Projecting guilt

The Peters map squashed Greenland and stretched Africa - to show us that the Third World matters.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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Can maps be racist? The German cartographer Arno Peters thought so.

Peters, who died on 2 December 2002, was responsible for creating the eponymous Peters projection (1). Released in English in 1983, the Peters projection was designed to redress the chief shortcomings of the popular Mercator projection: namely, its Eurocentricism and the way it distorted area mass.

Although Gerardus Mercator of Flanders had in 1554 solved a riddle that had perplexed cartographers for years – how to represent the globe as a map on a flat piece of paper – he did so by compromising size, particularly near the poles. Thus Greenland and Antarctica are rendered enormous beyond proportion (2).

Peters’ projection solved this problem by rendering all land masses and countries their proper size. But his motivation was cultural, too. He believed it important that Third World countries in equatorial latitudes be given prominence, to remind the First World that they mattered, and to provoke us into thinking about how we view our world. According to The Times, Peters’ ‘equal-area’ map ‘became an icon of left-wing thinking, selling more than 80million copies in several languages’.

But whereas Mercator distorted size, Peters distorted shape. Greenland was now so squashed to be actually wider than it was longer, and he stretched equatorial countries. Peters had not removed cartographic bias; he had merely shifted it. If you asked a Martian who had designed this map, he would say Africans, as the continent completely dominates the affair.

Maps will invariably be layered with cultural bias, of course. Unsurprisingly, the Mercator projection was a particular favourite of British colonialists. Those old maps of empire, in which British possessions are coloured in red, look very impressive largely because Canada is seemingly gigantic. A 1905 map included Australia twice for good measure, so foreigners didn’t forget just how much of the world we owned (3).

Most societies in history rendered their own country at the centre or the top. The Spanish, in their representation of Europe, often used to turn the continent 90 degrees clockwise, so that the Iberian Peninsula was at the head. In the USA, you find maps where the Americas are in the middle, and the continent of Eurasia is split up on either side. The world map included with R Brookes’ General Gazetteer: Compendious Geographical Dictionary, printed in Dublin in 1776, certainly wouldn’t be acceptable in classrooms today, principally because a giant swathe of Africa is labelled, simply, ‘Negroland’.

Yet the Peters school of thought seems wilfully dishonest, too. When you compare the Peters projection to one of those spinning globes that sit on office desks, there is sparse resemblance. Stretching out continents to make them appear bigger is like saying: ‘Oh, let’s pretend African countries aren’t impoverished and ruled by kleptocrats, but are really rich, successful and important world players.’ It is the equivalent of putting fingers in your ears and saying ‘la! la! la! I can’t hear you! Congo rules the world!’ – or apologising for slavery. All are empty, conceited gestures designed principally to soothe the consciences of self-hating Westerners.

  • Lessons of geography

Which is why it is so irritating that the Peters projection has become such a favourite in classrooms. As Alex Standish recently said in these pages, the discipline of geography has been hijacked by environmentalists and ‘anti-globalists’ in recent years (4). I remember the Peters map very well from my geography lessons, and doing my GCSE’s just over 10 years ago, also recall the nonsense we were fed: like how the Green Revolution actually damaged the Third World, or how Amazonians are much better farmers because they ‘understand’ nature. I fear the politicisation of geography has been with us for a long time.

So just imagine the horror when my geography teacher was met with the retort from Glenn McInerney one day: ‘But surely African countries were run much better when we owned them?’ Such a comment offended my liberal sensibilities at the time, but I think it quite funny in retrospect. Imagine the collective horror in the staff room afterwards, as Miss O’Shea retold this tale, watching her colleagues’ jaws drop as their cups of tea slipped from their fingers and crashed to the floor in slow motion.

  • Join my protest

Vain Men, to be aired on Channel 4 this Sunday, charts the rise of the narcissistic male in recent years. Apparently, British men now spend an average of £576 a year on grooming and 55 minutes getting ready to go out. We are fastidious about our hair and our weight and we routinely go for facials and manicures. Thirty percent of teenage boys ‘suffer’ from anxiety about their weight.

One reason offered for this phenomenon is the liberation of women. According to Mark Simpson, author of Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture: ‘Now that women are more independent and assertive, straight men have to compete more to attract their attention.’

My theory is that the sexual revolution has meant that each sex has adopted the worst aspects of the other. In traditional Western culture, it was said that a man’s main virtue was his reason and a woman’s her emotional maturity. But rather than adopting the best parts of femininity, men have appropriated the worst – they have become more vain and frivolous. Similarly, rather than becoming more reasonable, women have become more thuggish and boorish.

New Man vanity is unacceptable, whatever its cause. Which is why I intend to look after my own six pack – by keeping it cool in the back of the fridge. My beer belly is a protest against body fascism. I implore others to cultivate their own in a gesture of solidarity.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) See the Peters map of the world

(2) See the Mercator map of the world

(3) The British Empire Map 1905

(4) Constructing a value map, by Alex Standish

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Topics Politics


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