Does the Size of Numbers Matter?

We often hear how X number of millions or billions, or even trillions of dollars have been spent doing such and such. Or how many carbon emissions are being spewed or credits traded. Like with anything we hear often enough, we can become almost desensitized to it. The numbers don’t appear so shocking after a while. Oh, that cost $10 billion dollars? Huh. Not that we don’t still realize it’s a ton of money, but it’s almost more a figurative than literal amount to us. For how many have ever even seen anywhere close to that number of dollars? To that number of anything? And if we have no point of reference, how can we possible visualize it? Like someone born blind trying to visualize colour. How can you know when you’ve got the image right in your mind?

We’re all of us born with a limited ability to visualize what we’ve never seen. Some of us may be better at it than others, but it’s actually kind of surprising how few of anything it takes to overwhelm most of us in terms of being able to picture it. Try imagining what just a hundred of something really looks like. A hundred apples. A hundred dollar bills. A hundred chores on a list. Maybe I can see that. Have a reasonably accurate image in my mind. But now we’re only talking about a hundred. Now picture ten times that, and we’re still only 1/1000 of the way to a million.

And if a 100 year lifetime is less than a million hours, then how can we possible comprehend a 1000 millions as 1 billion, or a million millions as 1 trillion? Can we really imagine living a 1000 times, or a million times longer than we do? Imagine how long that period of time would actually feel? Or see the million millionaires that would be created if just one trillionaire divided his wealth into mere millions? Whatever the size of our respective communities, each is but a tiny fraction of the world’s nearly 7 billion. Just what on earth, pun intended, do 7 billion people look like, if I can’t even picture 100 apples with certainty?

So it’s no wonder such gigantic numbers lose a lot of their impact. Since we’ll likely never see or be able to visualize that many of anything, so much easier it is for us to accept such astronomical amounts of money being spent, or of toxins and emissions being put into our atmosphere. Awareness yes, that the amounts are big, very big, but I don’t think we really get just how big. Not as big as they really are anyway. So while size does matter, it can’t always be imagined.

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