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Our World Map: Racist, Realistic or Obsolete?

Our western worldview of the dominance of Europe and North America has been largely influenced by mapmakers from 500 years ago. The map above is the Mercator Map or Mercator Projection – a cylindrical projection first developed in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator.

Unfortunately, it is not only inaccurate, it is also Euro-centric. The Mercator Map has a distortion in the northern hemisphere, making North American and Eurasian countries appear much larger than they actually are. For example, Greenland, Africa and South America are shown as roughly the same size, although in reality Africa is about fourteen times larger than Greenland and the South American country of Argentina alone is 30% larger than Greenland. The regions along the equator – Africa, India, and South America – appear smaller, especially when seen next to the distorted northern half of the map.

How did this happen?

Cartographers (map makers) agree that the Mercator map is outdated, inaccurate and doesn’t truly represent the world’s landmasses.However, they also understand that the distortion was for a good reason. The Mercator map was intended as a navigational tool for European mariners, who could draw a straight line from Point A to Point B and find their bearings with little trouble. It was actually helpful to European navigators to show Europe larger than it really was. It wasn’t a political statement of the developed world to ignore the struggles of the larger, poorer nations near the equator – but a decision made purely for ease-of-use.

Why does it continue to this day?

Cartographers have been calling for the use of a new projection since the 1940s. In 1973, Arno Peters, a German filmmaker and journalist, called a press conference to denounce the widely accepted map of the world known as the Mercator Map. He suggested his own map, the Peters Projection Map, which shows the world in a more accurate, equal-area fashion.

Peters’ map is essentially the same map devised in 1855 by cartographer James Gall. Many have recognized this similarity and so we now see this new map called both the Peter Projection and The Gall-Peters Projection.

We can understand in 1855 why the Gall Map was not accepted, but today in the time of air travel and sea navigation by satellite, it may be time to relook at this model of the world.

By understanding the background behind issues such as our global map, we can understand how our individual and group worldviews are shaped.

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