Pictures, Numbers, and Our Imagination

A previous post on How We See The Environment touched on the idea that if carbon emissions were visible to the naked eye, people would feel much more compelled to reduce the ugly sight of billows of black smoke that they are creating. As the post says, calculating one’s own carbon footprint is tedious and not likely to be very effective in convincing one to change his or her habits for the better. Perhaps some companies have noticed this; General Electric has a Data Visualization blog dedicated to giving its viewers a better sense of their how much energy they use.

For those interested in the number of Watts used or the toll their appliances have on their wallet, this page, as shown in Figure 1, gives an estimate of watts, gallons of gas, and cost in dollars to power common household appliances. A smart facet of this page is that each appliance listed applies to most American households and the energy used by each appliance can be compared to others. So even though it is not easy to visualize a Watt, using 100 Watts is certainly easier to put into perspective when you know what using 10 Watts is like.

Figure 1.

For the more carbon-conscious folks, this page, also shown in Figure 2, compares the carbon footprint of more than just appliances, but also that of objects like paper and food. Like the previously mentioned blog page, these numbers are estimates and generalizations, but it helps remind viewers that everything we enjoy had emitted quite a bit of carbon to be created and distributed. Buying local, anyone?

Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 2.19.15 PM

In my opinion, these pages are a great way to make people more conscious of the consequences of their actions, but as How We See the Environment blog post mentions, a mere number does not create the same sense of urgency as the sight of smog would. Perhaps, it helps one visualize such a sight, but it’s not like General Electric intended its viewers to consult their blog every time they do something like drive a car or buy a carton of milk. A great addition to their blog however, would be pictures of black smoke next to a phone left overnight to charge.


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