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Going Global, Part 3: Shifting to international perspective

As a child growing up in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s, I knew only one map of the world: the Mercator projection that makes the polar regions look bigger, and the equatorial areas smaller, than their actual relative sizes. Usually, the Americas were in the center with eastern Asia and Australia on the left and Europe, Africa and western Asia on the right. Once in a while, I’d see a version that put Europe and Africa in the center, Asia connected to it on the right, and Greenland and the Americas across the Atlantic to the left. That’s the version that most European students my age and older grew up with.

In these maps, Greenland appears to be bigger than Africa. In reality, Africa, at 30,065,000 square kilometers (11,608,161.4 square miles), is 14 times the size of Greenland.

It’s impossible to accurately project a round sphere like the Earth onto a rectangle. Something has to give. In Mercator projections, the shapes of land masses are pretty accurate, but the sizes are wildly distorted.

But in the Peters projection developed much later (in 1974), those distortions are reversed. Land masses show their relative size, but the shapes are barely recognizable. The first time I saw a Peters map, about 30 years ago, it was a shock. It changed the way I think about the world. And I love Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map, centered on the North Pole, which keeps both sizes and shapes of land masses accurate. In Fuller’s map, the world’s land masses appear as a nearly connected chain, surrounded by a single ocean. North America appears as close to Europe as to South America.

Dymaxion, Peters and Mercator are only three of a wide range of global maps. You can make a map that has the top in any direction. The following link, for instance, has several with south at the top, giving prominence to South America, southern Africa and Australia: http://flourish.org/upsidedownmap/.

And since the Earth is a sphere, you can also make a map with the center at any point you like. I’ve seen various maps with Toronto, Tokyo and Mecca at the center.

So — what on Earth does this have to do with profitable green business? Quite a bit, actually.

How we map the world influences our worldview. For European and North American explorers and conquerors, growing up with a view of Africa as smaller than Greenland perhaps made it easier to minimize the many accomplishments of African cultures, dehumanize the dark-skinned people of Africa as inferior — and then intellectually justify the history of imperialism and exploitation that followed. In today’s multicultural world, understanding the importance of the global south helps us remember that, for example, we can’t just ship off our toxic byproducts and bury them in some developing country.

The creativity of maps like these reminds us that simple answers to complex problems such as environmental devastation can be a lot easier to see if we shift our perspective (as we talked about in last month’s column on simple elegance). As an example, when looking at the problem of how to transport people in wheelchairs, one Asian company rejected the model of large, gas-guzzling vans with massively complicated hydraulic lifts and gates in favor of an elegant and lightweight little hatchback that allows a person in a wheelchair to roll right into position, unassisted.

Maps can reveal much more than position. “Heat map”-style infographics can show relative accomplishments, population, natural resources and other factors. Green entrepreneurs can use these as planning tools that take environmental and social factors into consideration.

In short, maps, as windows on the natural and the human-created worlds, serve various purposes. Mercator was an appropriate choice for 17th- and 18th-century sailors wanting the easiest transit between Europe and North America, while Dymaxion is perfect to bring home Fuller’s concept of “Spaceship Earth,” an interconnected single ecosystem.

For a detailed and fascinating look at how maps shape our thinking, I strongly recommend “Seeing Through Maps: Many Ways to See the World,” by Denis Wood, Ward L. Kaiser, and Bob Abramms. http://odtmaps.com/detail.asp_Q_product_id_E_STM-2-BK

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