By EcoFellow Sonja Favaloro


At the Center for EcoTechnology, we think a lot about how to communicate environmental messages that inspire action. How do we encourage people and businesses in Western Massachusetts to reduce waste and save energy? How do we entice them to donate to and shop at our used building supplies store, EcoBuilding Bargains?

CET takes an approach of sending positive messages to inspire and empower people in the face of environmental challenges. We communicate scientifically based information and offer practical steps that people can take to reduce their environmental impact.

In considering ways to convey environmental messages that inspire action, I like to think back to research I did for my senior thesis in Environmental Studies at Bates College. My thesis was a year-long exploration of ways art can be used for environmental activism. I focused on the work of several artists including photographer Chris Jordan and the artist/activist group The Beehive Design Collective in order to understand how images can move and motivate people in ways that words alone cannot.

Chris Jordan is a photographer whose work shows environmental devastation on both an intimate and a grand scale. He documents the mass scale of human consumption in photos like this one, called Gyre, which looks like a wave, until you zoom in…

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…and see that it is comprised of 2.4 million pieces of plastic, which is the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour. Jordan takes these photos digitally and uses Photoshop to copy images of trash and piece them together until they look like a unified whole.

While traveling to photograph a gyre of garbage estimated to be twice the size of the continental United States, Jordan encountered a new, disturbing sight on the Midway Atoll, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: thousands of baby albatrosses who had died from ingesting plastic. In this series Jordan reversed his approach, now focusing on the intimate and personal experience of our environmental actions.

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If his photos are motivating, it is because they are starkly based in reality. Jordan seems to believe that forcing us to acknowledge the enormous, catastrophic consequences of our actions will make us change our ways.

The Beehive Design Collective takes a different approach. This collaborative group travels around the US and Latin America documenting stories of environmental and political struggle. They listen to communities’ stories of resistance and collaboratively create graphics that help people understand the big picture of what causes environmental problems and how we can create alternatives. The Beehive aims to “cross-pollinate the grassroots” by sharing stories of environmental activism.

This graphic is called The True Cost of Coal, and tells the story of coal mining in Appalachia and the communities affected by it:

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As you can see, there is a lot going on in this image! The Beehive gives presentations in schools, common spaces, fairs, etc., using this graphic as a storytelling tool. They represent people as animals in their graphics, which allows them to avoid stereotypes and make the stories more allegorical. The artists attempt to convey the bad news about coal mining, such as the dangers it poses to workers’ health and ways it damages the environment, while also showing the resilience of mining communities through protests and unions. The Beehive graphic also shows possible alternatives for the future such as wind power and solar power.

For example, here’s an image of coal workers getting sick from mining. The miners are represented as frogs because frogs are an indicator species, meaning they are the first to be negatively affected when the environment is contaminated.

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My favorite aspect of the “True Cost of Coal” graphic is that the story is divided into different sections: the world before coal mining, the present in which coal mining devastates communities and the environment, and a brighter future in which coal mining has ended and we instead rely upon renewable energy sources. If you fold the panels of the graphic so that the first and last are together, they form a unified whole!

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In our increasingly visual culture, images are more powerful than ever. They can be used as a voice of protest against injustice, they can be used as storytelling tools, and they can be used to re-create, and therefore re-imagine, what our reality can be.

The Beehive Collective’s image (above) of a sustainable past connected to a sustainable future is inspiring, especially as we at CET strive to make responsible waste practices and renewable energy more accessible and wide-spread in our Western Mass community!


To learn more about photographer Chris Jordan, visit:

And to learn more about the Beehive Design Collective, visit: