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The Power of Maps - Part Two

Published 30th April 2015 by The Times Atlas  


Images of dominion can be subverted. A renowned attempt to counter Euro-centrism was Arno Peters’ world projection – also known as the Gall-Peters in recognition of its similarity to a projection of 1855 by the Scots clergyman James Gall.


The Peters projection became the basis for what came to be regarded by many agencies as the ‘politically correct’ world map. Promoted by the UN, amongst others, it was widely distributed to schools and colleges world-wide and it even featured as a story line in the US political television drama, ‘The West Wing.’

In 1973 Peters called for a ‘new cartography’ to challenge what he regarded as neo-imperialist world mappings, noting the importance of showing continents in their true size relative to each other, to ensure the developing world was treated fairly. To make his point he inevitably contrasted his equal-area map with those based on the standard Mercator projection – which greatly exaggerates the size of land masses in the higher latitudes, at the expense of those in the tropical regions, home to the majority of developing countries – and rejected the use of other equal-area maps which used curved lines of longitude. His projection certainly draws attention to the global ‘South’, specifically Africa, due to the distinctive shapes given to the continents. However, it has almost invariably been published with Europe as top-centre and cannot really be said to subvert hegemonic representations. Despite the fact that the projection was not particularly innovative (being just one of a family of equal-area maps), Peters managed to convince many charities and even the United Nations to adopt it as the politically correct map for development education.

Another classic example is Stuart McArthur’s ‘Universal Corrective Map of the World’, published in 1979, which placed south at the top and gave Australia the dominant position on the map. Other turn-about maps followed, but all could be characterized as parochial in their own way. One of the few truly innovative alternatives is Buckminster Fuller’s group of Dymaxion projections, which form the basis for a ‘fluid geography’. These are constructed using multiple arrangements of map segments based on a Great Circle grid, allowing various ‘worldviews’ to be represented.


A map projection which allows a ‘fluid geography’ of multiple arrangements of segments. This helps to undermine any single centrist worldview.

While much of the world adopted a Eurocentric bias, the United States had from the late nineteenth century produced Ameri-centric world maps. More innovative world-views emerged during the Second World War as the US news media sought to explain the war to their audiences. This followed the lead of President Roosevelt, who had urged Americans to buy a world map so that they could understand their nation’s global strategy. Americans quickly recognized the importance of air power and of the polar region to US defence – it was, they learned, just a surprisingly short distance over the Arctic Ocean to the Soviet Union. Graphic designers such as Richard Edes Harrison began to create maps on innovative projections which provided novel viewpoints of the new strategic situation.


Richard Edes Harrison’s ‘One world, one war’ map for Fortune Magazine provides a classic example of the innovative cartography which evolved in response to changes in world politics in the era of air power. The map clearly illustrates the proximity of the USA and Europe (relevant in the Cold War era with the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles) which is often obscured by traditional projections.

Polar projections have become increasingly important in recent years due to the growing environmental and geopolitical significance of these regions. Maps of atmospheric ozone depletion at the poles, and the loss of sea and land ice due to climate change, are iconic reminders of human impact on the global environment, while maritime boundary disputes in the Arctic region (and indeed the long-standing territorial claims in Antarctica) track an increasing interest in the natural resource potential of these parts of the world.



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