Environmental issues are only worsening, yet the public is becoming more immune to them, and therefore less actionable, since we have been living in this extreme state for far too long. How can we bring more empathy into environmental data?
Create a piece that communicates a minimum of 60 data points – in addition to their related attributes – so that the visualization reveals at least three facets of the selected topic
Research & Discovery
I started this project in March 2020, the week my university shut down due to the pandemic. I was taking my college classes froom my childhood bedroom, nothing felt very real and 60 data points felt like way too many. Every night I would watch the news with my parents and we would witness the death toll in the United States begin its exponential incline. It was the first time in my lifetime that human lives were being taken at such a speed they no longer felt human. The individuals were lost in the growing masses of coronavirus victims, which felt incredibly frustruating because it didn't feel real, just a number on a growing graph that we would see worsen for months on end. I realized that the frustration that I and many others were feeling was similar to the frustration that I always felt when trying to convince others of the worsening, soon uninhabitable, state of the environment. It baffled me that it was so easy for many people to ignore the numbers because they didn't feel real and weren't directly affecting them, yet. What could make them feel real?
I started learning about climate change in third grade. On Earth Day, every student in our class was gifted an evergreen sapling. I remember us all holding them so delicately, eager to go home and plant them. Each tree was a life and we all knew how important it was to keep them alive. A lot of people's earliest environmental education revolved around trees, whether it was planting them in elementary school or climbing them during recess, and it felt like the perfect symbol to bring empathy back into environmental data. I started doing a lot of reading about the world's trees and how the pandemic might begin to affect them.
After reading an article from the New Yorker, I decided that I wanted to look at the oldest trees and the annual Carbon Dioxide emissions of each region of the world. The author wrote that trees "may survive humanity," which was a very interesting idea to think about in March during what seemed like the very end of humanity. Most of these trees have survived previous pandemics and multiple worlds wars, yet we are still their primary threat.
I ended up with more than just 60 points of data, so the next challenge was figuring out how to present it all in a digestable way, yet not simiplying it so much so that the feeling I was aiming to invoke would be lost. I decided to use the imagery of tree rings to convey some of the data, since they are associated with life and time, and even rising carbon emissions. Since emission data can seem very foreign with such large numbers, I decided to overlay the data of the world's oldest trees to give context. The diagram shows the relationship between each region’s carbon emissions, total and per capita, and the state of their oldest trees. Additionally, I realized I would need to add some text to help guide the viewer through the 3 pages and deepen the connection bewteen the pandemic and climate change, emphasizing the link between public health policy and environmental policy. I originally was hesitant on adding text and thought that meant that the diagrams were too complex, but after talking with my professor and peers, we determined that if the text wasn't just explantory and focused more on analysis, then it would deepen the meaning.
I created 3 variations of the diagram that show the present, the current future outlook, and what our goal for the future should be instead. I also used color to envoke different feelings for each page. The curent future looks much more bleak and the ideal future, only possible through new environmental policy, looks vivid and lush. Color is also used to differentiate between living and dead trees, emphasizing the lack of living trees in our current future outlook and the plethora of trees if change occurs. Please scroll through the pages below to read and view the final deliverables!
This project helped me learn how to deal with complex and current issues. I learned how to not be overwhelmed by multi-facted issues and many data points, but to instead disect them and look for connections. I would love to be able to take this project further, now almost a year into the pandemic, there is so much more data about the inception of COVID-19 and environmental factors, as well as more in-depth anaysis about its lasting impacts. I also learned how it's important to sometimes work with topics you are passionate about!