With all the deadly serious issues of social and economic injustice confronting Africa, it’s amazing how many people remain concerned with the continent’s size on our maps. If you’ve heard of the Mercator projection, the term for the ubiquitous rectangularly rendered maps found in almost every American classroom, you probably know about its flaws. Most egregiously, critics note, it distorts the world by making Africa look much smaller, relative to other continents, than it really is.
The anti-Mercator case continues to fascinate us, making regular appearances in outlets as diverse as The Economist, Upworthy, The Guardian and Business Insider. But it may be best remembered from a 2001 episode of “The West Wing,” in which an enthusiastic academic tells the White House that the Mercator map has “fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries.” As he explains, “In our society we unconsciously associate size with importance and even power. When third world countries are misrepresented, they’re likely to be valued less.”
Is the Mercator projection to blame for bad public policy and geographical ignorance? It is true that the almost universally used Mercator world map (named for Gerardus Mercator, the 16th century cartographer who created it) relatively reduces the size of regions near the equator and expands the size of areas near the poles. Greenland, for instance, appears roughly the same size as Africa, even though Africa’s actual land mass is 14 times Greenland’s.
There is little doubt that, in the absence of other evidence, this affects our perceptions of how big Africa is. If nothing else, we assume that map size is generally correlated with real size. That’s why walking across Manhattan can seem pleasantly quick after looking at the extra-wide New York City subway map.
But does this really have a pernicious effect on our political and social views? Upon reflection, the idea of a subconscious cartographic conspiracy against Africa doesn’t hold up. Like some hybrid of a scapegoat and a red herring, it may actually let us off the hook. Let’s stop blaming our maps and confront the fact that our prejudices about the continent are so deep-rooted that they don’t need any cartographic corroboration.
Imagine that the Gall-Peters projection, which emphasizes Africa by more accurately representing land area, replaces the Mercator in every classroom in the U.S. In order to get Africa’s size right, it must distort its shape more dramatically than it does the shape of the U.S. Because Africa is closer to the equator, it gains map size by being elongated, thus distorting relative distances on the continent. How would that change our attitudes about Africa’s importance? If Africa were suddenly a lot bigger, would we credit it for being more powerful than we think it is, or might we just question why, despite its size, the continent isn’t richer or stronger?