Half a year ago I read an article on the North Pacific Gyre, an immense, high-pressure area of the ocean between the west coast and Hawaii. The waters within were doldrums; few ships sailed through because the winds didn’t blow. The ocean just swirled there slowly.
A Californian named Charles Moore sailed through the Gyre, discovering that as a result of the area’s climate, it had drawn all the floating plastic debris of the Pacific into itself.* A nightmarishly large vortex of garbage the size of Texas had accumulated, and by all evidence, it wasn’t going anywhere. The ultraviolet rays of the sun had been breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces, but those pieces never became random organic matter, like a banana peel or a newspaper might. They just became progressively tinier bits of plastic. Nothing in nature causes plastic to biodegrade. That means that other than some 4% of the plastic that’s been incinerated or recycled, every bit of plastic ever made still exists. And we currently pump out 120 billion pounds of the stuff every year in the United States alone.
“Nothing in nature causes plastic to biodegrade…[E]very bit of plastic ever made still exists.”
These numbers were beginning to induce a panic attack in me. They were staggering. This plastic was piling up! And what wasn’t buried in landfills or collected in our homes eventually made its way out to sea, there to float and break up for a thousand centuries until microorganisms finally figure out a way to digest it at last (read Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, p. 218). The only thing that stopped my mind from being utterly consumed by the sublimity of these incalculable numbers was that they were still just abstract numbers. A hundred billion tons, a hundred thousand years, a bajillion zillion particles. It doesn’t mean much that way. And those of us who live at home and have a garbage man come by every week to whisk our soda bottles away can’t really imagine the piles all this garbage goes to.
Seeing the Stacks of Stuff
Photographer Chris Jordan has seen the piles of plastic. While originally seeking out unexpected tableaus of color in industrial areas, he slowly began to realize that his subjects became less like pretty pictures and more about how much goddamn stuff we as a culture use and throw away. In his 2003–2005 collection entitled Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, Jordan exposes us to piles and piles of things.
The more recognizable piles are made up of crushed cars, gas cylinders, or wooden pallets, all seeming to exist in an industrial park setting. They are startling, sure, but most folks have seen the stacks of train cars or mountains of gravel from the road on the outskirts of cities. Sure, it’s a lot of stuff, but it probably makes economic and volumetric sense to keep everything organized in such a way. If one is to keep around a mass of large wooden spools for future use, it is not surprising that they would be stacked up instead of just thrown in a haphazard mound.
“Chris Jordan’s work is a bullhorn through which he shouts to viewers that we produce and consume an uncountable sum of items. Seeing Intolerable Beauty and Running the Numbers increases awareness of our culture’s contribution to the accumulation of plastics and garbage.”
His photographs do become startling as they offer us glimpses into the piles of plastic junk in recycling centers, either sitting in a gigantic pile or compressed into bales of easily stackable cubes. You can begin to see the familiar branding of products, no longer proudly displaying their purchasability as when they were organized on a grocer’s shelf. Instead, in a big ol’ trash heap, their garish colors transform them into a startling mockery of commercialism: the colors and labels once convinced you of value; now you wouldn’t even want to touch them.
The most powerful photographs are those of specific piles of refuse. Jordan has zoomed into them so you cannot see where the piles exist or where they end. They just become an infinite field of cell phones, glass bottles, diodes, or circuit boards. These images are no longer documentations of places with piles. They become glimpses of a staggering infinitude, a sample of the incomprehensible number of items we produce, use and discard. They cause the eyes to widen, the mind to boggle. These photos can’t be real, we hope.
Distilling the Disaster
Perhaps I over-exaggerated the terror of Intolerable Beauty’s images. Maybe that field of spent bullet casings was the major center of bullet casing recycling, and so they were about to be melted down and put to good use. Maybe the cigarette butts were spread paper-thin and didn’t extend beyond the edges of the photograph.
Jordan’s most recent collection of images squelches all possibility of such self-delusion. In Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, Jordan abandons the vagueness that photography can allow and eliminates the feeling that a caption would be helpful. He instead opts for a synthetic but straightforward image-making that emerges directly from a caption. He takes a figure, such as the number of plastic bottles used in America every five minutes, and then, using a photograph of a dozen or two bottles, digitally replicates them over and over again until an enormous six by twelve foot image depicting two million plastic bottles is created.
The caption “two hundred million plastic bottles are consumed every five minutes in America” sounds like a lot. But as the caption is an abstract figure, the impact is minimal. Jordan’s images, however, become instantly digestible, yet simultaneously impossible to comprehend. The human brain seems unequipped to make sense out of an image like that.
As a whole, Running the Numbers only really fails in one area. Some of the statistics and imagery are incongruous. Toothpicks, 2007 “depicts eight million toothpicks, equal to the number of trees harvested in the US every month to make the paper for mail order catalogs.” Why would he use the figure for mail order catalogs? How many trees are harvested to make toothpicks? Another mismatch “depicts nine million wooden ABC blocks, equal to the number of American children with no health insurance coverage in 2007.” ABC blocks seem to be more reminiscent of reading or literacy, and have nothing to do with health.
Despite some of the titular oddities, the imagery remains compelling. To a conscientious viewer, the message is blunt and terrifying. Viewers like me will feel a sense of complete helplessness when faced with these insurmountable numbers. Chris Jordan’s work is a bullhorn through which he shouts to viewers that we produce and consume an uncountable sum of items. Seeing Intolerable Beauty and Running the Numbers increases awareness of our culture’s contribution to the accumulation of plastics and garbage. As the Pacific Garbage Gyre indicates, these accumulations will be affecting our planet for some time to come.