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March 2007 Archives

March 1, 2007

Seeing is Unbelievable

If you ever wanted to be able to visualize the extent of our consumption -- what millions of reams of paper or plastic bags actually looks like -- then now's your chance. Photographer Chris Jordan shows us how we look.

Jordan's online exhibit, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait is a series of stunning visual and metaphorical images portraying American consumption: paper bags, plastic bags, tin cans, and office paper. More ingeniously, these zillions of items are arranged to create larger -- and highly ironic -- images. SUV logos form wilderness scenes, dollar bills form the iconic monetary image of Benjamin Franklin.

In his own words:

"Exploring around our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress. I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.

The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits.

As an American consumer myself, I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action. So my hope is that these photographs can serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry. It may not be the most comfortable terrain, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.

This new series 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 tend to 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 $12.5 million spent every hour on the Iraq war. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.

My only caveat about this series is that the prints must be seen in person to be experienced the way they are intended. As with any large artwork, their scale carries a vital part of their substance which is lost in these little web images. Hopefully the JPEGs displayed here might be enough to arouse your curiosity to attend an exhibition, or to arrange one if you are in a position to do so. The series is still in its early stages, and new images will be posted as they are completed, so please stay tuned."

Ingenious, yes. But also horrifying. The viewer can not help but be shocked to see how our small contributions to the problems becomes nothing short of monstrous when accumulated with every other.

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March 12, 2007

Bag It

A daily shopping trip can, quite without planning, result in carrying home a half-dozen (or more) plastic shopping bags. And this is to say nothing of a trip to a supermarket, when, with double-bagging, the number can skyrocket. The cumulative effect is that we're drowning in plastic -- as Chris Jordan's photo exhibit profiled in the previous entry attests.

What can be done? Well, for starters cities can put the brakes on the deluge of plastic through municipal ordinances -- which is exactly what is happening in San Francisco. As Jan Lundberg at Culture Change explains,

"On March 8, 2007, the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance was pushed by both government and citizens. The targeting of plastic bags by the city once again focused on the needs of the composting program that the city cannot carry out properly when there is plastics contamination. So, the proposed ordinance would substitute compostible bags for petroleum-plastic bags given out at supermarket check-out counters. The benefits cited most often at the hearing were greenhouse-gas reduction (9.2 million pounds per year) and lessening oil (petroleum) consumption at a time of both peak oil and oil war (as mentioned by the committee and citizens).

The object is to remove ultimately 150 million plastic bags from the waste stream annually. At present, only one percent of the petroleum-plastic shopping bags are recycled in San Francisco, even after major grocers have tried to improve the rate to make up for their defeating the bag fee.

After supportive testimony from a large small-grocers group, waste experts and environmentalists, the committee decided to include more than the 54 stores targeted in the legislation; large pharmacy stores are to be included."

What's interesting about this is how it integrates with the other initiative to stem the city's waste stream, composting.

In lieu of local government taking charge, a good way to start is to bring your own cloth bags to go shopping. But if you want to buy your own compostible garbage bags, check out BioBags, available in Winnipeg through Organza.

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March 22, 2007

Tips on Office Sustainability from the Sierra Club

We've been talking a lot about what we can do at work, and how. And it's not easy to do these things. But at least we're not alone! Lots of other workplaces are making this transition. And the Sierra Club has just posted some great suggestions that fall very much in line with the goals we've been promoting here at the University of Winnipeg:

1. Be bright about light: Artificial lighting accounts for 44 percent of the electricity use in office buildings.
> Make it a habit to turn off the lights when you're leaving any room for 15 minutes or more and utilize natural light when you can.

2. Maximize computer efficiency: Computers in the business sector unnecessarily waste $1 billion worth of electricity a year.
> Make it a habit to turn off your computer—and the power strip it's plugged into—when you leave for the day.

3. Print smarter: The average U.S. office worker goes through 10,000 sheets of copy paper a year.
> Make it a habit to print on both sides or use the back side of old documents for faxes, scrap paper, or drafts.
> Make it a policy to buy chlorine-free paper with a higher percentage of post-consumer recycled content.

4. Go paperless when possible
> Make it a habit to think before you print: could this be read or stored online instead?

5. Ramp up your recycling:
> Make it a habit to recycle everything your company collects.

6. Close the loop:
> Make it a policy to purchase office supplies and furniture made from recycled materials.

7. Watch what (and how) you eat:
> Make it a habit to bring your own mug and dishware for those meals you eat at the office.
> Make it a policy to provide reusable dishes, silverware, and glasses.

8. Rethink your travel:
> Make it a habit to take the train, bus, or subway when feasible instead of a rental car when traveling on busines
> Make it a policy to invest in videoconferencing and other technological solutions that can reduce the amount of employee travel.

9. Reconsider your commute:
> Make it a habit to carpool, bike, or take transit to work, and/or telecommute when possible.
> Make it a policy to encourage telecommuting (a nice perk that's also good for the planet!) and make it easy for employees to take alternative modes of transportation by subsidizing commuter checks, offering bike parking, or organizing a carpool board.

10. Create a healthy office environment
> Make it a habit to use nontoxic cleaning products. Brighten up your cubicle with plants, which absorb indoor pollution.
> Make it a policy to buy furniture, carpeting, and paint that are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and won't off-gas toxic chemicals.

As you can see, our current efforts as Champions are part of a much larger picture -- such as the issues being dealt with by the Procurement and Transportation working groups, for example -- but these will probably come under our umbrella in the near future.

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About March 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Greening the Urban Campus in March 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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