Running the Numbers: Portraits of Mass Consumption

Sociologists tell us that the human mind cannot meaningfully grasp numbers higher than a few thousand.  Photographer Chris Jordan has made large mosaics that help translate the raw language of statistics into powerful images of global mass culture that we can respond to emotionally.  The artist says, “I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibilities we each play as individuals in a collective that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.”

This picture, the artist titled, “Gyre,” is made from 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic that enter the world’s oceans every hour.  All of the plastic (2.4 million pieces) in this image was collected from the Pacific Ocean.

This mosaic is made from 106,000 small photos of individual aluminum cans.  106,000 is the number of aluminum cans used in the United States every thirty seconds.

Other statistics Chris Jordan has made into images include:

  • 426,000 cell phones discarded per day in the U.S.
  • 2,000,000 plastic bottles used by Americans every five minutes
  • 10,000 dog and cat collars, equal to the average number of unwanted dogs and cats euthanized in the United States every day
  • 2.3 million Americans in prison
  • 166,000 packing peanuts, equal to the number of overnight packages shipped by air in the U.S. every hour
  • 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)
  • 320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage (inefficient wiring, computers in sleep mode, etc.)
  • one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours
  • one hundred million toothpicks, equal to the number of trees cut in the U.S. yearly to make the paper for junk mail
  • 200,000 packs of cigarettes, equal to the number of Americans who die from cigarette smoking every six months

Seeing the cumulative impact of individual actions through this talented artist’s lens awakens us to the enormity of our personal decisions.

To see more images and how Chris Jordan’s work is compiled:



Filed under Art, The Environment

6 responses to “Running the Numbers: Portraits of Mass Consumption

  1. We saw this exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science. It caught my attention and wouldn’t let go. The numbers of mass consumption are staggering. We get ‘things’ and we throw away ‘things’ and our home planet is crying for care.

    Why do we make what isn’t important and bury our heads in the sand like ostriches ignoring what really should be important?

  2. ** 410,000 paper cups, equal to the number of disposable hot-beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes.

    ** 213,000 Vicodin pills, equal to the number of emergency room visits yearly in the US related to misuse or abuse of prescription pain killers.

    ** 29,569 handguns, equal to the number of gun-related deaths in the US in 2004.

    ** 125,000 one-hundred dollar bills ($12.5 million), the amount our government spends every hour on the war in Iraq.

    ** 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the US every five seconds.

    ** 83,000 Abu Ghraib prisoner photographs, equal to the number of people who have been arrested and held at US-run detention facilities with no trial or other due process of law, during the Bush Administration’s war on terror.

    ** 65,000 cigarettes, equal to the number of American teenagers under age eighteen who become addicted to cigarettes every month.

    ** nine million wooden ABC blocks, equal to the number of American children with no health insurance coverage in 2007.

    ** 30,000 reams of office paper, or 15 million sheets, equal to the amount of office paper used in the US every five minutes.

    ** 38,000 shipping containers, the number of containers processed through American ports every twelve hours.

    How do we quit this excess? What a sorry state of affairs!

  3. New Device Desirable, Old Device Undesirable

    With the holiday shopping season officially under way, millions of consumers proceeded to their nearest commercial centers this week in hopes of acquiring the latest, and therefore most desirable, personal device.

    “The new device is an improvement over the old device, making it more attractive for purchase by all Americans,” said Thomas Wakefield, a spokesperson for the large conglomerate that manufactures the new device. “The old device is no longer sufficient. Consumers should no longer have any use or longing for the old device.”

  4. klaus

    Excellent way to bring it home.

    Our society is sick. Somehow, being wasteful has become a hallmark of being American. No durn furrener is gonna tell me what I can’t do.

    I put our obsession with working 50-60 hour weeks in the same category. It’s a macho thing in the corporate world. But the women have bought into it, too.

    What happened to family values?

    • Klaus,

      I agree with you about the wastefulness. Somehow, it has become shameful to reuse and recycle. It is a status symbol to be wasteful and overconsume. It is pure ignorance and shallowness.

      However, I don’t think I can agree with your comment about working hours. I work as many hours as I can so that I can pay bills and take care of my family. My husband does the same. It is a juggling act, especially since our daughter and grandchildren have moved in. She works nights, so when I am not working, I am caring for her children and mine.

      I wish my husband only had to work 40 hours and I could work part-time, like I did when my daughters were young, and we could still make our bills. We don’t live a lavish lifestyle, by any means.

      This is the new economy. This is our new reality. We don’t like it anymore than you do.

  5. klaus

    Paula, sorry, should have clarified. I’m talking about salaried-types who don’t get OT. The expectation is simply that people will work a lot of extra time w/o any additional compensation.

    However, the need to work OT is really just another aspect of the problem. Labor’s share of the productivity gains of the past 2 decades has been virtually nil. People work more efficiently, but the gains of this efficiency are being sucked up by those at the apex of the pyramid.

    As a result, median wage has been stagnant-to-falling for a generation. Men in their 30s today make less than their fathers did in the 70s.

    So, couples both have to work. Both have to work more, but can’t expect a bigger reward. Money is being made, but upper management is retaining it instead of distributing it in salary.

    The whole stock buy-back thing is a great example: money that should be distributed as wages is being spent to prop up the share price so that the stock options given out like candy to upper management retain their value.

    In “Through The Looking Glass,” the Red Queen said, “In this world you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.”

    That’s working life in this Brave New Millenium.