Green Shoots

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Mapping a better world? Not this week.

One of my favourite TV programmes is the West Wing. In one great episode all the White House staffers have to go meet various lobby groups. CJ gets to meet the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. She hears about how the Mercator projection so often used for world maps distorts the world so that the developed countries far from the equator look much bigger than the often equatorially-based developing nations. She becomes convinced that the world should be seen through a different mapping projection.

A positive world view

A positive world view

In the programme we see her looking at the Peters projection of the world. For lobby group, social activists and aid organisations there has been a great deal of pressure to make the Peters projection the map of choice. However, traditionalists are quick to say it distorts the world making the countries outlines look very different from what we normally imagine they look like. The activists retort that in the Mercator projection Greenland looks twice the size of Australia while in practice, it is actually 3.5 times smaller. So while it may please our eye aesthetically, Peters at least makes things look about the right size across the world. For the poor of Africa living on a continent that is made to look insignificant, the Peters projection is a small change that can help later much deeper perceptions.

Yesterday my favourite daily newspaper published a map of world as a free giveaway. Cool I thought -one to put on the wall to help the kids understand where the news is taking place. I was surprised that far from using one of the smarter projections like Hammer or the more politically correct (in the truest sense of the phrase) Peters, they had chosen the Mercator projection.

The rationale offered by the Guardian was “it is the standard map used in most schoolbooks and newspapers; it arguably has the clearest depiction of the countries…” I almost choked on my cornflakes. Now I can imagine the Telegraph running that argument, but surely the Guardian’s position as a self appointed change-maker in society should be reacting against that kind of “old world” view. The Guardian prides itself on using inclusive language – if a picture is worth a thousand words I would argue it is therefore a 1000 times more important to get the maps right.

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