Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Messed Up Maps
distributed 11/19/04 - ©2004

The terminology of "red and blue states" is now firmly embedded in our language. The phrase comes from the now ubiquitous map allocating US electoral votes.

That map is accurate and useful in answering a specific question: how are the electoral votes of the states divided in a presidential election? For that very limited purpose, the map is a quick and easy reference tool.

Since the election, though -- whether intentionally or unintentionally -- that pervasive map has been conveying a different message, one that is not at all accurate. Now that the prevailing political question is about President Bush's "mandate" in the popular vote, and not about winner-take-all electoral votes, the familiar red-blue map is highly misleading.

To a populace accustomed to bar graphs and other graphic indicators of measurements, the map's display of land area is easily -- and incorrectly -- assumed to represent political clout. The blue-red coding doesn't indicate how close the vote was in any of the states.

When the election-night map is used in discussing the size and passion of the various political constituencies in the US, our impressions are distorted. The immediate, emotional impact of such a map -- even for those who can rationally discuss what the facts say -- suggests that Mr. Bush has the unquestioned support of 80% of the country. The intuitive message of the map is not true by anybody's measurements.

Other maps and graphic tools are available that provide more helpful and accurate information. Some of them (cartograms) adjust the shape of states so their area is proportional to their population -- in those displays, the area covered by blue and red comes out almost even. Others maps use shades of colors between pure red and blue; hues of purple indicate the depth of support given to each candidate.

One cartogram that I saw uses vote totals from the nearly 2,500 counties, and addresses both population size and the strength of majorities. The map looks bizarre, and is hard to analyze at a glance, but its complex strands of mid-range purples are a far better expression of the political mood of the country than the now-familiar and polarized electoral college map. That detailed message is an important corrective to those who are feeling either marginalized or overly-confident in these days after the election.

I urge you to look at some of those map options, and to experience how the way data is displayed triggers strong emotional reactions. Here is one site with good maps and descriptions.

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Maybe I'm just tuned to maps this week, but as I walked through a church the other day, I noticed another map with significant distortions of truth.

The famous "Mercator Projection" world map was immediately familiar. While this kind of map has been useful for navigation since 1600, it dramatically distorts land areas. A note at the bottom of the map -- in very small type -- says that "South America is actually nine times larger than Greenland," but they are shown as about the same size. The visual information is more memorable and compelling than the written clarification.

This particular edition of the world map has another distortion that is not named. As it has been arranged, the United States is visually "the center of the world." In order to get the map to lay out so nicely, the left and right edges of the map have to cut through various sections of Russia, China and India. Countries with over 1/3 of the world's population are sliced in half so that the US can be in the center.

It doesn't have to be that way. If the east and west edges of the map touch the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, the US isn't in the center anymore, but no significant land masses are split. All the continents are left intact if the focus moves off the US.

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Not all maps are printed on paper. We all carry around mental maps -- scientific, philosophical and theological constructions that help us understand where we fit into the world. Just like the printed ones, those mental maps are subject to distortion and misuse.

  • A mental map that is too sharply polarized between red/blue, black/white, good/evil leads us to fear, anger and conflict. A more nuanced view leads to healing and cooperation.

  • A distorted projection of reality can make some facts or issues seem disproportionately important, or insignificantly small. If our mental maps emphasize rapidly-changing headlines instead of long-term trends, we'll fixate on the stock market, and ignore climate change. If our economic maps look at the raw flow of goods and services (the GDP), we get a very different picture than when the social costs and benefits of the economic flow are considered (the GPI).

  • If our mental maps are manipulated to place us -- humanity, a nation, or the self -- at the center of the universe, we will misunderstand most of the relationships that are around us.
Churches can, and should be, communities where our mental maps are analyzed, critiqued and shaped. In communities of faith, we can look at the appropriate center of our commitments, at the shading of our moral categories, and the scale given to various issues and concerns.

When we re-draw our mental maps based on the best insights of our faith traditions, we will re-orient our perspectives, decisions and behaviors. Doing so helps us to serve God and to care for creation in this complex world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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