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Chris Jordan: Melting the Ice in the Heart

April 14, 2013
Raise your Voice (2010): Midway – Message from...

Raise your Voice (2010): Midway – Message from the Gyre (2009) / Chris Jordan (Photo credit: Ars Electronica)

In a talk on April 9, 2013 at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I swiftly took notes while artist Chris Jordan spoke about how to present the magnitude of trash that we produce in such a way that the scale of consumption and refuse has meaning enough to transform our individual and cultural practices. (View videos and art and read Part 1 here.)

The following day in class and then at our EcoDreamers meeting, Ed Casey spoke about how Chris Jordan is practicing phenomenology. (A few days later, I got to thinking how haiku poets are also phenomenological. I’d already been thinking about how wine blogging is phenomenological.)

A lawyer by training and a photographer by passion, Chris Jordan’s work makes visible the unconscious behaviors that lead to unconscious yet conspicuous consumption. By making the unconscious visible, through this visibility, he makes it part of our consciousness.


 Once we are conscious, there is the possibility of transformation. For example, in this image “Whale, 2011″ ( 44×82”, based on a photograph by Bryant Austin) Jordan depicts 50,000 plastic bags which is equal to the estimated number of pieces of floating plastic in every square mile in the world’s oceans. In his talk, Jordan told us that if you take a net through most of the world’s oceans, you will collect more plastic than you will biomass. Scroll down for a close-up of the eye–you can see the bags. Or go to his website where you can zoom in or out.)

In his 2008 TED Talk, and in his presentation at Pacifica, Jordan emphasized that his art simply depicts specific examples of ways he is turning abstract numbers about the impact of our consumption or our lifestyle choices or other issues that concern him into artistic representations that evoke meaning that will create in the observe a desire to bring about change because otherwise, in our lifetimes, all the fish we know the names of will be commercially extinct; all the charismatic megafauna (tigers, bears, wolves, elephants, rhinos) are on their way out.

Jordan’s question is not just how do we comprehend these issues through these numbers, but how do we feel it? This led to a series he called “Running the Numbers” which he said  proved ultimately to be dissatisfying: these artworks further made the numbers abstract. For example, to depict that there are only 3200 tigers left in the world and that in 1979 there were 40,000, he made an image that showed  place those 3200 tigers around the edge of the middle, like a picture frame–with a big empty place where those other tigers should be. But this wasn’t enough. Something was missing–and not just the tigers.

“As you walk up close, you can see that the collective is only made up of lots and lots of individuals. There is no bad consumer over there somewhere who needs to be educated. There is no public out there who needs to change. It’s each one of us.” Chris Jordan on Bill Moyers Journal

What Chris Jordan needed is what Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq (whose family belongs to the traditional healers from Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland) articulates as “melting the ice in the heart of man.” (In this video, Agaangaq talks about how recycling garbage is not going to be enough to stop climate change. Instead what must happen is to find ways to “melt the ice in the heart of man” which can happen through ceremony because life in and of itself is ceremony (a ceremony, he explains, lives and grows while a ritual does not). Anganngaq says that the earth will live, regardless of climate change. But when all the ice melts, there will not be room for humans who are crowded on the margins of the continents. Millions of people will lose their homes. The earth can adapt to the change but humans are not as adaptable.

So Chris Jordan has set out, through art, image, and story, to melt the ice in the heart of man, to get people to become consct-rexious and to care about the impacts of our destructive behaviors.

Jordan’s current project is to get people to question our suicidal addiction to plastic–to the way we are consuming our oldest ancestors, the plants and the dinosaurs. (I mean really–is that very respectful? To turn our oldest ancestors into garbage? The image at left, “Return of the Dinosaurs, 2011″ is  44×57″ and 60×77”, and based on a painting by John Sibbick. It depicts 240,000 plastic bags, equal to the estimated number of plastic bags consumed around the world every ten seconds.)

This is how he landed at Midway Island.

He’d heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and learned that it’s not like a giant raft bobbing out there in the ocean, ready and waiting for its headshot to be taken. Instead, the plastic bits and pieces are spread out, moving about, and bobbing through the depths, some on the surface, while remnants of plastic bottles and bags and other remnants drift for thousands of feet below.

Someone suggested he check out Midway Island where he found thousands of dead and dying albatross with their bellies full of plastic His photos of this raised outrage on the internet, particularly on Facebook where they went viral. He thought he was finished on this project, but something bothered him.  He asked his mentors, Joanna Macy and Terry Tempest Williams,, and they said to go back to the island—there’s more to the story. But he didn’t want to– and he realized that after he’d been living in fear of sadness and didn’t want to allow himself to feel the anger, hopelessness and depression; he was afraid of feeling, he was afraid of facing the horrors of the world; he wanted to keep it a distance for fear of being a sad person forever.

“Just go stand in that fire,” Terry Tempest Williams told Jordan.

It hadn’t been easy for him to get his first permit. The folks who issue them knew he was that guy who takes pictures of trash and they really didn’t want him out there and they said NO and NO and NO until he forced their cards and showed up ready on the day of his flight ready to call in the media if they didn’t let him on the plane. His images from that trip attracted so much attention and positive support for Midway that they changed their tune and when he asked for a permit again, expecting rejection, they gave him one good for five years.

He went back during mating and filmed and realized there was much more to the story than the dead birds on the ground.

When Jordan returned to Midway Island, he realized he’d been living in fear of sadness and didn’t want to allow himself to feel the anger, hopelessness, and depression; he was afraid of feeling, he was afraid of facing the horrors of the world; he wanted to keep these feelings at a distance for fear of being a sad person forever.

But the birds wouldn’t let him.

Because these birds have no predators on the land, they have no fear of humans which allowed him to get intimate up close photos.

He  filmed their mating rituals. He observed and learned about their lifecycles. He saw and recorded how the mom stays with the egg while the dad scavenges for food, bringing back dead squid to sustain the mom. On film he recorded a baby emerging from the egg. When the chick is hatched, the parents forage for food for up to ten days at a time, bringing the squid and other material back for the baby to retrieve. Jordan records these moments as well–so close you can almost smell it.

So how do these baby birds end up with so much plastic in their bellies?

It’s not that the birds are so “stupid” that they can’t tell the difference between squid and plastic–it’s just there floating in the ocean and the debris gets scooped up along with the squid, then fed to the young. The plastic collects there in the stomach, unable to be ejected like the squid bills tdo hrough a natural regurgitative process much like an owl pellet. Instead, the plastic gives the baby albatross a false sense of fullness and so they starve to death. If they are not “full” of plastic, many die trying to regurgitate it out. Some 240,000 do fledge and spend the next 3-5 years roaming the seas, scavenging for food until they return to Midway to nest in the exact spot where they had hatched and been raised.

On Midway Island Chris Jordan discovered something about grief that is not intuitive: grief is not sadness, grief is love, a felt experience of love for something that we’re losing or something that we’ve lost. You feel the love most deeply in the moment of grief. According to Jordan, where we want to get back to is in loving relationship of our world and the gift of our own lives.

So how do we feel our love and reconnect with the fundamental state of being in the ocean of love we’re made of? How do we melt the ice in the heart of man?

In his other work, Chris Jordan makes perfect images of the fact world. Then he went to one place, one world, and got up close to one species: the albatross world.

Research shows that if your brain is small you draw conclusions faster and your sense of time is slower.

Since the albatross have smaller brains than we do, Jordan captured the world through space and time so we could enter the world, of the albatross, get a glimpse and through that, to understand more than fact what it is like to be in the world of the bird. When we bring that understanding back to our world, we are moved to understanding: we are transformed.

The ice in the heart of man is in the process of being melted.

The most powerful experience Jordan had on Midway occurred when he was riding his bike through the forest during  a time of year when the ground is covered by thousands of baby albatross “as thick” he said “as people in a stadium”–and he ran over a baby albatross in her nest. Only a few months old, he held the baby in his hands as the baby coughed up orange liquid and struggled to breathe. Wings broken, it took her four days to die.

That led to his profound realization that there was nothing more special about this one albatross than all the others on the island… …and that there was nothing about albatross that’s more magnificent than any other species—dolphin, tuna, rhinos.


In that moment he discovered he was in love with all beings: “with the miracle of our world.” And that this was not something he discovered out there but something we all have inside of us that gets covered over with all the rushing around.

“What if we could remember together our innate ingrained love for the miracle of our world?” asks Jordan.  “About the incomprehensible beauty of life? What if we could remember that together?”

That’s the missing piece, says Jordan. And I would think that Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq would agree–that this is what’s needed to melt the ice in the heart of man.

If we can reconnect inside, we can solve those problems out there much faster.

Jordan is aiming the film at the grieving process because he believes that the if we can overcome our fear of sadness, we can have then transformational power of grief. We fear that “grieving is a trap door into depression but it’s not, it takes us to what we’re made of,” said Jordan. He quoted Joanna Macy as saying that “Hopelessness is just impatience in disguise here to tell you the game’s not over yet.” In fact, Macy says that the opposite of hopelessness isn’t hope but action. Through action, we will become hopeful. Instead of steering toward hope, let’s head toward love.

And by action, Chris Jordan and Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq don’t mean simply recycling our garbage, but reducing and reusing it.


There is no “away.” Jordan said that recycling is just “pathetic gestures toward the healing of our world. Even if everyone did them, it wouldn’t make much of a difference.” There is no story telling archetype– just facts and finger wagging.

Just as the birds can’t tell what’s killing them,  obviously neither can we: “Getting off plastic,” advocates Jordan, “can be a doorway into a new way of living.” One that includes more Beauty, more Aphrodite.

If a gray whale that died recently on the shore near Seattle had 500 pounds of garbage in its stomach, just imagine how much garbage we have in ours?

Beach clean ups are like drying off with a towel while being sprayed with a hose, says Jordan. Cleaning up a beach does nothing when you’re generating more suffocating trash.

In closing, Jordan cautioned us not to view the birds as helpless victims, but, as a Hawaain spiritual leader told him, see them as says  heroic messengers. Instead of feeling sorry for them, be in relationship with them–sympathize and feel their suffering. Feel their world and do something to change their world–and ours.

Melt the ice in the heart of men–starting with your heart.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2013 11:38 pm

    Reblogged this on whisper down the write alley and commented:

    Part 2 of Chris Jordan’s Trash Talk at Pacifica Graduate Institute.


  1. How to save our blue planet: embrace the shadow | Compassionate Rebel

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