The other day we were talking about geography, and one of my young students asked casually, “The poor countries are on the back of the world, right?” Wow. Ouch. “It can seem that way, huh?” I said after collecting myself. “Because we often see more wealthy countries highlighted on the map. But check it out.” I spun my globe beach ball that I had brought in from home. “The earth is a sphere, so there actually is no back, front, top or bottom.” We talked about north, south, east, west, the equator, and hemispheres. I try to use the globe for accuracy whenever possible and avoid the terms “above” or “below” when referring to locations, but doing geography with my kids has brought my attention to how difficult it is not to let those phrases crop into my daily speech.
The Mercator Map I grew up with privileges the Northern Hemisphere and particularly North America and Europe, front and centre. It certainly has its place, but since most people today use world maps not for direct navigation purposes but for global awareness and understanding relationships between countries, I find it curious that the Mercator has remained so overwhelmingly dominant in classrooms and homes. The Oxford Cartographers write that “Maps not only represent the world, they shape the way we see it.” They go on to say:
Five thousand years of human history have brought us to the threshold of a new age. It is an age typified by science and technology, by the end of colonial domination, and by a growing awareness of the interdependence of all nations and all peoples. Such a moment in history demands that we look critically at our view of the world as portrayed by the World Map. Surprisingly, to a significant degree this view is based on the work of cartographers from an age when Europe dominated and exploited the world.
Traditional map projections, of which the Mercator is one example, have tended to show countries incorrectly in proportion to one another, exaggerating the size of high latitude countries such as Canada and making tropical regions such as Africa appear much too small.
I also love the Hobo-Dyer equal area and “South Up” maps available at ODT Maps. ODT has published a great little article with some history of different map orientations and projections and a discussion of some of the limitations of flat paper maps, particularly if we are familiar with only one type.
“Up” is over our heads, and when we mix “up” with “top” and “north” we do ourselves a disservice. We confuse all the other things we associate with “up” and “top” (like “good” and “heaven”) with north; and all the things we associate with “down” and “bottom” (like bad and hell) with south. So Australia is “down under” (under what?) and Antarctica is “the bottom of the world.” Antarctica doesn’t even show up on this “What’s Up? South!” map of the world. Some world! But then … it’s hard to show the whole planet — which is after all a three-dimensioned sphere — on a two-dimensioned piece of paper. Along with that extra dimension a lot of other things have to go. A map can show one or more — but not all — of the following: directions the way they are on the globe, distances the way they are on the globe, areas the way they are on the globe, or shapes the way they are on the globe. When maps show things the way they are on the globe it’s common to say they’re true, as in; “This map shows true directions.” But the language of “true” and “false,” like that of “top” and “bottom,” carries so much extra baggage it’s not much use. It’s more useful to be familiar with many different kinds of maps, each with its own slant. It’s like getting to know a poem in a language you don’t understand. Each new translation reveals a facet the other translations ignored. The more translations you read, the surer your “triangulation” on the poem you’re trying to get to know. The best way to understand our world is to view it through as many lenses as possible, to see it from as many vantage points as we can.
(…) Each projection translates the globe from its own unique perspective . The equal-area Peters is often contrasted to the constant compass-bearing Mercator because they are so glaringly different. At ODT, Inc. we appreciate this contrast because it shocks viewers into questioning their assumptions about maps in particular and life in general. It helps people to “think outside the box” by exploring how what they see is predicated on what they expect to see. The “What’s Up? South!” map is similarly shocking though in another way. The continents are actually shaped much like they are on a Mercator but look unfamiliar because we’re not used to orienting our maps to the south. But sometimes all we need to do to solve our problems is turn them upside down.
Why are all sorts of different kinds of maps not more widely accessible and seen today? Think about your own upbringing: Where did you grow up, and and how did you see your country represented in literature and the media? How did this impact your identity and ideas about your country’s place in the world?