The Numbers in Pictures

Even after living more than half my adult life in the US, I am constantly amazed by the profligacy in consumption of people in the US. What is even more remarkable is how the ultra-consumption is not limited to native born Americans; many fresh off the boat immigrants quickly take up the habit of mindless waste.

I have arrived at a generalization: Americans are extremely efficient in production and (perhaps as a consequence) are extremely inefficient in consumption. They can afford to be wasteful because they are rich. Conversely, I believe that people that are inefficient in production (in other words, poor) are forced to be efficient in consumption.

Running the Numbers: An American Self-portrait is a site by Chris Jordan which illuminates that general idea. (Hat tip: Suhit Anantula).

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 role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.

Here are some of the statistics that Jordan’s pictures illustrate:

  • Depicts one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours.
  • Depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.
  • Depicts 200,000 packs of cigarettes, equal to the number of Americans who die from cigarette smoking every six months.
  • Depicts 8 million toothpicks, equal to the number of trees harvested in the US every month to make the paper for mail order catalogs.
  • Depicts 11,000 jet trails, equal to the number of commercial flights in the US every eight hours.
  • Depicts 426,000 cell phones, equal to the number of cell phones retired in the US every day.
  • Depicts 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags, the number used in the US every hour.
  • Depicts 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds.
  • Depicts 410,000 paper cups, equal to the number of disposable hot-beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes.
  • Depicts 65,000 cigarettes, equal to the number of American teenagers under age eighteen who become addicted to cigarettes every month.
  • Depicts nine million wooden ABC blocks, equal to the number of American children with no health insurance coverage in 2007.
  • Depicts 24,000 logos from the GMC Yukon Denali, equal to six weeks of sales of that model SUV in 2004.
  • Depicts 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.
  • Depicts 29,569 handguns, equal to the number of gun-related deaths in the US in 2004.
  • Depicts 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the US every five seconds.
  • Depicts 30,000 reams of office paper, or 15 million sheets, equal to the amount of office paper used in the US every five minutes.
  • Depicts 3.6 million tire valve caps, one for each new SUV sold in the US in 2004.
  • Depicts 125,000 one-hundred dollar bills ($12.5 million), the amount our government spends every hour on the war in Iraq.
  • Depicts 170,000 disposable Energizer batteries, equal to fifteen minutes of Energizer battery production.
  • If 170,000 batteries were depicted at their real size, the print would need to be 26×43 feet, as shown here. To depict one year of Energizer disposable battery production (six billion batteries) would require a print 26 feet high by 146 miles long.
  • Depicts 38,000 shipping containers, the number of containers processed through American ports every twelve hours.

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “The Numbers in Pictures”

  1. Another reason for profligate consumption is that we have little-to-no knowledge of how the product was produced, what are the raw materials that go into it, how the materials are mined, who produced it, what happens to the product after it’s put out on the curb and a truck comes and takes it away. Basically, out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon.


  2. Amit,
    That is simply incorrect.
    As a %age of population that can give an accurate makeup and production cost of any good US is ahead of india,
    Simply put, I dont see people shitting on railway tracks here which I do there.
    A good deal of Indians dont consider those railway track shitters to be indians, but as a pseuedo outsider I do.
    And that is the bigger out of sight out of mind phenom than what you say.
    Increase productive behaviour and you dont have to see a55holes when you take the train( unless you are larry craig šŸ˜‰ ) Or see them while visting india.


  3. The biggest problem of india is overpopulation, we were very foolish to have more than our resources, about the people relieving themselves on tracks are a shameful thing ,these things are to be expected in overpopulation


  4. Much of the above is necessity.

    Should people travel by road, when aircrafts are available?
    Should people drink from wells, when bottled water is available?
    Should people produce their own electricity, when batteries are available?

    How many from the above can you cite has wasteful luxuries.

    So, it is foolish to denounce everything, the median path is the best one.


  5. Hi Atanu, going by the word “profligate”, which generally has a negative connotation, iam assuming that you are against this kind of consumption. Iam curious to know why. As you are generally an advocate of free markets, haven’t the free markets worked here, and arrived at an equilibrium ? If the market indeed worked, why should one be against it ? or maybe, we actually don’t have a free market ?

    Also i would highly value an economists opinion on how we might handle the problem.


  6. Much of the above is necessity.

    Should people drink from wells, when bottled water is available?

    lurker, I believe Evian is a popular brand with people who think in binary terms that fail to present all available options. šŸ˜‰

    Would you know what’s the source of bottled water, and what kind of standards apply to it?


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