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Explanation & Guide of the Peters World Map
The Peters Projection World Map is one of the most
stimulating, and controversial, images of the world. When
this map was first introduced by historian and cartographer
Dr. Arno Peters at a Press Conference in Germany in 1974 it
generated a firestorm of debate. The first English-version
of the map was published in 1983, and it continues to have
passionate fans as well as staunch detractors.
The earth is round. The challenge of any world map is to
represent a round earth on a flat surface. There are
literally thousands of map projections. Each has certain
strengths and corresponding weaknesses. Choosing among them
is an exercise in values clarification: you have to decide
what's important to you. That is generally determined by the
way you intend to use the map.
The Mercator Projection
Adapted from A New View of the World. See
Let's look at the challenge of understanding map
projections. Imagine a light bulb in the center of a globe
of the earth. Then wrap the earth in a cylinder, cone, or
"project" it onto a plane beneath one of the poles. An early
cylindrical map projection was created in 1569 by Mercator
(who's name was actually Gerhard Kremer, 1512-1594).
Mercator's projection (created at a time when navigators
were sailing on the oceans in wooden ships, powered by the
wind, and navigating by the stars) was particularly useful
because straight lines on his projection were lines of
constant compass bearing. Today the Mercator projection
still remains useful for navigational purposes and is
referred to by seafarers and airline pilots.
The Mercator is also a "conformal" map projection. This
means that it shows shapes pretty much the way they appear
on the globe. The mapmaker's dilemma is that you cannot show
both shape and size accurately. If you want a true shape for
the land masses you will necessarily sacrifice
proportionality, i.e., the relative sizes will be distorted.
Greenland: 0.8 million sq. miles
Africa: 11.6 million sq. miles
Adapted from A New View of the World. See
The Mercator projection creates increasing distortions of
size as you move away from the equator. As you get closer to
the poles the distortion becomes severe. Cartographers refer
to the inability to compare size on a Mercator projection as
"the Greenland Problem." Greenland appears to be the same
size as Africa, yet Africa's land mass is actually fourteen
times larger (see figure below right). Because the Mercator
distorts size so much at the poles it is common to crop
Antarctica off the map. This practice results in the
Northern Hemisphere appearing much larger than it really is.
Typically, the cropping technique results in a map showing
the equator about 60% of the way down the map, diminishing
the size and importance of the developing countries.
This was convenient, psychologically and practically,
through the eras of colonial domination when most of the
world powers were European. It suited them to maintain an
image of the world with Europe at the center and looking
much larger than it really was. Was this conscious or
deliberate? Probably not, as most map users probably never
realized the Eurocentric bias inherent in their world view.
When there are so many other projections to chose from, why
is it that today the Mercator projection is still such a
widely recognized image used to represent the globe? The
answer may be simply convention or habit. The inertia of
habit is a powerful force.
A different type of projection is an "Equal-Area"
projection. This shows sizes in proportion while sacrificing
true shape. The Peters Projection is one type of equal area
map. Is it the only one? No, there are hundreds of others,
but only a handful of others are in common use. The
Mollweide projection, developed in 1805, is commonly used
for displaying distributions (people, telecommunications
equipment, the world's religions, etc). Karl B. Mollweide
(1774-1825) specifically sought to improve upon the
weaknesses of the Mercator projection. The Eckert IV is
another equal area projection developed in the 1920's by Max
Eckert (1868-1938). This has the advantage of less shape
distortion near the equator and the poles. A fourth
equal-area map is Goode's Homolosine created in 1921 by J.
Paul Goode (1862-1932). This interrupted map looks like an
orange peel (see figure below) and has less shape distortion
than the other equal area maps.
Is one projection "better" than another? No! There are
simply different ones for different purposes. The Peters
projection is commonly used in contrast to a Mercator
projection, and is visually engaging because it is so
jarringly different. At ODT, Inc. we prefer it above other
equal area projections because it shocks viewers into
questioning their assumptions, about maps specifically and
about life in general. It helps people to "think outside of
the box" by exploring how what they see is predicated on
what they expect to see.
ODT, Inc. has been involved in exploring the biases in
perception as they occur in a variety of business contexts:
performance appraisal, strategy & planning, market research,
corporate culture change, and leadership development. Our
management training and cultural diversity programs are
designed to help people recognize that there are many
different valid points of view. People can communicate
better with others when they recognize that there are many
perspectives from which to view the world. When you believe
that your own view is the only valid one, you cut off
effective communication with others who may not share your
cultural assumptions and perspective.
See The Nystrom Desk Atlas
Other projections in use today include "Compromise" ones:
projections that try to show shapes more or less as they are
on the globe without distorting relative sizes too badly.
The Van der Grinten projection was developed in 1904 and was
the official projection of the National Geographic Society
from 1922 to 1988. From 1988 to 1998 the National Geographic
Society used the Robinson projection (created in 1963 by
Arthur H. Robinson). Recently the National Geographic
Society adopted the Winkel Tripel projection. Oswald Winkel
developed this projection in 1921, and it has the advantage
of minimizing shape distortion in the polar areas.
Van der Grinten
See The Nystrom Desk Atlas
The implications of any projection are enormous. Images we
see shape our perceptions of the world. It's enriching to
see a variety of points-of-view. Have you ever seen a map
with Australia on top? The Upside-Down world map comes in a
variety of projections, but reverses the poles. Whoever said
that North must be "up"? Maps are based on a variety of
assumptions, most of which are subliminal and below our
threshold of consciousness. We hope all students will
benefit from challenging implicit assumptions and deciding
for themselves what maps of the world are valid and useful
©1988 Maps International Inc. Available from ODT Inc.
NOTE: This version of the upside down map is NOT a Peters
Projection. Rather it is portrayed with south at the top via
a Van der Grinten projection, which is in a class of maps
known as "compromise" projections.
This particular upside down map is colorful, visually
engaging, and has all the flags of the countries of the
world around the border. The upside down map in a Peters
Projection (as seen on West Wing) is not available.
World mission and aid-giving agencies use the Peters map
because it serves to represent the developing countries at
their true proportion. People feel pride in their country
when its relative size is shown accurately. The Peters map
has been widely adopted elsewhere, but remains a curiosity
in the United States. Why is this? Among related factors are
these: (1) our resistance to join the rest of the world on
the metric system (even the British have changed from inches
and fahrenheit to centimeters and celsius), (2) national
surveys showing U.S. schoolchildren have among the lowest
levels of geography awareness of all developed nations, and
(3) many professional cartographers have resented the
"politicization" of their field. Arno Peters was one of the
first to assert that maps are unavoidably political.
All projections possess desirable but mutually exclusive
attributes. As we mentioned earlier, no single projection
can show both size and shape. We hope you'll explore many
different points of view. Lots of great free materials are
available from the US Geological Survey. They are at
1-800-USA-MAPS and have a fax-on-demand system at
1-703-648-4888. Check out their web site at
The National Geographic Society has materials at
www.nationalgeographic.com. Also check out
www.NystromNet.com. For questions regarding the Peters
map, please call the ODT teacher support hot-line at
"Rock Your World," Jennifer J. Salopek, Training &
Development, March, 1999, pages 54 - 55.
"The Peters Map: A Powerful Tool for Diversity Training,"
Dianne LaMountain, Managing Diversity, January, 1999,
pages 5 & 8.
A New View of the World: A Handbook to the World Map -
Peters Projection, Ward Kaiser, 1st Edition, 1987, 2nd
edition (in press), ODT, Inc., Amherst MA
The Nystrom Desk Atlas, 1999 edition, pages 138 -
139. Available from Herff Jones, Inc., Chicago IL
"Mapping a route to a better understanding of our world,"
Editorial from Asheville Citizen-Times, August 12,
1999, page A-6.
Flattening the Earth: Two Thousand Years of Map
Projections, John P. Snyder, 1993, Univ. of Chicago
Press, pages 108 - 109, 156 - 157, and 165 - 166.
"Impetus to Awareness," Ward Kaiser, in the Cultural
Diversity Fieldbook, 1996, Petersons Publishing, pages
180 - 183.
The Power of Maps, Denis Wood, with John Fels, 1992,
The Guilford Press, pages 58-60, 190.
"A good map is (easy) to find," Gail Russell Chaddock,
Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1999m pages