Our skewed view of geography | The Triangle

Our skewed view of geography

Ever since preschool, most of us have only ever really seen one kind of world map. Rather, when trying to picture a world map, most of us will end up thinking of the same one. We probably don’t know what that map’s name is, or where and when we first saw it, or why it seems to be everywhere maps can be found, but we seem to have accepted it as our view of the Earth. Now, what if I told you that the map was wrong? To many, that isn’t a huge surprise, but to just as many, the idea of Greenland being smaller than the United States comes as something of a shock. Even those who are aware of the relative size disproportions may be surprised to know that a lot of countries aren’t even portrayed in the right sections of the globe in this map. If you’re looking at a standard Mercator projection (that is, the iconic map that seems to be beaten into all of our skulls), you can see Germany and Italy hanging out right near the center of the map. In reality, however, they are way up in the northernmost quarter of the globe. That’s right; countries like Germany, Italy, France and Spain aren’t where you think they are. In fact, if you base your geographical view of the world on the Mercator projection, almost nothing is where you think it is. Put bluntly, your internal map of the world is wrong.

Right now, you might be asking yourself why we would ever use a map that is incapable of doing its only job, which is accurately representing the world. To answer that question, we’ll need a quick history lesson. The Mercator projection was first made in 1569 by a Flemish cartographer by the name of Gerardus Mercator in order to help European sailors navigate the Atlantic Ocean. In other words, the Mercator projection was made to be used for the ocean rather than for land, and as terrible as it might be at representing land, the Mercator projection is very good at what it was originally designed for: accurately portraying the portion of the Atlantic that sailors went through when headed for the new world. The reason that this map is so particularly useful for ocean navigation is that it stretches out the poles of the globe so that longitudinal lines end up looking perfectly vertical, making it easier to pinpoint exactly where on the ocean you are. This stretching, however, causes landmasses to stretch out near the poles as well. Back when all people with maps cared about was crossing the oceans, the disproportionality was a small price to pay. Nowadays, however, we really don’t need a Mercator projection to navigate the Atlantic, so there isn’t really any benefit to using the archaic map at all, and the skewed land has become an area of much greater concern. In short, our use of the Mercator projection today yields no discernible benefits over other maps, while continuing to provide us with outright lies about what our planet looks like. Still, we continue using it, because that’s what we’ve been doing. Like our school vacation system, the penny and the imperial system of measurement, we continue using a stupid map because we just don’t feel like changing it.

So, what are the implications of using a skewed map? Well, the main problem, besides general ignorance of how the world and its countries look, is that using the Mercator projection creates a Eurocentric view of our planet. Why? Well, look at where Europe is on the globe. It’s pretty far up north. That means that the Mercator projection stretches it out and makes it look larger than it really is compared to other parts of the world. It exaggerates the size of Europe and North America, and places Europe much closer to the center of the world, all while making countries like El Salvador, Iran, Venezuela and India look smaller in comparison. Now, it might seem like paranoia on my part to say that just because the north happens to be skewed, and Europe happens to be in the north, that the map is Eurocentric. However, as argued by Salvatore Natoli of the National Council of the Social Studies, size really does matter. Natoli said, “In our society, we constantly equate size with importance, even power.” When developing nations, which are as a whole closer to the equator and thus not benefited by the Mercator projection’s skewing effect, are misrepresented, they are likely to be valued less. In fact, even those of us who don’t think of the Mercator projection when picturing a world map are subject to Eurocentrism. I ask you now, why is Europe on the top of the map? Why is the Northern Hemisphere on top? You might now be skipping ahead to the next article of your newspaper, but I ask that you at least think about my question. When great cultures like Egypt were mapping the world, they mapped “upside down,” and it made as much sense to them as our maps make to us. Direction is arbitrary when approached absolutely. The only thing concrete about direction is that it remains constant relative to other directions; north is always opposite of south, but it is not necessarily up.

I’m not proposing that the world’s geography teachers simultaneously flip their maps upside down, but I am suggesting change. The Mercator projection is objectively incorrect. Using an incorrect map to teach children about the world is like teaching them to bake a cake with twice the eggs and half the flour: they can make some semblance of a cake, but it won’t be very good and won’t be of any real use to anyone. Worst of all, the Mercator projection creates a subconscious sense of superiority from an early age among our children, and in an increasingly global society, such misconceptions are dangerous. So here’s what I propose: Instead of a Mercator projection, let’s encourage the use of the Robinson projection in schools. The Robinson projection is ovular, rather than rectangular, and thus eliminates landmass distortion. It gives an accurate picture of our world. Or, if changing map shape feels a bit too extreme, let’s use a Gall-Peters projection. All I know is that looking at either projection (especially the Gall-Peters), the first thing you’ll think is, “What the hell is that?” It’s where we’ve been living all this time, and it’s nothing like we ever imagined.

Talha Muktar is a legal studies major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].