Turning the World Upside Down: How Frames of Reference Shape Environmental Law

Article excerpt



In 1569, the Flemish geographer, Geradus Mercator, published a new type of map. His innovation placed the Equator as its standard parallel, making lines of latitude and longitude intersect at right angles to one another. (1) Previous cartographers had realized that the Earth was round and placed continents as best they could but, as the Mappa Mundi of 1449 shown below makes clear, their maps were of no practical use with regard to the ocean. (2)


The Mercator Projection was particularly well-suited to its time because it allowed navigators to determine lines of constant true direction--the compass direction on the map connecting two points was the same compass direction that a ship would follow at sea. (3) At a time of maritime empires, far-flung voyages, and exploration, this map was just what captains needed to cross an ocean. Mercator's vision has endured and remains the standard map on classroom walls around the world, the conventional and accurate means to portray the surface of the Earth. (4)


At least that's the story, but it's not really true.

While maintaining accurate geographic direction between lines of latitude and longitude, the Mercator Projection map quickly starts to distort areas and shapes once one moves north or south from the Equator. (5) Consider, for example, the exchange on the popular TV show The West Wing White House staffers C.J. Cregg and Josh Lyman with Professor Sayles and his well-intentioned colleagues in the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality, who want the White House to replace the Mercator Projection map in classrooms with the more accurate Peters Projection map:

SAYLES: [Showing the Mercator Projection map on the screen] Here we have Europe drawn considerably larger than South America when at 6.9 million square miles South America is almost double the size of Europe's 3.8 million.

HUKE: Alaska appears three times as large as Mexico, when Mexico is larger by .1 million square miles.

SAYLES: Germany appears in the middle of the map when it's in the northernmost quarter of the Earth.

JOSH: Wait, wait. Relative size is one thing, but you're telling me that Germany isn't where we think it is?

FALLOW: Nothing's where you think it is.

C.J.: Where is it?

FALLOW: When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern ... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

C.J.: But ... wait. How ... Where else could you put the Northern Hemisphere but on the top?

SAYLES: On the bottom.

C.J.: How?

FALLOW: Like this.

[The map is flipped over.]

C.J.: Yeah, but you can't do that.

FALLOW: Why not?

C.J.: 'Cause it's freaking me out. (6)


C.J. is understandably upset when her world is turned upside down, but there is no obvious reason why the map should have north on top or, for that matter, be centered along the Equator. Indeed, the first question posed by professors in introductory geography courses often is the simple yet disarming, "Why is north up?" (8) The Mappa Mundi shown on the first page of this Article, for example, had south on top. Or imagine a map with the North Pole at the middle, projected outward from the Arctic. (9) This projection is disorienting. Finding Alaska takes some time.


In the past, this projection was largely irrelevant or a simple curiosity. The melting of the ice cap along with the continued discovery of natural resources at the North Pole, however, has made this projection increasingly relevant for understanding rapidly evolving geopolitics. …