Why we started using the Equal Earth map

This article was originally published by onthinktanks.org

Southern Voice‘s vision is a world in which power has been realigned between countries and hemispheres. We contribute to the adjustment by showcasing excellent evidence-based research from the Global South by Global South scholars. We aim to balance the discussion on a variety of current development topics.

Maps are, by nature, a representation of power.

Maps are, by nature, a representation of power. And the most widely used ones, be it the Mercator projection or similar ones, put power in the Northern Hemisphere, in particular, in Europe. Indeed, the Mercator map was necessary for navigation. But by making the European continent and its member countries look far larger than they are, such representations contribute to a sense of might, maybe even superiority. It is so common to use this 16th-century projection, that – I admit – we at Southern Voice didn’t realise or question it either. It was a comment on Twitter by one of our followers that made us aware of the mismatch between what we are trying to achieve and what we were showing. To be precise, the follower was looking at the map in our network video.

The first time I heard about a chart that tries to depict the sizes of continents more accurately, was during an episode of the series “West Wing”. Many (my age) might recall that episode. It is the one where civil society organisations are invited to the White House to present their rather “unusual” research or causes. In the (slightly exaggerated) scene, the cartographers show the Peter’s projection. They argue that the size of a country can be mistakenly equated with its value. And that if a state is represented smaller or bigger than it is, well, then it can be perceived as mightier or weaker. The same goes for continents.

For me, the explanation of the Peter’s projection and what it implied was a pivotal moment. I had never heard of a map misrepresentation before, but I had experienced its repercussion first hand. My entire life I have found myself explaining to European friends why distances in South America are so vast. Or how a country like Germany fits three times into a country like Bolivia. Even today, in 2019, they look at me like “yeah, right!”. And of course they do. If you grow up with a representation that shows your country much bigger than it is, then you are allowed to be sceptical. Even Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, recently turned to social media to demonstrate that her country was not as small as everyone thinks. Sites like thetruesize.com help us understand the real proportions of countries and continents.

Within Southern Voice‘s Secretariat, the internal discussion about changing to an equal earth projection was brief. It certainly helps that we are all ‘Southerners’ and know well that the Mercator map is not accurate and frankly, out-dated. We see and experience distances on this side of the world daily. And yet, why is the Mercator projection still the main one used in 99% of schools across the globe? Or why aren’t we, at least, taught that there are many kinds of maps, each one trying to depict something else and serving different purposes?

The world is changing. Power is shifting.

The world is changing. Power is shifting. Maybe not (yet) to the Global South. The deficits in this part of the world are still manifold, both home-grown and remnants of colonial times. But by showing real size (and might), we can at least contribute to the psychological aspect of the discussion. NASA is already using the equal earth chart, and also Google maps now shows the Earth as a globe to avoid distortions.

Our switch is somewhat a symbolic ‘revindication’, yes. But it is also in line with our core mandate: using evidence-based research and facts.

Ultimately, it is not about one state being ‘larger’ or ‘more powerful’ than the other. That is not what this modification or Southern Voice is about. But it is about creating balance and meeting each other at eye-level. Let’s leave the 16th century behind.

Gabriela Keseberg Dávalos: Head of communications of Southern Voice, a network of think tanks from the Global South working on sustainable development.

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