Last Wednesday’s episode of “The West Wing” featured an amusing story line involving the ethics of cartography, or map-making.
C.J. Cregg, the White House press secretary, met with a group known as the “Cartographers for Social Equality.” They explained to C.J. the difference between a Mercator map and a Peters map. They then argued for the adoption of the lesser-known Peters map.
If this sounds as interesting and fun as a root canal, don’t worry. That’s what C.J. thought before she saw the presentation.
The Mercator map and the Peters map are not fictional. The Mercator map was created in the 16th century as a navigational tool. The Peters map originated in 1974.
Though the Mercator map was useful for navigators, it distorted the relative sizes of countries and continents. In an era of European colonialism, it also made Europe the center of the world.
The Peters map, by contrast, is an “equal area” map which preserves the relative sizes of land masses.
For example, the Mercator map shows Greenland and Africa to be roughly the same size. In reality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland. The Peters map makes this distinction more evident.
Arno Peters, the German historian who developed the map bearing his name, believed maps were “unavoidably political,” according to petersmap.com.
The cartographers on “The West Wing” shared this view. Hence their effort to promote “social equality” for Third World countries, which are traditionally diminished and dislocated by our common maps.
“There are literally thousands of map projections,” according to petersmap.com. “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.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
Learn more about the Peters Projection Map at http://www.petersmap.com