This week I was able to go see the Chris Jordan exhibit in Paul Creative Arts Center, called “Running the Numbers”. Chris Jordan’s unique work uses digitally constructed images to depict the culture of waste that is so pervasive in American culture. The photographs use statistically based numbers of various products like plastic bottles to create larger images. The true value of the photographs lies in the impact of seeing a statistic come to life. When we read or hear that one million plastic cups are used on airline flights in the U.S. every six hours, it is difficult to conceptualize what one million plastic cups actually looks like and the physical space that they consume.
In studying sustainability and climate sciences, as well as in the media, I have come across statistics like these many times, but I found myself standing in awe in front of some of Jordan’s photos. One of the more shocking photos, titled “Denali Denial”, was an image of snow covered mountains, but upon looking closer it was composed of 24,000 logos for the GMC Yukon Denali. 24,000 is the number of sales for that model of SUV in its first six weeks on the market. Besides the fact that SUVs are not typically the most environmentally friendly vehicles, the amount of resources consumed in the production of 24,000 cars is hard to imagine.
Another memorable picture was “Cell Phones.” It was an image of 426,000 cell phones, which is the number of cell phones retired daily in the United States. This photo brought to mind the pressing issue of e-waste, which results from obsolescence of electronic equipment. Components of electronic waste can make it difficult to recycle or dispose of. Unfortunately a substantial amount of it ends up dumped in developing countries to avoid regulations. Much of it is then taken apart for valuable metals, but e-waste can also have toxic components that are hazardous.
The issue of waste in general is an important concept within sustainability. The production of waste that is not biodegradable creates an issue because it accumulates and has nowhere to go. The Natural Step Sustainability Primer is a document that provides a detailed description of the concept of sustainability and its historical background. One of the five rules of nature generally accepted by scientists, and discussed in the The Natural Step Primer, is that nature works in cycles where nothing is wasted. It seems that in western culture we think of nature as an endless supply of resources at our disposal, rather than thinking of ourselves as part of the natural cycle. The natural cycle functions as a closed loop, whereas western modes of production function as a linear system where the end product is not reabsorbed. In order for us to live sustainably, we must reconstruct the way we think about our relationship with nature. We must also address the tendency of Americans to buy the newest model of everything and to replace things that still function. Since these are habits that are grounded in culture, changing them is easier said than done, but social commentaries like Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” can help the general population to start thinking critically about their lifestyles.Written by Megan.