The Mercator Needs No Defense


In last month’s issue of Frankly Speaking, I was disappointed to see a Mercator apologist being given platform to espouse tired rhetoric [1]. Mr. Kunimune’s article, while demonstrably erudite and well-researched, was and is totally unnecessary in a world dominated by the colonialist and abstractionist tyrannies of the Mercator projection.
The distortions inherent in the Mercator projection are by no means insignificant and should be reiterated: Greenland looks the same size as Africa, though Africa is in fact 14 times bigger; Alaska looks the same as Brazil, though Brazil is 5 times bigger, etc. In terms of teaching the size of countries, and, by extension, the relative positions of them, the Mercator is astoundingly bad.
This is not an unimportant issue when it comes to learning geography. The Western geography classroom has for decades been a site of colonialist indoctrination, and the Mercator projection’s continued use in this context serves as an aid to this end. Geography as an academic discipline in the US originated as an imperialist enterprise, and the practice of K-12 geography through the twentieth century emphasized learning about Western nations, colonies, and resources instead of people and places [2]. The use of the Mercator projection draws the eye to the global North: the US, UK, Spain, Germany, etc. while visually de-emphasizing all countries close to the equator (the global South, places historically colonised by the North).
Regardless of if these features of the map are mere “coincidence,” they likely helped it gain traction in geography education. Today, they make that education worse both in fact and in promoted ideology. Though the Mercator may have its redeeming qualities, i.e. for navigation, it should not see use as a general-purpose world map [3]. Surely, we can do better!
There’s one style of world map that can be pretty good, all things considered: a globe. For the unfamiliar, you can find a decent example of one by simply walking uphill from any place at Olin. In lieu of this, I’ve included a pseudo-globe (well, actually, a Dymaxion projection) that you can make yourself [4].
Finally, I’ll leave you with this: maps are mere abstractions (which is not to say that they’re pointless, but that they’re always wrong). As Korzybski once famously said, “The map is not the territory, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” [5]. As Mr. Kunimune pointed out, all map projections are wrong because it is impossible to flatten a sphere. I will here add: all maps are wrong because they are not themselves the world.

[1] Kunimune, J. (2017). Defense of the Mercator. Frankly Speaking 9(1), 6-9.
[2] Barnes, T. J. (Eds.). (2000). Inventing Anglo-American economic geography, 1889-1960. In Sheppard E. & Barnes, T. J. (Eds.), A companion to economic geography (pp. 11-26). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
[3] Cartographic Notes. (1989). In American Cartographer 16(3), 222–223.
[4] Gaba, E. (2009). Blank map of the world in an unfolded Fuller projection. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
[5] Map–territory relation. In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed 2017-09-26.

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