Conspicuous consumption is a term coined by nineteenth-century economist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. During the Gilded Age of that century, capitalists in the United States and Europe made fabulous fortunes while creating the factories that began to mass-produce everything from cars to clothing. Veblen used the phrase to describe the life-style of the leisure class, those very few captains of industry who had managed to build these fortunes, using child labor, lax governance and the active participation of governments to do so.
As the twentieth century waxed and two World Wars secured the fortunes of many and created affluent middle and working classes as well, the term became more generally used to denote the United States’ vast bourgeoisie.
I was raised in such a family. Perhaps you were as well. We took pretty much for granted that we would have enough to eat, a roof over our heads and our choice of play-pretties such as dolls and Legos for the kids and electronic gizmos for the adults. We got used to having a car to drive. We assumed that we could buy what we wanted and amass what fortunes we could.
The efforts of labor organizers and political pundits notwithstanding, we were inclined to smugness about The United States. This was the home of the American Dream, and that was an unqualified good thing. The fact that this dream had turned from being free to having property and wealth went right by most of us.
Along the way, we in the cities became completely unattached to the land of our Fathers. We did not think of water as coming from rivers, but from the tap, and then from the store in little, handy plastic bottles. We did not think of soda as coming from natural extracts like the kola nut but from aluminum cans. We did not think of food as coming from the good earth but from the produce and meat sections and then the canned and frozen food sections of the supermarket. We carried those bottles of water, cans of soda and packages of ready-to-cook food home in convenient plastic bags.
When we wanted to go somewhere, we took an airplane or bought a large, comfortable traveling home in the form of an SUV. We did not notice the ever increasing number of toxic chemical trails exhausted by the airplanes or the ozone-killing exhaust of our big cars. And we only thought of the outrageous amounts of this world’s carbon we were burning in the form of gas and oil when there were lines at the pump. And then our reaction was not to slim down our consumption of gas but to work to provide more of a supply of it by whatever means necessary, including destroying huge natural habitats and polluting the ocean.
There were voices warning us. I remember reading Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, in college in the early sixties and becoming newly aware of water pollution. Ralph Nader was another early alarm clock, warning of corporate greed in the auto industry in that decade. Indeed, we have had no lack of cogent and well-researched warnings that we in America had lost sight of what was happening to us.
We remained complacent, for the most part. It was a good deal of trouble to focus upon the damage we were doing when we knew perfectly well that we meant no harm. We blindly followed the leader and voila! Here we are, facing at last, because we must, the massive damage our poor habits have caused.
It is against this background that Chris Jordan’s work can make a difference which any amount of well-meant rhetoric cannot. In 1971, I took a photograph of a colorful auto-crushing yard for a journal I kept then. I noticed its inadvertent aesthetic qualities. And so did Chris Jordan, coming to the same realization three decades later. Jordan began his career as a graphic artist and environmental activist when he noticed the casual and unmeant beauty of a salvage yard and photographed it. Soon he had quit working as a lawyer, which he had been doing for a decade, and turned to photographing the patterns made by conspicuous consumption.
As I write about Jordan, and as you become intrigued, open yourself to experiencing his images. What is the content of these photographic creations? Let’s take the ubiquitous plastic water bottle. We in the United States use two million of them every five minutes. Working from photographs of small groups of bottles and then with the computer to reproduce these groups, Jordan created a 60” tall by 120” long image depicting that five minutes’ worth of bottles. He does not have to preach about waste, for his large-scale image makes the point.
And it is worth noting that when plastic is recycled, it costs about $40.00 to recycle what can be resold for no more than $32.00. it is obvious why there are no companies sprouting up to make money from recycling.
Take soft drink cans as another example. It is hard to believe that Americans consume 212,000 aluminum cans of soft drinks every minute. That is a bit over 3,500 cans per second. Using the computer to repeat photographic images he took, he composed a pointillist drawing of a scene at the beach. Since these cans come in many colors, he was able to create a “Cans Seurat” drawing which, with its large scale, contains all of the cans we toss away in half a minute.
And there are the plastic bags in which we bring our groceries home. We Americans use 60,000 of them every five seconds. In a 60” by 72” image that looks vaguely like a Jackson Pollack painting, Jordan depicts five seconds’ worth of the bags.
Another of Jordan’s images is of jet trails. There are 11,000 of them every eight hours here in the United States. Jordan’s computer-generated multiplication of his photographs catches them in a 60” by 96” image that looks like light blue leather. Jordan says that he wanted to show all the contrails produced in a day, but when he produced the image, he found it was solid white, all jet trails and no sky, which was not a recognizable image.
One more example: SUVs. Looking for a way to make our usage of the big, wasteful cars into a recognizable image, Jordan settled on the little caps such vehicles have on their tire valves. His image, “Valve Caps”, depicts, in five panels that total 10 by 25 feet, 3.6 million tire valve caps, one for each SUV sold in the United States in 2004.
I could go on. Jordan has created images of paper bags, toothpicks, plastic cups, Energizer-brand batteries, Barbie dolls and much more, all to devastating effect. The eye is sucked in to the beauty of these photographic images of collections of garbage. The mind becomes intrigued as to how he created these images. And only then does it become startlingly clear just how conspicuous our consumption really is.
Chris Jordan says, “From a distance [our consumption] looks like all these nice, shiny things that we get to own. And these great lifestyles that we get to live. When you zoom in close, and you learn about the toxic metals, and the world-wide pollution, the details look different than it looked when you stood back at a distance.”
Take a look at his images. I know it is considered poor writing to include a brace of e-addresses in an article, but I want to share with you these:
And if you would like to spend a bit more time with Chris Jordan, here are two links to Bill Moyers interviewing him, one to the video version and the other to the text
All I can do in this article is talk with you about Jordan’s work. Fortunately, if you access these links, you can enter his world of amazing and, hopefully, difference-making images. As you view an image of Ben Franklin which is made of the 125,000 hundred-dollar bills which the U.S. Government spends on the war in Iraq each hour of every day, the truth of our actions comes home. As you view images of prison uniforms, you discover that America has the largest prison population of any country in the world. And so on! Please take a look, and let yourself enter in to Jordan’s world and his sensibilities.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit. May we in the United States, and indeed all over the globe, become those who are working to make a smaller footprint, to use less of this dear planet’s resources, and to begin to think of how we can become, not looters of Gaia, but stewards of her bounty.