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The Though Kitchen - Dedicated to Stirring the Pot

Visualizing The Earth’s Assets

Posted by Alex | May 26th, 2010 | Filed under Design, Environmental Change, Sustainability

In moving past traditional notions of business profitability to embrace the idea of a ‘triple bottom line’—accounting for one’s impact on people, planet and profit—one of the necessary paradigm shifts you have to make is to start looking at the Earth’s air, water, soil, minerals et al. (what we normally think of as its natural ‘resources’) as natural assets. Like other assets, they’re easy to spend, but harder to replace. Once you start thinking that way, you want to keep a careful budget of how much we have to spend.

But how can you begin to wrap your head around the volume of the world’s water? Its atmosphere? The numbers get so big, and become warped by our perceptions—the sea, after all, looks very deep, the sky very high—that placing a value on them can become academic. With quantities so large, it’s easy to become lulled by the idea that we’ll never run out.


Good design, however, offers a solution. Specifically, the graphic visualization of data that is the domain of folks like Edward Tufte, or our friends at GOOD. And recently, we got turned on to this great example of graphic visualization by Adam Nieman. The blue marble on the left represents, to scale, the volume of all of the Earth’s water. The pink marble on the right, all of its air. A simple and powerful depiction that puts the seemingly infinite into perspective.

Our Partners For Change at Ecotrust recently shared this clip of New York Time’s blogger Andrew Revkin talking about Nieman’s work, and the impact it might have if images like the one above were part of every fourth grade science book.

(via NYT’s Dot Earth blog)

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