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Peters Projection vs. Mercator Projection
Part 1: Peters Projection
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"What do you think about the Peters vs. Mercator Projection debate? Do you like either projection?"
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by Matt T. Rosenberg

Proponents of the Peters projection map claim that their map is a good, fair, and non-racist view of the world. They're comparing their map to the almost-defunct Mercator map. Unfortunately, geographers and cartographers agree that neither map projection is appropriate for use as a map of our planet.

Peters Projection

German historian and journalist Arno Peters (his Ph.D. dissertation focused on political propaganda) called a press conference in 1973 to announce his "new" map projection that treated each country fairly by representing area accurately. The Peters projection map utilized a rectangular coordinate system that showed parallel lines of latitude and longitude. Skilled at marketing, Arno claimed that his map more fairly displayed third world countries than the "popular" Mercator projection map, which distorts and dramatically enlarges the size of Eurasian and North American countries. The media had a field day with this new map that supposedly made things right for the oppressed people of the world.

Unfortunately, the media fell for Peter's argument and, due to a lack of understanding about cartography, presented Peters' idea as the greatest thing since sliced bread. They simultaneously took to vilifying the Mercator projection.

While the Peters projection does (almost) represent land of equal area equally, all map projections distort the shape of the earth, a sphere. According to prominent cartographer Arthur Robinson, the Peters map is "somewhat reminiscent of wet, ragged long winter underwear hung out to dry on the Arctic Circle." (Monmonier, 10)

Peters projection
Gall-Peters Projection

All maps distort distance, shape, area, or direction to present a map that meets the users' needs. This is due to the fact that you can't make a completely accurate map from a spherical earth. However, neither the Peters map nor the Mercator map are aesthetically pleasing nor do they give anyone a good indication of what the earth really looks like (such as if you're looking at a globe). John Snyder of the U.S. Geological Survey stated that the Peter's map "isn't any better than similar maps that have been in use for 400 years." (Monmonier, 11)

The National Council of Churches' Christian Aid organization republished the Peters map in 1977, spreading the gospel of the Peters map around the world. Proponents of the Peters map were vociferous and demanded that organizations switch to the new, "fairer" map of the world. Even the United Nations Development Programme capitulated to the demands of the vocal group and began using the Peters projection in its maps.

Today, relatively few organizations use the map, yet the evangelizing continues. Bob Abramms of ODT, Inc., a publisher of the Peters map, recently wrote an article advocating the map in the National Council for Geographic Education's (NCGE) publication, Perspective. Abramms distanced himself from the promoters of the Peters projection, stating, "The problem of misinformed and overzealous Peters projection fans has been a long-standing one. In fact, the problems seems to have originated with map creator Dr. Arno Peters himself." Abramms supported the map with "The Peters projection is of limited value, if taken in isolation. However, it is a rich learning tool when taken in combination with other projections." (Abramms).

This article resulted in a response to the editor of Perspective that was published in the following issue. Dr. Thomas Feldman succinctly summarized the opposition to the Peters projection.

Please, let's use this map as an example of what it is -- a scam capitalizing on the cartographic ignorance of most people and, sad to say, many teachers at all levels, and which survives quite nicely in a climate of political correctness where it is inappropriate to criticize anyone who claims to criticize the "the status quo"...

I'm afraid that keeping the debate alive only confuses the ignorant --- they've been led to believe they know what "racist" maps look like because some teachers keep comparing a Mercator to a Gall-Peters in an inappropriate and misleading racial context.

Note that Feldman refers to the Gall-Peters projection. Arno Peters really wasn't the inventor of the projection that commonly bears his name. In 1855, English clergyman James Gall published the same projection in the Scottish Geographical Magazine and called it the orthographic equal-area projection. In an interview, Dr. Peters, who has no formal training in cartography, claimed that he had never heard of the Gall projection prior to inventing his projection. Nonetheless, many refer to the Peters projection as the Gall-Peters projection.

Far too many educational Internet sites link to the Peters Projection site, repeating the mantra in their annotation that it's the only non-racist map available. HotBot lists over 1,100 sites that link to the Peter's site, including a plethora of libraries, schools, and even universities -- cartographic ignorance and blind assent spread far and wide across the Net.

Peters chose to compare his strange-looking map to the Mercator map because he knew that it was an inappropriate map of the earth. Defenders of the Peters projection claim that the Mercator projection distorts the size of countries and continents in the Northern Hemisphere and places like Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa, yet Africa's land mass is actually fourteen times larger. These claims are certainly all true and correct.

The Mercator map was never intended to be used as a wall map and by the time Peters started complaining about it, he was creating a mountain out of a molehill as the Mercator map was well on its way out of fashion.

 

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