"Paper Bags" by Chris Jordan, www.chrisjordan.com, used with permission
When artist Chris Jordan (right) began the first talk of the 2008 TASTE3 conference, the audience was excited, engaged, and ready to learn. But with his first few slides — paper bags, plastic cups, water bottles — they started squirming a bit, as Jordan showed how everyday individual actions like drinking a bottle of water or buying groceries create nearly inconceivable quantities of waste and environmental damage when considered on a national scale.
For his series "Running the Numbers," Jordan created digital photo-mosaics that illustrate some unpleasant realities of the industrialized world. Through what must be painstaking digital manipulation, Jordan lays out an endless vista of plastic beverage bottles (2 million used every 5 minutes), builds a maze of plastic cups (1 million used on worldwide airline flights every 6 hours), and grows a forest of brown paper grocery bags (1.4 million used in the U.S. every hour). Although much of his work is about waste, he also looks at other topics like drug abuse, gun violence, and the shredding of the Constitution.
At a distance, he said, our consumption seems OK — we get lots of great things. But dig down a bit to the details, and it looks much worse. Take cell phones, for instance. To build one, we need minerals like coltan. The mining of coltan causes environmental destruction, human exploitation and war, primarily in Africa. Disposing of the over 400,000 phones that are retired each day in the United States is another challenge, as most phones contain toxic materials that can leach into ground water or create toxic chemicals when burned. (A 2001 New York Times Magazine article describes some of the problems around coltan; another New York Times article explains what happens to retired cell phones.)
The reality behind abstract statistics such as "2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated" can be hard to comprehend. Jordan strives to help us truly see these quantities. In other words, he takes inert numbers and invests them with feeling. If the issues have emotional weight, Jordan said, perhaps we will change our behavior.
Jordan mentioned that he has been struggling to visualize America's oil consumption because the quantity is so enormous, and that the "numbers are beyond the ability of our mind to really experience." Even on a daily basis, the quantity is staggering: the Energy Information Administration reports that the United States uses about 800 million gallons of crude oil per day*.
When I think about massive quantities of fluid, an image that jumps into my mind is Frederic Church's remarkable painting of Niagara Falls at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Flowing at almost 750,000 gallons per second (the minimum flow required by a U.S.-Canada treaty during peak tourist season, according to Niagara Parks), it takes just 17 minutes for 800 million gallons to pass over the falls.
Jordan concluded his talk with the debut of a piece about sharks and mercury. He arranged 270,000 digital images of fossilized shark teeth into the Chinese characters for mercury. He chose this symbol because sharks have some of the highest concentrations of mercury of any seafood (an article in Environmental Health Perspectives confirms this), and Chinese characters because demand for shark-fin soup in China and in Chinese restaurants elsewhere around the world is decimating the top predator of the oceans. The new image should be on his website soon.
Jordan's work is powerful aesthetically and symbolically. His images inspire mindfulness. One decision to use a paper bag instead of a reusable cloth bag contributes to a forest of waste, and it is important to realize that. In many senses Jordan's work also connects to the concept of "mindful eating" — a concept pushed by many authors on this site.
We can't always make the ideal choice, but we can at least realize why that particular choice was flawed and vow to somehow eat better in that situation in the future.
* If you want to convert the results to liters, barrels or another measurement unit, the conversion tool at ConvertIt.com can help.