by Stefano Lechiara
It is known that there is always a certain margin of volatility between reality and its representation. A gap that depends on the limits of the human being, on the medium that is used, on the psychological conditions of the observer, on the objectives that are intended to be pursued, whether expressed or hidden.
The creation of a geographical map is no exception: it does not describe reality, but tells us about it and, in doing so, lingers on those details that it can and wants to represent.
Even the interactive map through which it is possible to consult the many activities carried out in the world by Mani Tese inevitably falls under this logic. It presents an unusual physiognomy, such as to make it appear coarse and comic-like to our eyes. The proportions of size and shape to which we are accustomed jump and the surfaces of the emerged lands seem deformed: some geographical areas seem oversized and others, conversely, are reduced in size, almost “dehydrated”.
Eppure una tale mappatura digitale è stata realizzata a partire da una specifica proiezione matematico-geometrica del nostro pianeta, nota come proiezione “Gall-Peters” o, semplicemente, “Carta di Peters”.
Yet such a digital mapping was created starting from a specific mathematical-geometric projection of our planet, known as the “Gall-Peters” projection or, simply, “Peters Map”.
Just like any other map, Peters’s is obviously not exact but, unlike all the others, it can be called Right.
The Peters projection paper on the Mani Tese website also returns to the Global Citizenship Education activities carried out by the NGO. In this context, the planisphere conceived in the manner of Peters plays in fact a decisive role both from the scenic point of view and from the argumentative point of view. It is therefore worth observing the reasons that led Mani Tese to the conceptual and, in some ways, even strategic adoption of such a (not only) cartographic perspective of our planet.
Peters Map was born in 1973. The stated goal of the German historian Arno Peters, who wanted and supervised its creation, is to replace precisely that classic model so widely used in those years. The traditional model in question, which sees Europe at the center of the world, was designed in 1569 by Geraldus Mercator, a Flemish cartographer. Surprisingly, most of the planispheres still in circulation today, including the interactive maps implemented on the google maps system, derive from that sixteenth-century prototype.
What has been said gives rise to some perplexities: what is the correct map between the two? Again, why is there a certain discretion in choosing? At first we could answer that there are no correct geographies; at least not in absolute terms, but only in relative terms.
Mercator and Peters maps are both correct in some ways and therefore incorrect in some other way. The reason for this is to be found in the spherical-geodesic form of our planet. Transposing an ellipsoidal geometric shape on a flat and two-dimensional surface always implies the inevitable distortion of its three-dimensional peculiarities. Whatever system or artifice is adopted in the transposition, the result will always be a distorted planisphere and orphan of details: maintaining certain characteristics is equivalent to losing certain others. It all depends on the choice of the cartographer who, according to his objectives, will have to decide what to save and what to sacrifice.
It is on the basis of these assumptions that we can, in part, understand the centuries-old hegemony of the Mercator planisphere. The goal of the cartographer was to create a map that would facilitate the tracing of nautical routes along land surfaces. To achieve this, the earth is divided into a series of straight horizontal (parallel) and vertical lines (meridians). Each parallel – and in this lies the element of novelty and effectiveness – is traced in such a way as to cut all the meridians on the same angle (in other words, meridians and parallels always cross at 90°). This sophistication is able to generate a coordinate system for navigation: tracing a “rhumb line” (straight line that cuts the meridians) it will be possible to reach a date destination keeping constant the angle on the compass.
If an immediate advantage due to the isogony property of the paper is the extreme and surprising effectiveness of its use in the nautical field, the side effect that derives from it consists, however, in the double loss of equidistance and equivalence.
As it can be deduced from the image, the meridians are not traced so as to be confluent with the poles (as in reality) but, in order to guarantee the isogony, they remain parallel to each other. The result is that as the Equator heads towards the North Pole, the lands represented unrealistically increase their surface: the bogus gigantism of Greenland is the most tangible example.
If such a discrepancy finds a first justification in the technical-instrumental function to which the map must fulfill, the severity of the disproportion refers, instead, to socio-cultural reasons.
For a sixteenth-century navigator, who approaches the “New World” with the look of a predator going to unknown lands, embarking on an oceanic crossing means accepting the unknown of unexpected landings. The starting point, however, must always remain the same: Europe. The Old Continent is more than a solid geographical reference point. It is also a pristine value horizon, a reassuring paradigm to defend and, above all, to export.
Certainly not immune from certain “cultural presumptions”, instead of keeping the Equator in a central position, Mercator chooses to place Europe graphically at the center of the map. Europe thus becomes the point that cuts the globe in two exact halves, with the inevitable consequence of a displacement of the Equator lower.
This choice proves to be decisive since it contributes to make the distortion of the proportions more drastic. It follows that all areas of the southern hemisphere are restricted, while all areas located in the northern hemisphere are dilated, even more than they already are due to the isogonic property of the map.
This is the reason why if on the one hand Greenland, Canada, the United States and Russia, for example, appear to be erroneously immense, on the other South America, Africa and India are much less extensive than they are.
Mercator map triumphs because, while sacrificing the exact extension of the areas, it respects the shapes of continents and countries with great accuracy, therefore it provides a grid of coordinates that proves to be optimal for nautical orientation. It’s not all. It could be objected that all this is not sufficient to justify its use even in those contexts that have nothing to do with the nautical environment. Unless we believe that the goal of school education is the preparation of a host of future sailors, we do not see why Mercator should stand out, for example, in classes of all levels all over the world.
The secularization of this charter will therefore depend on deeper reasons. The coherent development of such an intuition is mainly due to the sensitivity and tenacity of Arno Peters, a German historian operating in the second half of the last century.
He notes that the cartographic deformation of Mercator, which favors certain countries in terms of centrality and size to the detriment of others, has gradually become rooted just as, over time, the same countries that are graphically magnified undertake processes of conquest and exploitation to the detriment of those who, incidentally, appear shrunken, isolated and, in some way, in a position of implicit subordination.
The success of the Mercator Charter, according to Peters, reflects, at first, the Eurocentric conception with which “modernity” opens. A caesura in human history in which, moreover, science and technology begin to be instrumental in the spread of an ideology based on the domination of man over the other man and, at the same time, of men over nature. Europe places itself and its cultural identity and needs at the center of the world. The geographical image of a centrally located Europe with a South at its feet is fully superimposable to the historical image of an imperialist Europe which, with violence and arrogance, bends the global periphery that defines it to its will: South America, Africa, Asia and, finally, all those peoples who, although in the “north”, are non-European ethnic minorities.
As Arno Peters himself explains, in fact, the Eurocentric image proved functional to the exploitation of the “Third World” by the industrialized powers even in the post-colonial era. Since “the struggle to replace the old map turns into the struggle against the ideology of exploitation”, Peters thinks the time has come to create a map that can restore to the global South that cartographic dignity that belongs to it by right.
In the Peters Map, as you can easily guess, the Equator is relocated to the center of the world so that it can finally cut the planet into two equal halves. Secondly, meridians and parallels are reconfigured in such a way that as the latitude increases, the surface of the areas remains constant, without dilating. Geographically, the advantageous features of its projection are manifold: equidistance; equivalence; loyalty to the earth’s axis; total representation of the planet without the need to make cuts, joints, duplications; homogeneous distribution of the inevitable imperfections; distinctive colors for every continent and country.
The Peters projection map renders exactly the relative proportions of the various continents, respecting the actual dimensions and their distance from the Equator. However, it cannot help but distort its shapes which, in fact, are altered.
Despite this intrinsic difficulty, Peters’ work has a revolutionary significance, not only when it returns an unprecedented perspective of our world, but above all when it clears a truth hitherto unknown to customs: from Anaximander to the present day, no geographical map can boast claims of scientific objectivity or ideological neutrality.
A second element of innovation is due to the new map’s ability to denounce the propaganda ambitions that lie behind the old map.
In the collective imagination, the irresistible unconscious temptation to believe that the more extended a State is, the more important it is, and therefore that its expansion in political and economic terms is legitimate, almost physiological. In the Mercator concept, Europe is at the center and the rest of the world is considered to be the extension of its offshoots. By comparing the Mercator map and the one in Peters projection we realize how the centrality of certain areas and their relative size are a geographical lie. The following image can help you understand it:
From the comparison between the two maps we discover that: Greenland, whose area appeared roughly equivalent to that of Africa, turns out to be, in reality, 14 times smaller; Europe is no bigger than South America since this, with its 17.8 million km² is double than the Old Continent (9.7 million km²); India, which in Mercator appears much less extensive than Scandinavia turns out to be three times larger; Italy is by no means wider than Somalia but, in comparison, occupies half of the space; Brazil alone is as large as the USA.
We thus realize that Africa is probably the most damaged by the historical predominance of the Mercator Charter. In the classical projection, Africa appears, at best, of equivalent size compared to those continents and countries that, historically, have made and continue to make the former a basin from which to draw on natural resources and slave labor.
Ultimately, in Peters’ exegesis, the Mercator Charter is only an ideological vehicle aimed at affirming, in a subliminal way, the pretended superiority of some Nations and thus justifying their supremacy over those less “advanced” realities. Continents and countries in the southern part of the world are drastically reduced in relation to the surface and, moreover, they are crushed downwards, as if to evoke a certain marginality and subordination, which potentially feeds prejudices and favors the progressive acceptance of a colonial logic.
Thus, in the intentions of Arno Peters, the diffusion of a new charter goes hand in hand with the diffusion of a sensitivity aimed at affirming the equality of each people in accessing rights, justice and development opportunities. On the socio-cultural level, that is, the Peters Map dismisses the geopolitical privilege of certain superpowers and places industrialized countries and developing countries on the same level, setting aside any geographic bank that could feed dichotomies and disparities. The rethink that is obtained by observing the Peters Map is that, in fact, since there is not a single country in the center (i.e. the superpower on duty), no people can claim exclusivity and importance, but all have equal dignity.
As you can guess, the reasons that prompted Mani Tese to acquire Peters’ perspective are linked to the transformative potential that it releases. Despite his cartographic ambition is still struggling to take off today, also because of the technical inaccuracies that its projection entails, it must be recognized that the lesson that underlies it remains current and, above all, consistent with our vision.
Since its origin, which took place in the midst of the “economic boom” and the “Cold War”, Mani Tese immediately understood the need for a change of pace and therefore intended to extend its commitment to justice towards equity, the harmony between peoples, the transversal diffusion of rights, the protection of minorities, nonviolence, the specific right of everyone to “not be left behind”, the human and environmental sustainability of economic activities.
This vocation has allowed Mani Tese to structure its strategic action in function of a Justice that wherever it is promoted and applied (society, economy, environment) is understood above all as a tension towards equality: all human beings, regardless of their geographical location, they deserve the same opportunities and, above all, they deserve to be put in a position to exercise their autonomy in any field, without having to depend on “deformed” development models imposed from outside or from above.
Development cooperation means, today more than ever, making substantive the impartial and equal model of human coexistence predelected by Peters in his planisphere. It also means fighting against the persistence of that same logic of selective justice which wants some people in a position of privilege and others in a condition of subordination and minority. It means, again, to contrast those macro-economic dynamics that, even today, are compatible with a vision of a two-speed world of Eurocentric memory. Peters exemplifies our refusal with respect to an “ideology of development” that runs on purely economic rails and which, in continuing to guarantee a (false) prosperity for use and consumption by the usual countries, severely damages ethnic minorities and impoverished communities on which it downloads the environmental, social and human cost of one’s misleading idea of progress.
We therefore believe that the appeal of the German historian to consider the world in a new light is not only still valid but even urgent. We cultivate his warning when, in the development cooperation projects that we take charge of, precisely in three of the continents south of the world: we oppose modern slavery trying to prevent that spiral that leads to human enslavement for economic profit; we spread virtuous practices related to food sovereignty thus strengthening the social ties of the communities and laying the foundations for their progressive emancipation from the yoke imposed by the international giants; we denounce the depletion of the natural resources of Africans, South Americans and Asians, and the consequent hoarding of their development possibilities; we try to contrast those dynamics of poverty that envelop villages, break up societies and create atomized individuals forced to undertake dangerous migrations with little prospect of survival.
Finally, Peters’ perspective is not only something that graphically exemplifies, accompanies or corroborates the development processes that Mani Tese implements in the three continents in which it operates. Peters’ charter is a paradigm from which to move in order to articulate a change that involves, above all, our own lifestyles and, more generally, the way in which we “Westerners” perceive the world and act accordingly. In Mani Tese’s vision, the belief that there is an indispensable relationship between development cooperation and development education is structural, such that one activity could not be thought of without the support of the other. This is why we have always dedicated ourselves, on this “side of the Equator”, to awareness-raising activities, campaigns and Global Citizenship Education (ECG).
ECG consists of the proposal of learning paths aimed at transmitting transversal skills of active citizenship. Within this line of work, the Peters Map assumes the dignity of a unique educational tool. In our vision, the processes of “active” education cannot be separated from a maieutic methodology. In other words, the parties involved are called to take participatory and circular paths which, once the most contradictory aspects connected to current affairs are problematic, aim to transform the participants into actors of change. The Peters projection planisphere becomes an instrument of extraordinary efficacy because it is able to perform two complementary functions in the maieutic process: in “negative”, it allows to carry out a perspective reversal of those Eurocentric presumptions that have settled in our consciences and for this reason, it facilitates the activation of the subjects towards the construction of a globalized society in rights, solidarity, inclusive, open and sustainable.
Many educational courses take place within our national headquarters where there is an interactive educational installation which, in alternating simulation moments with group games, exploratory activities, guided debates and brainstorming, aims to stimulate not only participants’ “head“, but also “heart” and “hands“.
At the beginning of each ludic-didactic path, the participating children are invited, after a round of presentations, to sit in a circle on a large planisphere made with wooden pallets and the animators who conduct the activity ask the children to observe it with particular caution. It is precisely the Peters planisphere. At first glance it looks like a classic world map hanging in all Italian classes, but slowly some people start to notice the differences: “Africa is at the center!”, “It’s too big!”, “Greenland is too small in this paper!”, ” the shapes of the continents are elongated!”. This is the first phase, that of “overturning”. The planisphere they are sitting on becomes a key element which, as we said, highlights the contradictions linked to our perception of the Earth and the distance between that perception and reality. In the course of the activity it is possible to find out how the traditional geographical map has really contributed to shaping the way we perceive the world in a broad sense: their adolescent imagery is colonized by literary, cinematographic, existential models that are purely Eurocentric or, in any case, “Westernists”. In fact, we discover that few boys feel the desire to visit an African state, on the contrary most boys express the desire to travel to North America and would never confuse the United States with Canada or Mexico.
This first phase of prospective reversal is followed by the phases of “discovery” and “activation”. Children are therefore invited to put aside their habits, their stereotypes, their certainties for a few hours. They are proposed to consider the world as a whole and regional interdependence. The imbalances in the distribution of food and wealth are reproduced on the world map. Participants thus travel to discover natural elements, take note of the fact that the over-exploitation of natural resources violates nature and damages entire populations.
At the end of the cycle, there is a time when young people are called to express themselves on the possibilities of transforming negativity starting from the rethinking of certain individual and social behaviors. Thinking about the world in its entirety, in Peters’s way, essentially means reaching the awareness that every choice we make has a more or less impacting effect on a global scale. We realize that our consumption and lifestyles can indirectly support widespread violations of human and environmental rights but, precisely for this reason, they can be rethought and therefore give rise to a qualitative change in conflicts. Through Peters, therefore, our paths aim at empowerment, so that each of us can become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Just take a broader look, generous in perspective and forward-looking in choices.
It must be said that, unfortunately, not many people understand the educational significance of Peters’ perspective. Only recently, in an article published in The Guardian, is there news that in all the Boston schools the Mercator Card has been replaced with that of Peters.