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Explanation & Guide of the Peters World Map

The Peters Projection World Map is one of the most stimulating, and controversial, images of the world. When this map was first introduced by historian and cartographer Dr. Arno Peters at a Press Conference in Germany in 1974 it generated a firestorm of debate. The first English-version of the map was published in 1983, and it continues to have passionate fans as well as staunch detractors.

The earth is round. The challenge of any world map is to represent a round earth on a flat surface. There are literally thousands of map projections. Each has certain strengths and corresponding weaknesses. Choosing among them is an exercise in values clarification: you have to decide what's important to you. That is generally determined by the way you intend to use the map.

The Mercator Projection
Ther Mercator Projection
Adapted from A New View of the World. See references below.

Let's look at the challenge of understanding map projections. Imagine a light bulb in the center of a globe of the earth. Then wrap the earth in a cylinder, cone, or "project" it onto a plane beneath one of the poles. An early cylindrical map projection was created in 1569 by Mercator (who's name was actually Gerhard Kremer, 1512-1594).

Mercator's projection (created at a time when navigators were sailing on the oceans in wooden ships, powered by the wind, and navigating by the stars) was particularly useful because straight lines on his projection were lines of constant compass bearing. Today the Mercator projection still remains useful for navigational purposes and is referred to by seafarers and airline pilots.

The Mercator is also a "conformal" map projection. This means that it shows shapes pretty much the way they appear on the globe. The mapmaker's dilemma is that you cannot show both shape and size accurately. If you want a true shape for the land masses you will necessarily sacrifice proportionality, i.e., the relative sizes will be distorted.

Greenland: 0.8 million sq. miles
A New View of the World map
Africa: 11.6 million sq. miles
Adapted from A New View of the World. See references below.

The Mercator projection creates increasing distortions of size as you move away from the equator. As you get closer to the poles the distortion becomes severe. Cartographers refer to the inability to compare size on a Mercator projection as "the Greenland Problem." Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa, yet Africa's land mass is actually fourteen times larger (see figure below right). Because the Mercator distorts size so much at the poles it is common to crop Antarctica off the map. This practice results in the Northern Hemisphere appearing much larger than it really is. Typically, the cropping technique results in a map showing the equator about 60% of the way down the map, diminishing the size and importance of the developing countries.

This was  convenient, psychologically and practically, through the eras of colonial domination when most of the world powers were European. It suited them to maintain an image of the world with Europe at the  center and looking much larger than it really was. Was this conscious or deliberate? Probably not, as most map users probably never realized the Eurocentric bias inherent in their world view. When there are so many other projections to chose from, why is it that today the Mercator projection is still such a widely recognized image used to represent the globe? The answer may be simply convention or habit. The inertia of habit is a powerful force.

A different type of projection is an "Equal-Area" projection. This shows sizes in proportion while sacrificing true shape. The Peters Projection is one type of equal area map. Is it the only one? No, there are hundreds of others, but only a handful of others are in common use. The Mollweide projection, developed in 1805, is commonly used for displaying distributions (people, telecommunications equipment, the world's religions, etc). Karl B. Mollweide (1774-1825) specifically sought to improve upon the weaknesses of the Mercator  projection. The Eckert IV is another equal area projection developed in the 1920's by Max Eckert (1868-1938). This has the advantage of less shape distortion near the equator and the poles. A fourth equal-area map is Goode's Homolosine created in 1921 by J. Paul Goode (1862-1932). This interrupted map looks like an orange peel (see figure below) and has less shape distortion than the other equal area maps.

Is one projection "better" than another? No! There are simply different ones for different purposes. The Peters projection is commonly used in contrast to a Mercator projection, and is visually engaging because it is so jarringly different. At ODT, Inc. we prefer it above other equal area projections because it shocks viewers into questioning their assumptions, about maps specifically and about life in general. It helps people to "think outside of the box" by exploring how what they see is predicated on what they expect to see.

ODT, Inc. has been involved in exploring the biases in perception as they occur in a variety of business contexts: performance appraisal, strategy & planning, market research, corporate culture change, and leadership development. Our management training and cultural diversity programs are designed to help people recognize that there are many different valid points of view. People can communicate better with others when they recognize that there are many perspectives from which to view the world. When you believe that your own view is the only valid one, you cut off effective communication with others who may not share your cultural assumptions and perspective.





Eckert IV

Goode's Homolosine

Eckert IV

Goode's Homolosine


See The Nystrom Desk Atlas 
(References below)

Other projections in use today include "Compromise" ones: projections that try to show shapes more or less as they are on the globe without distorting relative sizes too badly. The Van der Grinten projection was developed in 1904 and was the official projection of the National Geographic Society from 1922 to 1988. From 1988 to 1998 the National Geographic Society used the Robinson projection (created in 1963 by Arthur H. Robinson). Recently the National Geographic Society adopted the Winkel Tripel  projection. Oswald Winkel developed this projection in 1921, and it has the advantage of minimizing shape distortion in the polar areas.

Van der Grinten


Winkel Tripel

Van der Grinten


Winkel Tripel


See The Nystrom Desk Atlas

(References below)

The implications of any projection are enormous. Images we see shape our perceptions of the world.  It's enriching to see a variety of points-of-view. Have you ever seen a map with Australia on top?  The Upside-Down world map comes in a variety of projections, but reverses the poles. Whoever said that North must be "up"? Maps are based on a variety of assumptions, most of which are subliminal and below our threshold of consciousness. We hope all students will benefit from challenging implicit assumptions and deciding for themselves what maps of the world are valid and useful for them.

The World
1988 Maps International Inc. Available from ODT Inc.
NOTE: This version of the upside down map is NOT a Peters Projection. Rather it is portrayed with south at the top via a Van der Grinten projection, which is in a class of maps known as "compromise" projections.
This particular upside down map is colorful, visually engaging, and has all the flags of the countries of the world around the border. The upside down map in a Peters Projection (as seen on West Wing) is not available.

World mission and aid-giving agencies use the Peters map because it serves to represent the developing countries at their true proportion. People feel pride in their country when its relative size is shown accurately. The Peters map has been widely adopted elsewhere, but remains a curiosity in the United States. Why is this? Among related factors are these: (1) our resistance to join the rest of the world on the metric system (even the British have changed from inches and fahrenheit to centimeters and celsius), (2) national surveys showing U.S. schoolchildren have among the lowest levels of geography awareness of all developed nations, and  (3) many professional cartographers have resented the "politicization" of their field. Arno Peters was one of the first to assert that maps are unavoidably political.

All projections possess desirable but mutually exclusive attributes. As we mentioned earlier, no single projection can show both size and shape. We hope you'll explore many different points of view. Lots of great free materials are available from the US Geological Survey. They are at 1-800-USA-MAPS and have a fax-on-demand system at 1-703-648-4888. Check out their web site at www.USGS.gov.  The National Geographic Society has materials at www.nationalgeographic.com. Also check out www.terraserver.com and www.NystromNet.com. For questions regarding the Peters map, please call the ODT teacher support hot-line at 1-800-736-1293.


"Rock Your World," Jennifer J. Salopek, Training & Development, March, 1999, pages 54 - 55.

"The Peters Map: A Powerful Tool for Diversity Training," Dianne LaMountain, Managing Diversity, January, 1999, pages 5 & 8.

A New View of the World: A Handbook to the World Map - Peters Projection, Ward Kaiser, 1st Edition, 1987, 2nd edition (in press), ODT, Inc., Amherst MA (1-800-736-1293).  

The Nystrom Desk Atlas, 1999 edition, pages 138 - 139. Available from Herff Jones, Inc., Chicago IL  (1-800-621-8086).

"Mapping a route to a better understanding of our world," Editorial from Asheville Citizen-Times, August 12, 1999, page A-6.

Flattening the Earth: Two Thousand Years of Map Projections, John P. Snyder, 1993, Univ. of Chicago Press, pages 108 - 109, 156 - 157, and 165 - 166.

"Impetus to Awareness," Ward Kaiser, in the Cultural Diversity Fieldbook, 1996, Petersons Publishing, pages 180 - 183.

The Power of Maps, Denis Wood, with John Fels, 1992, The Guilford Press, pages 58-60, 190.

"A good map is (easy) to find," Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1999m pages 11,14-15





The Peters projection is commonly used in contrast to a Mercator projection, and is visually engaging because it is so jarringly different.






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