Recently a university professor asked his students to rank certain countries by size. Included in the list were France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, Italy and Japan.
Overwhelmingly, Brazil was put last, though it was actually the largest country on the list. Similarly, students rated the Soviet Union larger than the continent of Africa, though it is in fact much smaller.
These results, which undoubtedly would be replicated to some degree in other settings, point to at least two underlying realities. First, we associate geographical size with perceived power. A country’s wealth, technological superiority, and military strength are presumed to be based on — or at least linked to — great size.
Second, the maps that shape our view of the world have seriously distorted our understandings. Such countries as Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.S.R. are often visualized as larger than they are because traditional maps show them that way. We face an impossible task if we seek to develop a realistic world view in the face of such distorted perspectives.
Help, fortunately, is at hand. A new world map, based on newer and more accurate principles, has been developed. It presents every area, every country, every continent in its true scale. A new generation — exposed to a more accurate picture right from the start — will not need to unlearn quantities of false information. The new map is called the Peters Projection World Map.
The world map most of us are familiar with is based on Mercator’s Projection of 1569. Gerhard Kremer — whose name in Latin was Mercator — lived in Flanders and Germany during the age of European expansion when European sailors needed a world map to help them navigate. Mercator provided just such a tool. Leaving aside the question of the accuracy of the information Mercator worked with, the nature of the map he prepared immediately gave rise to problems since no rounded surface (the world) can be transferred to a flat surface (a map) without some adjustment. Mercator sacrificed certain qualities, including accuracy of area and shape. Mercator maps are, in fact, accurate for distance only on the equator; distortion begins immediately north or south of that line and increases steadily with every degree of latitude.
Mercator set the equator not in the middle of his map, but two-thirds of the way down. This had two immediate results: it cut off much of the Southern Hemisphere, including the fourth largest land mass (Antarctica) and it set what is now Germany at the optical center of the map, even though it belongs in the top quarter of the earth’s surface. By conscious or unconscious design, those areas of the world then inhabited primarily by whites were enlarged and centered and thus given prominence they do not merit from an objective or cartographic point of view.
Europe, for example, is depicted as larger than South America even though it’s not quite half its size. Greenland appears larger than China, although China is actually four times bigger. Scandinavia is shown as larger than India, yet India is more than three times Scandinavia’s size!
Current versions of Mercator’s map, which was originally designed for navigation, are used in ways Mercator never intended. Classroom teaching is a prime example. When used in this way, such maps become instruments of racism and ethnocentrism.
Since Mercator’s time, cartographers have attempted to modify the Mercator Projection or to find a totally new system for depicting the earth on a flat surface. Nicolas Sanson, John Henry Lambert, and John Paul Goode are among those who have tried; more recently, the late Buckminister Fuller sought to devise a way to clearly and accurately set forth the world. Each of these attempts to correct the problems of the Mercator map has had its own serious defects; accordingly, not one of them has gained universal support.
The new world map was developed by Dr. Arno Peters, Director of the Institute for Universal History in Bremen, Federal Republic of Germany. After doing his doctoral work in Art History at the University of Berlin, Peters became increasingly conscious of the many “blind spots” in our understanding of history — for example, our Western bias and the way we blank out certain major periods.
Seeking to correct such imbalances and give all peoples of the world credit for their contributions, he published his major work in Universal History, currently available only in German and in French. This led him to work “space” or “place” as well as “time” — that is, to seek a way to correct the geographical as well as the historical representation of our common life on Planet Earth.
Peters first published the mathematical basis for the new map projection in 1967; in 1974 he was officially invited to present his findings to the German Cartographical Society, and in the same year he published the World Map in German. The first English version appeared in 1983. Originally known as the “Orthogonal” Projection, it has more recently been known by its creator’s name — the Peters Projection — following the custom among map makers.
Although the Peters Map has not yet achieved total acceptance, it is making great strides. It now has strong support from the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF. Because of its “fairness to all peoples” it is used by many church organizations, including the World Council of Churches, the Vatican, and such denominations as the Lutheran Church in America. Third World advocacy groups such as Coordination and Development, Inc. (CODEL), the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and the North-South Commission (sometimes known as the Brandt Commission) use it widely. In the six language versions — English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Italian — it has sold millions of copies worldwide. It can be found in classrooms for all age levels from Toronto, Canada, to Leicester, England, and from Harvard University to Managua, Nicaragua. The Peters Map has been selected by several Belgian, French, and German TV networks as the backdrop for their world news broadcasts. Harper’s magazine ran a story on the map entitled, “The First Honest Map of the World.” And Dr. Vernon Mulchansingh, Chair, Department of Geography, the University of the West Indies, the professor who conducted the survey mentioned in the opening of this article, now says,
“[Dr. Peters’] crowning achievement…represents a burst of brilliance that can be compared with any major breakthrough in any field of science…For the first time in history, almost, we are seeing on paper what our world really looks like.”
- Europeans had not travelled to Australia or Antarctica at this time so cutting off the bottom third of the world on Mercator’s map bothered no one.
- Throughout the history of map-making, it has been customary to place one’s own area at the center, so Mercator was following ample precedent. Furthermore, since Mercator was concerned with Europe as the starting point for voyages of exploration and since European navigators were Mercator’s target audience, it made sense for him to place Europe at the optical center. In addition, he himself commented that he could not extend his map to the Poles, since he recognized that distortion would approach infinity at that point. More recent versions of Mercator’s map do not — cannot — correct those distortions based on mathematical principles of projection; what they do to fill in additional detail (as in the interior of the U.S., for example) is like polishing a rotten apple!