Brain Pickings

Running The Numbers: Oceanographic Visualization

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What 20,500 tuna have to do with your old toothbrush, or how a plastic comb ended up on top of Japan’s most iconic volcano.

We love TED. We love data visualization. We hate environmental demise.

Naturally, we love artist Chris Jordan‘s (remember him?) response to the overlooked but tremendously concerning issue exposed by legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle in her TED Prize wish — overfishing and the rapid decline of oceans’ natural vitality.


In Running The Numbers II, the second installment of his Portraits of Global Mass Culture series, Jordan looks at mass phenomena on a global scale. Again, each image portrays concrete data about a specific issue.

Depicts 270,000 fossilized shark teeth, equal to the estimated number of sharks of all species killed around the world every day for their fins.

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Finding meaning in global mass phenomena can be difficult because the phenomena themselves are invisible, spread across the earth in millions of separate places. There is no Mount Everest of waste that we can make a pilgrimage to and behold the sobering aggregate of our discarded stuff, seeing and feeling it viscerally with our senses.

Depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world's oceans every hour.

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Detail of the top of Mt. Fuji

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Jordan’s work is both a reminder of and an antidote to our individual sense of insignificance as we face these disturbing global issues with an increasing sense of urgency — we love the idea of juxtaposing the effect of our collective actions with the tiny individual contributions that make them up. It’s a new kind of call for personal responsibility — could that be your old toothbrush at the foot of Mt. Fuji?

We are stuck with trying to comprehend the gravity of these phenomena through the anaesthetizing and emotionally barren language of statistics. Sociologists tell us that the human mind cannot meaningfully grasp numbers higher than a few thousand; yet every day we read of mass phenomena characterized by numbers in the millions, billions, even trillions.

Depicts 20,500 tuna, the average number of tuna fished from the world

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For a deeper look at our collective individualism in its cultural context, be sure to check out Jordan’s absolutely brilliant book, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait — it comes with our highest stamp of recommendation.

via @TEDchris

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