A Matter of Perspective

Maps of the world from Worldmapper

One of the most familiar maps of the world is the Mercator projection. A problem with this projection is that it exaggerates the areas of lands that are close to the poles. The distortion arises because there isn’t much area at the top and bottom of a globe, but there is a large area at the top and bottom of a sheet of paper. The Mercator projection stretches the small areas on the globe to fill in the big areas on the map. The closer a territory is to one of the poles, the more it has to be stretched.

There are other ways to project a globe onto a sheet of paper. One of these is the Gall-Peters projection, which produces a map that correctly shows the relative sizes of all of the countries. This projection has to do some stretching and squeezing of its own, so the shapes of the countries aren’t quite the familiar ones. However, they’re not so strange that we can’t easily identify them. Here is the Gall-Peters projection:

Gall-Peters projection of the world, showing the true relative areas of the world
Gall-Peters projection of the world, showing the true relative areas of the world

The people at Worldmapper wondered what would happen if they did some stretching and squeezing of our own. Starting with the Gall-Peters projection, they rescaled each country in proportion to some non-geographical criterion. Two of their maps relate to changes in material well-being over time. The first scales areas according to per capita output in 1500, and the second scales areas according to per capita output in 2002.1

Countries resized according to per capita GDP in 1500
Countries resized according to per capita GDP in 1500
Countries resized according to per capita GDP in 2002
Countries resized according to per capita GDP in 2002

The big winners after five centuries are the Western European countries, the neo-Europes, and Japan. The big losers are countries on the Asian and African continents. There is also some conspicuous re-sizing among the countries of Western Europe. Spain and Italy, wealthy in 1500 and fairly wealthy in 2002, seem to retain their size, while the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands swell. Eastern Europe tends to shrink.


  1. This exercise requires them to play around with exchange rates, which are often buffeted by large shifts in financial capital. Economists try to element the influence of capital movements by replacing the actual exchange rates with purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates, which are the exchange rates that would give a person the same purchasing power in different countries. Worldmapper has followed suit.