Xenophanes of Colophon, a philosopher of the Ancient Greece, used to say that if horses had to depict God, they would draw the shapes of God to look like horses. When we Europeans imagine the Earth, we also draw our own forms, and our maps depict Europe in the very middle, with a significant size. And it is often more significant than real.
Then, which is the real size of our continent? It is said that the Earth is a sphere flattened along the axis from pole to pole, but this is quite an exaggeration because the difference between the polar radius and the equatorial radius is just 21 km. Therefore, as we live in a pretty regular spherical planet, it is difficult to draw it in two dimensions on a piece of paper. Geographers and mathematicians have been long trying new forms to draw the Earth as realistically as possible, but we cannot deny the obvious: 3D objects are always somehow deformed when transferred as 2D images.
In 1974, the German film-maker Arno Peters became well-known for a new map projection, in which the areas of countries were more realistic than in the widely-used planet depiction drawn by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator 400 years ago. The UNESCO and most NGOs immediately adopted this new map because it depicts the Third World in a larger scale, so the distribution of wealth between North and South is even more unfair than what we thought. Although this new map has not become widely established, it makes us realise that the world can be represented in a different way and maybe we should change our own perception.
Let’s take a look at data. If we compare Europe with the largest countries in the world, there are six (Russia, Canada, United States, China, Brazil and Australia) which are larger than our EU27, with a total area of just 4,324,782 km2. Russia, which is the largest country in our planet, is 4 times larger than Europe. The UE could perfectly fit within the island of Australia.
There is a good exercise to better understand that our continent is not so large: just take a world map, cut out Chile (which ranks number 38, so it does not seem to be very large) and place it over Europe: one end is on the north of Sweden and the other end reaches… the Sahara desert!
It goes without saying that size does not matter, though.
- Xenophanes of Colophon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophanes
- The first world maps: http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/
- Article about map projection: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map_projection
- Graphical comparison between Peters and Mercator world maps: http://www.elpais.com/graficos/internacional/Representaciones/mapamundi/elpgraint/20100318elpepuint_1/Ges/
- Other possible projections: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Netzentwuerfe.png
- CIA’s estimates about the areas of countries: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2147rank.html
- Graphical comparison between Australia and other countries: http://www.thekeenans.id.au/images/Australia-comparison.jpg