Sunday, August 19, 2007

Small world, big questions

I'm fascinated by maps. This is partially because I love travelling. I can become entirely absorbed in an atlas, on some occasions completely oblivious to what's going on around me. Maps can also make us oblivious to what is happening around us, in the world that the maps purport to represent. But they are also revealing of what is happening in the world around us. They appear in a static form, a snapshot of a particular understanding of how the world is structured, but in fact maps are constantly changing - new countries appear occasionally, and sometimes disappear, areas are disputed, borders redrawn, areas that were considered part of one country become independent countries in their own right, while pieces of land half way around the world are 'part' of another country, that 'owns' it as a colony, or a 'dependency' or 'territory' or some other term, all of which have different political connotations. Countries are invaded, or change from disputed to (nominally) resolved. Names change. Heights, lengths, areas and depths are recalculated and altered, and may continue to be disputed.

But a map often gives the impression that either none of this is happening, that its current representation is authoritative and final, or it points to only a few instances of dispute or unresolved territorial conflict, while ignoring others, and givng the impression that most of the world is free of such disputes and there are just a couple of anomalies remaining to be resolved. In particular, the static nature of maps ignore, per necessity, the often enormous changes that have occurred in the past, even the very recent past - current countries that were previously colonies, areas that have achieved independence or lost it, annexations, changes through wars of conquest, 'handing back' of territories to their residents or to other 'owners', the rise and collapse of empires. I suspect the static nature of maps encourages people to forget that things were not always as they are currently depicted, and that things are currently changing and could change again in the future.

Also we tend to see maps a lot at certain times of our lives, such as in school, or when there are wars or disasters and maps appear on the news. This I suspect affects us in different ways. The maps we see at school, when most of us also learn geography, possibly also influence us more than later changes - this is when our fundamental idea of how the world is arranged and divided up is formed, and later changes are made to that mental map, it is not relearnt from scratch or redrawn. This may also make us give less importance to countries that have 'appeared' since our school days or original map-learning. Seeing maps on the news is usually in connection with wars or natural disasters. If an area appears in the news a lot I think there may be a tendency to exaggerate its size or importance - a classic example is Israel, which is almost identical in size to Wales, yet may be misperceived as being quite large. The size of Israel's neighbours may be simultaneously easily underestimated, as they generally appear as bits around the edge of a map of Israel, and are often not fully shown - for example, Saudi Arabia is much larger than Israel. Wales seems to appear in the news much less often than Israel, and personally I have a much less definite picture of its shape, it is more a rough outline in my mind - and this is despite living right next to Wales, in Ireland.

Another major feature of maps is that the political maps subtly support the idea of nation states or countries with defined borders, names and capital cities as a basic, almost 'natural' form of division of the world, its natural features and people. We are used to seeing these divisions on maps, taking up every inch of the world, and again the disputed areas seem anomalous, almost weird - areas where these divisions haven't been decided must surely soon follow suit, and indeed most of the disputes are aiming towards that type of resolution. It would appear odd to most people if there were areas on maps that were not ringed by the dotted lines of national borders, that were noted as 'common land' or belonging to the whole world, or to people, or not to people at all but to animals or the other species that live there. Places without names, that were not nation states. This automatic privileging ot the nation state, to the point of it being hard to even consider alternatives, is a major political statement made by most maps. While we have 'international waters' the borders between national territorial seas and those waters are not marked on a lot of maps. The seas belonging to Pacific and other oceanic states are marked, but again large areas of the ocean are unmarked, and it is not clear whether those areas are part of countries or international. Areas that are administered by the UN or otherwise collectively or internationally administered are not clear - what exactly is the status of Antartica? Apparently international, but this is ill-defined. Or the north pole? If you go to the north pole are you walking on land (or ice) belonging to a particular country? That may just be my ignorance, but it is certainly not clear from looking at most maps.

Usually atlases include a few pages of maps of physical or natural features, without political divisions, but these are usually limited to a couple of maps compared to dozens or hundreds of maps of human-made divisions. Maps vary in how much they show natural features within the poltical maps - rivers, lakes and inland seas are usually marked, but mountains may appear not at all or just as a name - elevations are usually not shown, or shown on a separate map, giving the impression that countries, and indeed the world is fundamentally flat. Deserts, wetlands, tundra and other features may be named but are usually not represented, while occasionally maps will show climate or population density without political divisions, leaving us to infer that the low population density of say, much of the northern third of the African continent might just be due to the presence of the Sahara desert there.

Another related and important aspect of mapmaking is how accurately the map depicts geography at all. The Peters Projection is perhaps the best known example that critiques the standard maps that we are generally familiar with (see, for example, The Peters Projection claims to represent countries accurately according to their surface areas. It notes (and you can compare this on a typical map) that using the Mercator projection, for example, Europe, 9.7 sq km in size, appears visually bigger than South America (in fact 17.8m sq km), Africa (30m sq km) appears much smaller than North America (actually 19m sq km), and Scandinavia (1.1m sq km) seems as large as India, actually 3.3m sq km. The Peters Projection is based on the work of historian Arno Peters and divides the world into 100 longitudinal fields of equal width and 100 latitudinal fields of equal height rather than the 180 degree division usually used. It also has the features that North South axes run vertically while East West lines run parallel, allowing accurate comparison of positions and of distance from the equator. Your average maps don't do this. Looking at a Peters Projection map looks 'wierd' compared to a typical map - Africa and South America seem much bigger and longer, Europe squashed up, Russia much wider - but does seem more accurate considering the actual relative sizes. It's worth looking at some if you've never seen them. Info on the Peters Projection world map I have (one published by New Internationalist) opines that traditional maps, created by mapmakers during times of global domination by mainly European colonial powers, showed countries incorrectly in proportion, to the advantage of those powers. That may be the case, although I'm not convinced that was their primary intent, but certainly it seems of fundamental importance that maps of the world are as accurate as possible, and portray that information accurately and fairly. There is plenty of controversy surrounding the Peters Projection (or Gall-Peters map as it is sometimes referred to) and all flat maps of a sphere must make tradeoffs in how they represent the earth's surface. But it is certainly one of the most interesting alternative perspectives I've come across.

Given the issues outlined above, and ignoring most of their somewhat troubling implications, it would appear that maps should at least be good at giving fairly authoritative information about countries in the world, which is what I was looking for when I picked up my Collins mini atlas of the world this morning ( Yes, I actually used a book, rather than the internet. I didn't use my much larger Times atlas of the world, because I didn't have it to hand, but this atlas can be illustrative of the information and some of the problems with maps. Let's see what I found out using just this one source - at a later point I'd like to triangulate this against what I can find on the web, and there's certainly plenty more to add on this topic. I'm trying to be brave here, and above, in making public my ignorance.

So my first question, a basic one but one I admit I do not know the answer to, is how many countries are there in the world? This seems like it should be fairly easy to answer, certainly with a single figure that is internationally well agreed on. Before reading on, give your own answer. Go on, don't read ahead, come up with a figure in your head, or better still, write it down. Got it? Ok. Well, my answer was 204, I wasn't sure of this at all, but I had in my head that there are something like that number of members of the WTO, and I was guessing the members must be countries. Somewhere around the 200 mark anyway. Now, in a table at the back of this atlas was a list of 'National Statistics, which appeared to have two types of listings - countries, written in capitals, and territories, or other areas owned by other countries but geographically separate to them, written in lower case. Nowhere else in the atlas did it list the countries. There was also the usual extensive index of thousands of places at the back, with their map references. The national statistics table gave the country or territory name, area, population, capital city, currency , languages and a few other stats.

So I counted up all the names listed in capitals in this table. This gave a total of, wait for it, 194. However, looking more closely at this list, a couple jumped out - Western Sahara and Gaza. Neither as far as I know is recognised as a country, but both were written in capitals. Both are areas disputed politically at the moment - the atlas dates from, 2001 (printed 1999,reprinted with changes 2001, reprinted 2002). Western Sahara is in northwestern Africa and is disputed with Morocco, Gaza is on the eastern Mediterranean and is disputed with Israel. However, in the extensive index and on the maps themselves, both Gaza and Western Sahara were listed as territories. The other countries were listed in the index as countries and on the maps. Interestingly, the West Bank, usually grouped with Gaza, appeared on the maps within the atlas in the same way as Gaza (indicating it was a territory) and was listed in the index as a territory, but didn't appear at all in the National Statistics table. I actually found the listing of only Gaza slightly odd - usually it would be with the West Bank, as Palestine, Palestinian Authority or some other grouping indicating their association, and I did not have the impression that Gaza was even seeking country status without the West Bank.

So this inclusion of Western Sahara and Gaza as countries seemed slightly odd, and it was a political decision. This is despite the note at the front of the book regarding boundaries which stated 'The status of nations and their boundaries are shown in this atlas as they are in reality at the time of going to press, as far is can be ascertained. Where international boundaries are the subject of disputes the aim is to take a strictly neutral viewpoint, based on advice from expert consultants'. That's a fairly strong statement of intent, which doesn't seem to be borne out by the information contained in the atlas - making Gaza a country or a territory is hardly a neutral statement for those who live in or near it. It also seemed to contradict the main information on the maps themselves and in the index.

So to answer the original question, either this atlas indicates 194 countries, or we exclude those two which leaves 192 countries.

The listing raised other interesting issues although they probably don't affect the overall total. The table included, for example, the Vatican City, which is a country despite some of its idiosyncratic features, but the United Kingdom was treated (as is usually the case) as one country - for example, England, Scotland and Wales were not listed as separate countries. Do they have country status? I'm not even sure, they seem like separate countries within the administrative alliance that is the UK, but perhaps they do not have separate country status. Then there's Northern Ireland - that doesn't even appear to have semi-country status like Scotland or England, is it just an administrative area? Whatever, those 4 areas appear as just one country. Hong Kong did not appear in the table, even as a territory, and was listed as an administrative region of China, so evidently the handover from the UK had happened by the time this atlas was printed. So the first question, how many countries are there, which you'd think would get a definitive answer from an atlas, was left somewhat unresolved, but I'd go with 192 countries as certain.

My next question was, what are the biggest countries? Referring here to geographical area. Again, try to answer this one before you read on - say name the top three. My guesses were Russian Federation (even though I'll confess to not being entirely certain whether there are countries that might otherwise be treated as countries within it and whether it is a typical country or more accurately a close alliance of countries) and China as competing for the top spot, with Canada probably right up there, then perhaps USA, Brazil and Argentina in no particular order, but evidently they are on the large side. I decided to answer this in terms of the area listed in the National Statistics tables. Answer - biggest country by far is Russian Federation (6 592 849 square miles) nearly twice as big as the next country, which is in fact Canada (3 849 674) then USA (3 787 422) and only then China (3 700 593). Brazil was definitely big (3 300 161) and Australia (2 966 189), both around the 3 million square miles mark, while only three other countries were even over 1 milion - India (1 183 414), Argentina (1 068 302) and interestingly Kazakhstan (1 049 155). So that seemed to answer that question fairly definitively.

However, it wasn't clear from the tables or explained in any notes, but it didn't seem to be the case, that territories owned by some of these countries were included in their total area. For example, a few territories were listed separately in the table with their governing country in brackets - eg Christmas Island and Cocos Islands (Australia), Guam, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands and Virgin Islands (US). Although probably not large enough in area to make a difference, I did wonder what would happen to the rankings if these were included, whether they in fact already are, and what indeed is the status of these areas - does the population of Puerto Rico count towards the total population of the US, for example? Again, I was starting with what I thought was a basic question, about geography and not politics, but even this question could not be answered completely definitively by the atlas without straying into political issues.

The final question was what was the smallest country. Got your answer ready? My guess was Monaco or Liechtenstein, one of the small European city states or perhaps a tiny Pacific island state. Answer of course was the Vatican City, at 0.2 square miles. Again, I came up with my answer before even opening the atlas and starting to look at the countries, but interestingly it hadn't occurred to me to count the Vatican as a country, and if I had I probably would not have been certain it was smaller than Monaco, actually the second smallest (listed as 1 square mile). The only other full country with an area in single digits was Nauru, 8 square miles, an island state of Oceania in the Pacific Ocean and the only country I don't think I'd ever heard of - embarrassingly. Tuvalu was 10, San Marino 24, Liechtenstein a wopping 62, and Andorra, another European mini-state, clocked in at 180.

At least there's less dispute around these countries or their sizes, even if political questions may still niggle, for example, that most of the European ones have given up many of the features of statehood, such as border control, policing, their own currency, to the neighbours that completely contain them but have retained the features that allow them to be tax and financial havens. Other questions that occur include does the Vatican City have citizens, is anyone ever born there, and how could you become a citizen? Is it really a state if it's not possible to become a citizen? What is a state without citizens? And as many of these countries probably allow their citizens to hold dual citizenship, it's conceivable that these small states could also be empty of citizens, at a particular time or generally if they all go home elsewhere or war breaks out with the countries to which their citizens also hold allegiance. Some big questions from a mini atlas.


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