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Sierra Daily

Dec 12, 2012

Infographics On the Eve of War


In recent years wonky charts have achieved cult status online. But they aren't new--back in the middle 20th century, P. Sargant Florence and Lella Secor Florence were creating graphics not that different from what you might encounter in Sierra magazine today. Their 1946 book, "Only An Ocean Between," compared life in the United States and Great Britain. The graphic style was ISOTYPE-- the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education--pioneered in the 1930s by Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath and his wife, Marie.

The example at left is especially familiar; it compares energy use in a variety of countries on the eve of World War II (click on graphic to expand). The units--tons of oil per capita--are not so easy to extrapolate today, having largely been replaced by Btus or Joules. Not that at the time, hydropower was the only alternative to burning fossil fuel--no wind, no solar, and (as anyone who has ever dealt with early 20th century appliances will know) no efficiency. It's also worth noting that the "synthetic petrol" used by Germany came, in part, from coal, via a process that fossil fuel fanciers are still trying to foist on us.  

Graphic from "Only an Ocean Between,"  P. Sargant Florence and Lella Secor Florence, 1946 via Maria Popova's "Brainpickings"

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

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