Thursday, October 2, 2008

Maps

I've always been fascinated by maps. As a kid, whenever we were on a road trip I would love to trace our route and note the things we might see along the way (I still do this now). Recently I've been following the election polls and examining the "electoral map" of the United States, noting which states turn "blue" or "red" with different public opinion polls (www.fivethirtyeight.com is my favorite site for this). Yet there are things about maps that are deceiving. For instance; on a world map North American and Europe are always at the top? As our planet floats in space is there any real objective way to say that North is up? Yes it could be a matter of aesthetics, but I think it mostly is a product of perspective. We who are wealthy and strong want to see our homes at the top of the map. You might also notice the way that taking a round globe and putting on a flat map distorts some of the preportions of the globe (is Greenland really almost as big as Africa? No, its only about 40% the land mass [see also Australia).

The subjectivity of our perspective can fundamentally alter the way we think. Hard data is not that hard to the human mind. Consider the fears we might have of terrorism, kidnappings, or freak accidents to our apathy about the mundane things that are more likely to prematurely kill us: heart disease, cancer, drunk driving, driving while texting. The odds are astronomically greater that the donuts I had for breakfast is the more likelier cause of my death than gang crossfire. But you wouldn't know it the way we talk about what scares us.

So as we consider the great threats we face in the United States of turmoil in our pocket books as well as geopolitical turmoil, it would do us well to try and get some perspective. Take a look at these maps.


This is our planet as it appears geographically. But look below as the map is altered to reflect what people suffered the greatest casualties of warfare in the 2oth century.


Its not hard to see how Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have suffered the most catastrophic war-time suffering even when you account for the devastation of Europe in WWII. Consider now what the future of global economics might hold...

This is a projection of the distribution of wealth through 2015. Notice that even though India and East Asia project to grow enormously, Europe and the U.S. still maintain a huge portion of wealth-- and Africa remains far behind.

I posit all of this to say, for us in the United States, all the fear we may experience as it relates to financial and national security might be overstated. It might be that the reality of our situation is not that we're "crashing", but that we're coming back down to earth. We've been insulated from so long from the violence and poverty of the rest of the planet that the economic and political troubles of our day feel more threatening than they really are. Don't get me wrong, I know things are tough for a lot of people-- many Americans are suffering the burdens of medical debt, unemployment/underemployment, or fear for a loved one deployed in a war zone. All I suggest is that as the world gets smaller, each of us should expand our outlook to consider not just quality of life here in America--but all over our small world.

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