Are you using a “socially conscious” world map?

What’s a “socially conscious” world map, you ask? Well, for starters, everyone knows that all world maps necessarily distort some regions of the Earth at the expense of others. The attempt to plot a 3-D shape onto a flat piece of paper makes such distortions unavoidable.

The Mercator Projection (right), for example, makes countries closer to the poles appear larger, such that Greenland appears almost as large as Africa despite being about one-fourteenth its size. While Gerardus Mercator originally intended his map to be used solely for navigation, the projection is now virtually ubiquitous, used in thousands of classrooms and even by Google Maps.

In the Mercator Projection, Africa and Southern Asia, since they are located near the Equator, appear smaller than their true sizes. Because these regions are typically thought of as poorer and less influential than the rest of the world, it strikes some as unfair that the world’s wealthier areas should be depicted as larger relative to their poor counterparts.

In 1885, a clergyman named James Gall published a map in the Scottish Geographical Magazine that depicted each country’s size in proportion to the others’. About a hundred years later, cartographer Arno Peters refined Gall’s map into the Gall-Peters projection, which is seen below:

The virtue of the Gall-Peters projection is that it correctly displays each country’s size relative to the sizes of the other countries. So Africa dwarfs Greenland, just as it does in reality, and Western Europe looks much smaller than it does in the Mercator Projection.

So case closed, let’s switch to the Gall-Peters projection, right? Not so fast. Critics of the map point out that although the relative sizes are correct, this projection actually elongates countries near the equator so that they resemble, in the words of one prominent cartographer, “wet, ragged, long winter-underwear hung out to dry.”

Thankfully, plenty of alternatives to the Mercator and Gall-Peters projections exist. Perhaps the most well-known among them is the Winkel tripel projection, which many geographers now believe is the most accurate, least distorting world map in existence. Here it is:

Employing curved lines of latitude and longitude allows the Winkel tripel projection to minimize size and shape distortion. Though countries closer to the poles are still enlarged, this projection is a healthy compromise between Mercator and Gall-Peters.

You’ve probably also seen the Goode homolosine projection, an “interrupted”-type map which displays the world in a series of connected lobes. Though this projection displays the true relative sizes of countries, it comes at the expense of “tearing,” or creating a number of discontinuities on the map. This projection, which gained popularity back in the 1960s, was nicknamed the “orange-peel map” for its resemblance to a hand-peeled orange. The drawback is that it’s not as visually appealing and less user-friendly than most other projections. Take a look:

So, after all this, which is the best map to use? It’s frustrating, but it depends on what you want to emphasize– and what you’re willing to give up. If you want a pretty map to hang on your wall, the Goode homolosine projection (above) is probably not it. If you want to be “socially conscious” by emphasizing how much larger Africa is than Western Europe, the Gall-Peters projection will do the trick. If you’re sailing around the world, stick with ol’ Mercator– and don’t forget the GPS.