The image on the left is not a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. (Though it is inspired by one.) It's by a Seattle-based photographic artist named Chris Jordan, and it's made up of cigarette packages.
200,000 cigarette packages, to be exact, which is the number of Americans who die of tobacco-related causes every six months.
This image -- and many others -- make up Jordan's Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait exhibition and upcoming book of the same name. Each depicts an aspect of American life and politics in all its enormous and awe-inspiring magnitude.
Thirty-two thousand Barbie dolls are transformed into a portrait of female breasts, depicting the number of breast augmentation surgeries performed each month. One million plastic cups -- the amount used on airline flights every six hours -- stack and swirl like a complex set of pipes. Eighty-three thousand photos from Abu Ghraib -- the number of people imprisoned at U.S.-run detention facilities during George Bush's war on terror -- coalesce to form the preamble to the Bill of Rights.
The results are impressive, beautiful and horrifying. Faced with the amount of cell phones retired every day (426,000), aluminum cans opened every thirty seconds (106,000) or the 60,000 plastic bags used every five seconds, the natural response is to wonder where all that stuff comes from and, more important, where it all goes.
And then, to ask where we're headed as well.