Do you think the world is flat?

The world was flat, then it was getting smaller, today it feels huge; and NOW I have discovered that almost everyone has been believing in a skewed global image all along.

Now, I may be very late to this discovery (I did mention in a previous post that I should have opted for schooling in geography) but this news has blown my tiny mind.

How can it be that I am only now discovering something this huge? Is it because I am western (British), white and privileged and come from a society too relaxed about changing it to reflect the reality. Why yes, disgustingly, I think it is.

Ok, so what am I talking about?

I love a world map; I love to gaze at it, look at far flung city names, imagine life elsewhere; reflect on our planet’s magnitude; revel in that slightly comforting feeling of being a spec of dust in the grand scheme of it all. You get the idea. I have wanderlust on a grand scale.

It turns out though, that the traditional world map that I thought I knew and loved (utilising the Mercator approach to drafting world maps) is hideously skewed.

For a start, Western Europe is always central to the drafted layout. Why? Well, this is because the 16th century cartographers and pioneers who began drafting the world map originated there (Germany-ish), and naturally with lands being bagged due to European imperialism/colonialism/the spread of Christian religion, the natural centre of everything would deemed as such.

In turn, this centralisation hideously distorts the sizes of lands and oceans that outlie the map’s rectangle of our flattened planet in order to try and squeeze everything in.

Examples of where this creates incorrect geographical perceptions are that Greenland seems as big as Africa (the former being 14 times smaller), Alaska looks bigger than Mexico, and Antarctica, Siberia and Canada are also perceived as being disproportionally larger than they are.

In reality, not only is Africa 14 times larger than Greenland; it is also larger than North America. South America is actually twice the size of Europe. Alaska is way smaller in reality, and the Antarctic and Australia are similar in size. You get the idea!

I mean, these are our placemats!

There have long been calls for a wholesale change to global mapping standards to reflect this reality, and more importantly equality. But you guessed it – apparently – it’s complicated. But how so?

For years, contemporary cartographers have tried to correct the skewed scaling that occurs when trying to manipulate longitude and latitude lines into a flat rectangle. The result is a weird and wonderful new collection of strangely shaped and arranged lands (in comparison to the popular myth of what we believe the world looks like). They take a bit of getting used to.

In some positive news, the Boston (USA) city authorities seemed to have lead the charge on switching to the (still imperfect; but more accurately reflective) Peters mapping model in all schools from 2017, and many more may have followed suit. But there still remains much more work to be done on a global scale to rectify this. For example, my reading indicates that Google still uses Mercator, which is a worry for all sorts of reasons.

A screen grab from Oxford Cartographers website showing Peters world map

Every day is a school day here! So hit me with it, am I last to know this fact about the visual image of the Earth?

Because it has taught me lots of new things, I have to award my April book recommendation award to the informative, extremist interesting and accessible author Tim Marshall and his recently released book The Power of Geography. It has blown my mind on various current things geo-politically and for inspired me to share this post. Well worth a read, or listen on audiobook (as I did).


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