Infographic of the Day: The World’s Most Environmentally Damaging Industries


Economy Map might be one of the most ambitious infographics experiments we’ve ever seen: Drawing on a 2009 EPA report, it attempts to show how every single sector of the economy impacts the environment. What’s more, it shows how all these sectors are linked to other sectors — thus, it’s a picture of the biggest dominos to be felled in the fight against everything from ozone depletion to global warming.

[A rather intense-sounding summary of the visualization]

Granted, the actual map is a bit buggy and way to complex (in fact, the only way to really browse the thing is to download the app, and play with it on your desktop). But we’ve got a summary here of how it works. First, the map presents every sector of our economy as a dot on a grid. Then, it allows you to cycle through a series of environmental impacts, ranging from ozone depletion to toxic byproducts to global warming impacts. The bigger the bubble around each industry, the larger its impacts:

[The map of human toxicity impacts]


[The map of global warming impacts]

Where it gets really nutty and insanely complex is that you can then map the “flows” for each sector — for example, you can see the way electrical generation draws on resources from all sorts of other industries. The map of those flows amount to kind of carbon footprint for each industry:

[Click to visit Economy Map]

Economy Map’s creator, Jason Pearson, founder of TRUTHstudio, has made a career designing work that’s meant to positively impact public policy. In this case, Pearson hopes that Economy Map might become a tool for figuring out which industries should be targeted for environmental legislation, to create the most efficient impacts.

Which is a noble goal, but we’ve got a couple points of criticism. In data visualization, there’s often a tradeoff between richness of data and actual impact on the audience. As charts get more and more complex, they usually get less and less impactful. Nothing hits harder than a simple bar chart showing what’s what — and in this case, you can easily imagine the data being summarized in a single chart, which tallies up each sector’s environmental impact, and its downstream contributions.


And second, while the search for tools like this one is noble, it’s not for lack of tools or knowledge that our governments are failing to act. It’s for lack of political will. And influencing that political will again comes down to creating broader awareness of environmental issues. And how do you do that? One way is with simple, high impact charts.

Visit Economy Map to see the chart and download the app version.


About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.