How the Maps are Wrong (and Why It’s a Problem)

With friends and family scattered all over the globe, I’d love to have a huge map of the world in our house. When we move to Thailand later this year, it’ll be a priority purchase.

The only reason we don’t have one already is my West Wing addiction.

What a marvellous show. I rewatched all seven seasons in late pregnancy and early breastfeeding with my first baby. SBJ would probably still recognise the theme tune.

More than one West Wing episode is about Leo (the White House chief of staff) running his Big Block of Cheese Day where ordinary people get access to high level staffers to get their message across to people in power.

This is his spiel, trying to get his unconvinced staff on board for a day away from normal business:

‘President Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House, had a big block of cheese. The block of cheese was huge–over two tons. And it was there for any and all who might be hungry. Jackson wanted the White House to belong to the people, so from time to time, he opened his doors to those who wished an audience. It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention. I know the more jaded among you see this as something rather beneath you. But I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the people’s servants.’

Leo McGarry, ‘The Crackpots and These Women,’ Season One, The West Wing

The group that really succeeds in getting the attention of the senior staff, and also me, is the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. Their message is astonishing:



I’ve often imagined God looking at our planet and not caring much about national borders (more of my views about selfish immigration policies are here). Since seeing that episode of The West Wing, I’ve also thought that God is among the few who know that Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland.



The Peters (or Gall-Peters) Projection


In the past I’ve tracked down Peters projection maps for a church I worked with and for my theological college, to use in prayer and worship, and I’d like one for our home.

The map has been controversial among cartographers (apparently), and, of course, any flat map isn’t as representative as a globe of the reality of the planet’s proportions. There are, it turns out, dozens of different flat map projections that I’m wholly unqualified to compare. If you don’t want a Gall-Peters, how about an Eckert IV? Or the pleasingly named Winkel Tripel?



The Winkel Tripel Projection


What we see regularly can make a strong impression – just ask billboard advertisers – and I’d like my kids to have a strong impression that Africa and South America, for example, are huge parts of our world.

Oxfam, the United Nations Development Program, the Mennonite Central Committee and a bunch of other international social justice groups have adopted Peters projections in their work for the same reason. National Geographic has gone for the Winkel Tripel.

In fact, you can buy a Peters from New Internationalist, online. Amazon has the only Winkel Tripel option I’ve seen available for purchase.




Or you could go super hardcore and get an ‘upside-down’ version, popular in the Southern Hemisphere. As a teenager I had a poster on my wall of the map that’s on this tea-towel:




The West Wing clip makes a great argument that the old Mercator projection marginalises much of the developing world. So I reckon exposing our kids to these other projections is another way we can raise a generation of kids for social justice.




I haven’t quite decided which one is for us, though the New Internationalist Peters projection is out front. Maybe a few different ones around the house would expose the cartographical compromises and open discussion.

I’m not suggesting this is the most important parenting decision I’ll make this year, but I do love a good map discussion. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on maps at home or The West Wing, or both, I guess, if you are a member of The Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality.

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You might be interested in these posts, too, on themes of social justice and practical things we can do at home:

6 ways kids can change the world

The refugee crisis: 13 things you can do to help

Protest is for everyone: 9 protest songs for adults and kids

47 Christmas gifts that can change the world

Check out these different versions of world maps, and why it matters that we pick the right one... |

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14 comments on “How the Maps are Wrong (and Why It’s a Problem)”

  1. Caroline Reply

    West Wing is great! (as are maps of course). If you can get hold of a copy of “News Room” – also written Aaron Sorkin – that’s also worth watching.

    • JD Reply

      West Wing is totally amazing … Newsroom is like West Wing all over again.

  2. Pippa Reply

    Ad sighs when I ask to watch an episode. As he knows it will result in watching it all again…for the umpteenth time. I love the block of cheese episode. And thanks for the prompt, I think Toby’s wall needs one of these maps!

  3. Daniel Pettigrew Reply

    I have always disliked distortion in these maps, whether there be political implications or geographical ones. The Peters one may improve on the former but boy does it look ugly. Squat Greenland? Stretched Africa? My preference would be one of the Eckert ones (IV or VI) or even better the excellent Goode-homolosine projection. We live on a ball floating in space and that will always be hard to translate to 2D paper. You have prompted me to go out and buy a globe! I think I’ll get a decent sized and sturdy one that I can suspend in my son’s room.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Great to hear your recommendations, Dan, and the globe-purchase plan!

      I think one good answer for us is to have a globe in the house as well a map on the wall, and to talk about the differences as they come up.

  4. Alex Reply

    I bought one of those “upside down” maps as a souvenir from my first visit to NZ 16 years ago… My parents still have it on their wall in Scotland!
    Another vote here for a globe – although maybe not for a while. It has been one of Marcus’s most favourite presents (for his 4th birthday, so SBJ has a few years yet). It’s a pretty basic political one – while I agree with the undesirability of fixating on borders, it’s just more practical for learning about where places are. And he is interested to find out. One of his favourite songs is called Mexico, so that was an early one to find, and Japan gets a mention in Toy Story 2, so we found that. And when Granny and Grandpa went for a trip to the Antipodes last autumn, it was great to be able to follow their progress.
    We also have a more childish, cartoony map on the wall, which has little animals etc (although it does have its limitations – no North Pole, for example!) We didn’t honestly think much, if at all, about the projection – that will be something for future years I think.

    (Can we still be friends if I confess I’ve never seen an episode of the West Wing?!)

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Great to hear – I did remember Marcus’ globe, actually, and I often think about all the great posters out in the play room at your place. I’m glad to hear it is the globe is so popular.

      I’ll def be getting political borders shown – I find the human aspect of geography the most interesting, myself. But I remember the struggle I had as a kid to understand that they were arbitrarily/mightily imposed rather than inherent and eternal, and might even CHANGE! What do you mean that used to be France!? Luckily these days borders etc change often – since my childhood, USSR, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Hong Kong… so that will help discussion.

      No West Wing!? Oooh… I guess I must love you a lot, since I do want to still be friends. Just keep me supplied with mix tapes and we’ll never speak of this again.

  5. Andrew Reply

    interesting (not commenting on the rightness, or whether it has been used mostly for ill or good) that such relatively small areas (europe, north america) have dominated the world culturally and politically for such a long time. it’d be a toss-up as to whether it’s a case of the “guns, germs and steel” favourable geography and flora and fauna in those areas, or that those areas have generally based their values on the bible (grudem’s “50 factors within nations” talks, for instance).

    aesthetically i like the projections that preserve shape a bit better than Peters, but that’s like arguing which is the best music or art. each has a purpose and a use.

    I’m also a west wing non-watcher. no reason deeper than it didn’t grab me when it was on screen.

  6. Angela Reply

    When I was a child, and before I could read very well, I remember studying (ok, looking at) world maps, and for quite some time I thought England where Africa is, and America was where Russia/The Middle East/Europe are. Clearly the amount I had heard about them and my impression of their importance was being translated in to size.

    I am totally in love with maps and would love a nice good-sized globe one day.

    I am also totally in love with West Wing. We need to get on to this Newsroom thing…

  7. Heather Reply

    I love maps! I agree that the Peters is ugly, but I love its accuracy 🙂 We grew up with a globe in the house which I always loved and, a few years ago when my mum was talking about throwing it out, I acquired it. It’s one of my favourite things 🙂 Two of my most expensive purchases for a long time were a book on the birds of New Zealand and a detailed world atlas – both of which still get a fair bit of use 🙂

    I spend a lot of time on my back staring at my bedroom ceiling. A few years back, a friend gave me a laminated map of Africa for my ceiling, as I’d been muttering about struggling to get straight in my head where various places were. It’s made a huge difference to my comprehension of the BBC World Service, and has led to us making a series of maps – Central America, South Pacific (which doesn’t really work, as the bits of land are so small it’s hard to make them out on a scale that does the whole region), South America, West Asia, East and SE Asia and Europe (including central Europe – I want to get that one out when next I have the energy to change the map, to try and make sense of the migrations going on at the moment). I find them really helpful for understanding all kinds of things to do with history and cultures etc. – and just something to ‘hang’ any information I get about the places onto.
    Heather recently posted…Spring has sprung!My Profile

  8. Karen Reply

    I remember seeing the Peter’ s map in geography class c1985 so I remember being surprised by all the excitement around it on Westwing. I only watched one series of Westwing when I was living in Australia. The episode where the secretary died was on on 9/11 – her surprise death was at the end of the episode and then we switched to the breaking news which was just unfolding (the towers had been hit but not yet collapsed). So, that’s what I always think about when anyone mentions Westwing.
    Karen recently posted…The KonMari Folding MethodMy Profile

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