Mapping the Anthropocene

The 5th of March 2012 marks the 500th birthday of Gerardus Mercator, the creator of the world map that profoundly changed our views of the world. He was not the only one who worked on a conformal map projection in the 16th century, which was still an age of exploration and discovery. But he was the first to do the maths right and complete a world map that allowed ships to navigate around the planet by its ability to represent lines of constant course. That makes the Mercator projection a milestone in the history of cartography and remains one of the central map projections up to the present day.
The Mercator projection, however, is not always the most appropriate projection. It is useful in nautical issues, but far less suitable for map purposes in which distances or areas are in the centre of interest. When misunderstood, using a Mercator projection can even lead to some awkward misinterpretations: An infamous example is a map drawn by The Economist showing North Korean missile ranges drawn in circles on a Mercator map.
A vast amount of projections has been developed since Mercator released his iconic map in 1569, mostly trying to find the optimal solution to “preserve some properties of the sphere-like body” (see a comprehensive overview of map projections at Wikipedia). Far less consideration so far has been given to the question of different spaces. The spatial turn has been widely discussed, not only in the circles of human geography. Far less thoughts have been spent on an adequate visual representations of new understandings of space as a result of processes of globalisation and global change.
Geologists and environmental scientists have shaped the term Anthropocene for the impact that humanity has on the physical environment. Crutzen speaks of the geology of mankind, which highlights the relevance that our species has in the transformation of nature. The concept has also found a wider attention in the media recently (see e.g. these articles from the BBC and the NYT), showing that the issues related to the idea are becoming ever more pressing for the future of humanity. As stated in the New York Times, “Humans were inevitably going to be part of the fossil record. But the true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment — from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean.”
Cartography appears to be predestined to show these issues in visual form on maps. The educational Globaia project is one interesting example that produced some stunning imagery of human activity. Like other maps, it uses conventional map depictions in its approach, which may help in understanding the underlying issues, but is not particularly novel. The claim that I made as a result of my doctoral research is that we also need new cartographic concepts to fully understand the full extent of human-environment relationship and to fully comprehend the age of humankind. Mercator had a great impact to lead us into a globalised world, but we are no longer in an age of exploring unknown places, rather than an age of discovering alternative pathways into our own future.
In my plenary speech to the Population Specialty Group at this year’s AAG conference in New York City I showed a map that was made in collaboration with Globaia, showing some key indicators of human activity on the planet projected on a gridded population cartogram projection. The following map shows one example for such an attempt to redraw the impact of humanity on those spaces where people live. The map gives equal space to every person living on the planet, while preserving the geographical reference of the additional layers that are shown on the map. The issues depicted in the map include night lights, major roads, railways, power lines, pipelines, overseas cables, air lines and shipping lanes (see a full account of the data on the Globaia website). Many of the issues have been shown as individual maps on this website or in my PhD thesis, but this map brings some of the key aspects of human (inter)activity on earth together and shows them on an equal population projection:

The Human Shape of the Anthropocene - a gridded population cartogram(click for larger view)

My talk concluded in a slightly bold manner: Is it too much of an aspiration to take the chance of celebrating Mercator’s 500th birthday by changing our mental map of the world from one that guides ships to one that guides our journey into a more sustainable future for humanity?
Mercator’s map was a great achievement, but we should not forget to move on and find new ways of thinking about our world. A map cannot change the world, but maps can change the way we view the world. It is about time to change our views to see how we can live our lives a bit less stupid to make our impact a bit more sustainable, and create a more equal world for every person living on this planet. Gridded cartograms are not the only way to draw new maps, but stand for one possibility to rethink our view of the world. A gridded population cartogram can therefore be one new basemap for a cartography of the Anthropocene.

The content on this page has been created by Benjamin D. Hennig. You are free use the material under Creative Commons conditions (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0); please contact me for further details. I also appreciate a message if you used my maps somewhere else. High resolution and customized maps are available on request.