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. The underlying desire is to emphasize the role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.
This method of presentation is brilliant, since it helps you understand the true impact of what we are collectively doing to ourselves and our planet. (As usual, "everybody does it and nobody is responsible.") Take a look at this picture and then decide how much you like bottled water (the website has zoomed images):

Depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.


  1. I disagree. Jordan is looking at the right problem: the relationship between our individual choices and standard of living and the global problems they cause. But he's looking through the wrong end of the telescope: taking familiar items and multiplying them. This has at least 2 fundamental problems:

    - you see the phones/bottles, but not their impact
    - you see atoms not systems

    What we need is to work from the macro to the micro. You write in "six degrees": "stop drinking bottled water, and overthrow the politicians who ... refuse to address global warming". The former is trivial, the latter is crucial. Jordan's work is about the former.

  2. Sam, Excellent point (and I agree), but it is difficult for anyone to understand the *meaning* of macro. How does one understand 300 million Americans, the magnitude of India-UK trade, etc?

    Micro presentations put things into a perspective that we can understand (bottles) so that we can extrapolate to bigger issues (revolution). Even better, simple actions (ending bottled water use) remind us of a higher goal -- addressing global warming.

    It is for this reason that nature organizations use "charismatic megafauna" (e.g., polar bears) in their campaigns. Assuming that they want to save the Earth (not just make $$), these animals move people to act.

    A great trip always begins with a single step.

  3. That's the standard argument for these "beautiful lies", but where's the evidence that they actually lead people to address underlying issues? What I have seen in 20+ years of living among the "environmentally conscious" is a huge amount of obsessive-compulsive recycling/Prius buying, and very little interest in such small political efforts such as writing big checks to the Democrats during election cycles.

    How many votes did his exemplary environmental record get Gore in 2000? How many did his atrocious record cost Bush in 2004? Why did it take until 2006 to get Richard Pombo of Congress. here's his district; think there are a few environmentally "conscious" voters in there:


  4. Sam, I think that the problem is that (1) people vote with their pocketbooks [recycling is cheap; moving closer to work is not] and (2) most elections are fought on issues *other* than the environment (e.g., war on terror, which had little to do with actual terror and much more to do with FUD.

    Voting is one way of reacting but it is discrete (vote for X or Y). People can address enviro issues from many angles besides that -- mostly through their private decisions in the marketplace.

  5. "Voting is one way of reacting but it is discrete (vote for X or Y). People can address enviro issues from many angles besides that -- mostly through their private decisions in the marketplace."

    1) We're right back to my original point: avoiding bottled water, electronic trash, etc., really doesn't make much of a direct difference.

    2) Your point about what people decide elections on is to me proof that the symbolic/indirect value of these choices is also small.

    3) I take it as self-evident that the environmental impact of Gore not winning in 2000 was HUGE relative to the sorts of things Jordan focuses on; perhaps it's not as obvious as I believe?

  6. I guess that I'm saying people do not care about the environment. The election was not decided on that issue and little else is. This matches what you are saying, I think.
    What to do about it? No idea. Economics teaches us to think about tradeoffs and a number of people are willing to trade the environment for cars, trips to Vegas, etc.


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