Running the Numbers

by Mothership on June 22, 2009

Image: Lightbulbs 2008 by Chris Jordan

I am well known in my circle for banging on about the environment and making uncomfortable and unwelcome comments about social responsibility. I am not without my own hypocrisies – for instance I did not even entertain the cloth diaper issue for one second (not for me, no thank you) and I am having constantly to battle with my inner impulse shopper and temper her with my more mature planet saver (planet saver does not always win). Husband is very eco-conscious and finds it disgustingly easy to live by his frugal principles which sometimes drives me into a frenzy of contrary consumerism just to be awkward and this is further exacerbated by having dry peer-reviewed white papers from the front-lines of industrial ecology or in-depth lifecycle analyses quoted at me. I know he is right. I feel it to be right in my soul yet it makes me feel like a recalcitrant six year old and I don’t want to listen.

It’s all too gloomy. It’s all too much. It’s all too big and I can’t cope. Let’s go shopping instead and drown our sorrows in the intoxicating liquor of overconsumption and get fatter and fatter on our own greed and blindness.

On this note, the other day the children and I were at Costco, warehouse shopping experience extraordinaire, where I go meaning just to buy nappies and wipes but somehow always come out with a swing set, a lawnmower and a 12 pack of medjool dates, when we stopped at one of the little tasting stands where they give out free samples of the food. The young man serving the mandarin oranges asked me where I was from. I told him (are you expecting the usual spiel? I was) and he did indeed tell me he loved my accent but then surprised me by saying that he would love to live anywhere other than America, his homeland, because people here were such blind, fat consumers and all they did was shop and eat and it was DISGUSTING (he got louder and louder) and no wonder the planet was dying and there were starving people in Africa when these people were buying (ahem) 12 packs of medjool dates and lawnmowers that they DIDN’T NEED?  I was almost dumbstruck. I actually agreed with him on a lot of points and it was sort of flattering that he’d decided to exclude me from the rest of the Costco shoppers due to my nationality, but on the other hand one couldn’t quite avoid the fact that there I was with my children and my giant trolley full of GOODS (medjool dates!). It was very surreal, especially as he had one of those mad hairnets and white jackets on but he talked a lot of sense in a raving loony sort of way.  I slunk off and quietly put back half of my unnecessary purchases (farewell medjool dates, this is the last we will hear from you) and walked out with milk, eggs, nappies and wetwipes feeling a lot better about myself. Plus it was really interesting which is more than can be said for most trips to that ghastly place.

I have often wondered why it is so hard to digest the information that each of our own small actions has a huge impact, collectively, on how we shape the future of our world. Husband knits his brow and shakes his head but has no answers – he is too busy working on the mechanics of it. I try, in my way, to do what I can, but it seems that we need some kind of translation from the unimaginable damage to the personal effect from the huge to the small.

Luckily for me, just as I was pondering this very mind-boggling subject, I happened across an amazing exhibition called Running the Numbers quite by chance by an artist, Chris Jordan, who has clearly thought this out and visualized it for us far better than I ever could have explained it.

Running the Numbers 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 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.

This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibilities we each play as individuals in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.

-Chris Jordan 2008

Chris has kindly given permission for me to use a couple of images in this post and I urge you to look at his website and read what he has to say as well as look at the pictures zoomed out and in for it is only there that you can understand what he is trying to do. And perhaps from there, you will also want to do something. For yourselves and for your children.

From: Mothership <info @>
Date: Sun, 14 Jun 2009 22:50:21 -0700
To: <studio @>
Subject: Tumultous applause

Dear Chris Jordan,

This past weekend I visited your exhibition Running the Numbers at the Natural History Museum, which was a most pleasant surprise.

I am usually subjected to long and rather dull viewings of elderly and slightly fleabitten stuffed animals which nonetheless delight my two small children, or forced to explain (yet again) why I will not be buying cheap plastic items made in China from the gift shop which they will tire of before we reach the parking lot. However my eldest child, who is five, insisted we enter the room in which your photographs were housed, and without really knowing what was in store we went in and all three of us were immediately entranced.   The images are so fascinatingly beautiful, both at a distance and up close, and yet how uncomfortable it is to know, to be able to see – unavoidably – the precise figure of our gluttony.

That is not quite so pretty.

We went from print to print, with me explaining to the children what each picture was, and what the numbers represented (they are both too little to read). It was also very interesting to hear what they had to say about your pictures.


Five recognized the Seurat image.

“I know this picture” she said to me. “It is of a lovely lake with beautiful ladies from the olden days when you were young.”

Upon closer inspection she exclaimed


“Mummy, it’s made of tiny teeny soda cans! About a hundred of them!”

I told that there were 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds, in this picture and that was one of the many reasons that we did not buy soda.

The next picture she was keen to explain to me:


” That is the drying planet earth who is now a black, dark sun.”

I told her the image was made up of oil barrels, that it depicted 28,000 42-gallon barrels, the amount of oil consumed in the United States every two minutes (equal to the flow of a medium-sized river)

She asked if we could just not use oil anymore because the earth was so sad.


She was very interested in the Barbie/breast augmentation image (32,000 Barbies, equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006) but I could not quite bring myself to explain it to her as she still has a few years left of innocence. We’re hoping to keep

barbieboobs3Barbie out of the house until she can define irony though I’m willing to admit this might just be my own foolish fantasy..

At any rate, the tumultuous applause part of this email is nearly over. I think you are marvelously clever and talented and love the fact that because of you I actually packed my groceries today directly into the car – I forgot my cloth bags at home (again, slacker) and couldn’t bear to take a paper one thinking of your work. My husband is a professor of Industrial Ecology so really the facts and figures should be what sway me – God knows we have enough of them around here – but really, I think that you made your point and I don’t have to quote it back at you.

I look forward to sharing your work and images with others,

Kind regards,

Check it out :


1 Kevin Fox Haley June 22, 2009 at 3:02 pm

an excellent, entertaining piece (as usual!!!)
actually, with apologies to your husband, what
the artist chris jordan is doing will probably
get through a lot of our thick skulls what we
already know, but often ignore… luckily, people
like your husband are actually teaching some of
the best and brightest what we need to be doing
on this planet to, you know, survive. artists like
mr. jordan are able to get through to us masses,
and make us think, and hopefully do what’s RIGHT!!!

it can be VERY discouraging to do your part saving
our planet, when you think it is too overwhelming a
problem to fix. and it might even BE too late, but we
really must do our part to SERIOUSLY conserve, and
eliminate ANY AND ALL waste possible.

thanks for another excellent piece. a great message,
with entertaining references to both CostCo, and pointillism.
you don’t get that everyday!!!

2 Little Brown Bird June 22, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Wow. That’s mind blowing.
Really puts things in perspective.
I’m a ‘slacker’ who forgets her cotton bags.
I half-heartedly recycle. I feel bad. I’m going to try harder.

3 exromana June 22, 2009 at 3:33 pm

such a beautiful post, thank you for sharing chris jordan’s photos with us. have you seen his portraits taken after Hurricane Katrina?

i suppose we all have guilt gnawing at us; i was really upset when my printer was taken away from me at work- to influence our carbon footprint , in some way. i was told that only the heads of departments were allowed personal printers. i was so vexed, stomped my feet- but coming to think of it, working in the field of rural poverty alleviation, i felt a bit embarrassed that i was behaving like a spoilt child.

i do admire people who recycle (i am the worst offender) and live their lives in a Sufic way (my mum’s grandfather was a Sufi). perhaps we can all contribute in some small way, you can buy your medjool dates but perhaps you’re fantastic at recycling. we all do our bit, i would like to think. it’s like you said, you took your children to Africa bec you wanted them to see that there is another world out there, different from the affluency of the West. shouldnt feel guilty about buying those dates at Costco.
thanks again for sharing this with us, it’s a beautifully written post. x

4 nappyvalleygirl June 22, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Wow. Fantastic images.
While not in any way an eco-warrior (although I try my best to recycle etc), I have been shocked since arriving in the US at the amounts of wastage that go on here. Take my local supermarket. They have tried to introduce recyclable bags, but these are very flimsy. The result? Checkout people wrap your groceries in 3 bags instead of one. (I’m taking my own bags in future). Also the amount of throwaway polystyrene that comes with every fast food meal; the cups you can buy which are perfectly good to keep but advertise themselves as ‘throwaway’; the lack of bottle banks etc which are now everywhere in Britain. And the car culture – don’t even get me started.
If people like Chris are starting to make an impact, that’s brilliant. I’m sure the academics are all working hard to influence the big players in the US (thanks to people like your husband) but I I only hope they get through at a local level to local politicians etc who have influence on the everyday folk here.

nappyvalleygirl’s last blog post..American question of the week

5 Liberty London Girl June 22, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Hear! Hear! I try, oh I do try. Bicycle, recycle, cloth bags, no aircon. And then I get on an aeroplane or drive very very very fast. I try very hard to convince myself that some contribution is better than none, but I know that I’m kidding myself. LLGxx

Liberty London Girl’s last blog post..Get Lashed London: Fake eyelash bars open

6 The Mother June 22, 2009 at 5:42 pm

Wow, amazing images.

While I am seriously willing to admit that Americans have a major case of consumerism, I am also not willing to go back to the old days where we foraged for our food, and cooked over a fire.

I actually had to do that (almost) for ten days after Hurricane Ike. I have to admit, I do like my conveniences.

The Mother’s last blog post..The Curious Case of the Phone Call in the Afternoon

7 Brit in Bosnia June 22, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Incredible images. Thanks for pointing me in this direction. The one with the plastic bags is certainly going to help me with my reusing plastic bag pledge for UKnational recycling week. It is such a difficult job to get statastical numbers to mean something – what an amazing way to do it. The exhibition must have been amazing (and huge!) too. Lovely lovely post.

Brit in Bosnia’s last blog post..Recycling

8 Ginger June 22, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I have to just go with a “whoa” and an “oh, shit” and a vow to do more instead of to try to do more.

Ginger’s last blog post..When the crazy comes knocking don’t answer the door

9 Evitchka June 23, 2009 at 12:45 am

Great post to wake up to. Inspiring to see so many people doing their thing to make the planet a better place. The will to do something, seems to be igniting everywhere in small and big ways. A change from the old days when my husband & I were banging on about Global Warming and no one was listening. (Fortunately Jake being a practical person, invented energy ratings in buildings which is now law in the UK) . It’s lovely you let yourself be influenced by a raving loony shop assistant in a hairnet and your 5 year old. Thanks to her I get introduced to the artist Chris Jordan. Bless her, him and you.

10 Mothership June 23, 2009 at 10:51 am

Kevin: And yet here Costco is the very inspiration for the Pointillist piece with its grotesque number of cans. I am merely the conduit. Agreed, totally. It takes art to make us see and feel what the overwhelming numbers cannot. And they keep underfunding the arts? This is also part of what will kill the planet and our souls along with it..
Little Brown Bird. ME TOO!!
Exromana; I suppose we all can do what we can. I could quite easily leave the dates, actually, but couldn’t let go of the nappies. It’s about the choices between what makes us really happier and improves the quality of life and what just staves off boredom and stuffs the empty hole that should be filled with some kind of spiritual or emotional sustenance. It’s almost as if consumerism is the new religion/opiate of the masses. Didn’t see that coming, didja Karl Marx?
Nappy Valley Girl. Yes, it’s quite a shock coming here from the UK. The bags, the packaging, the rampant waste, the PORTION SIZE! The empty pickup trucks that drive aimlessly around, the garages full of unused goods. I could go on.. But then we have people like Chris Jordan and hopefully others and a new government who seems to care, so fingers crossed?
LLG, But some contribution IS better than none. It really is. Every little bit makes a difference. Obviously more is better, but tiny steps from each of us can make a gigantic change. Keep it up!
The Mother. I wonder what you learned from your week of back to cooking over a flame, though? You may have enjoyed going back to your creature comforts, who could blame you? But how many were strictly necessary, and which ones made you truly happiest and which ones could you live without? When we fled the fires here in Stepford, I was amazed at how I felt I could do without most of my possessions provided my loved ones were safe and well. Clean water, shelter, food and a bed. And a lot of people don’t have that because we have too much.
Brit In Bosnia. So glad this came at the right time for you. It was a splendid exhibition and we are going back! It is making a big difference for me and the children and hopefully for everyone who comes across Chris’ work.
Ginger, Well put!
Evitchka So interesting that Jake invented the energy ratings in buildings. Hurrah for him! I think we should all let ourselves be taught by the teachers who appear in our lives in the most unlikely guises. Much more fun and wondrous, no?

11 katherine June 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Brilliant post. Know where you’re coming from. I’m amazed by the amount of well, crap, people acquire. I’m no saint but I can certainly do “frugal”. It’s a skill I’ve acquired after years of low wage jobs and, then being the main earner whilst sig. other got his business off the ground. Growing up in a very happy, loving working class home has taught me that if you want something, you save for it. We didn’t have much money but my folk’s managed what they had well. We had a holiday every year, not outside of the UK but still lovely. We enjoyed birthdays and Christmas but didn’t get the overwheming amount of crap that, even I, seem to buy these days. My mantra before purchasing now is “will it get used or shoved in a drawer/lost/broken?” If the answer is yes to any of these then it goes back. So, I recycle virtually everything I can, try to walk everywhere, cut down ion the amount of energy I consume but, my failing is the amount of food I throw away and that really is criminal; it’s become my goal…nothing shall be wasted. Loved the exhibition images, it sounds like it’s something worth seeing.

katherine’s last blog post..MOVING!!!

12 Kir June 24, 2009 at 1:28 am

It sounds like you should watch “The Goode Family” on ABC Wednesday nights. It is by the creator of “The Family Guy” and tracks an American family trying to “do the right thing.” (ex. put groceries in the car w/o any bags at all).

We all try to do our best to leave this a wonderful world for our children.

13 clareybabble June 26, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I’m heading straight over there now. Excellent post that really made me think x

clareybabble’s last blog post..Balls!!!

14 Working Mum June 27, 2009 at 5:39 am

Amazing images. I was expecting just a pile of stuff, but the creation of art from the objects is intelligent and thoughtprovoking. I worry that the UK has copied the US in terms of consumerism. I knew the economic cost would turn round and bit back, as it has with the credit crunch, but what of the environmental cost?

Working Mum’s last blog post..It’s the taking part, right?

15 Heel February 11, 2011 at 10:18 am

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