How to Destroy Almost Half of the World

Is it possible to destroy almost half the planet based off only one criterion? Nate Silver of the 538 blog does just that with his map that excludes the countries in the lowest 5% of the GDP. By taking all of these countries off of the world map, 43% of the world’s population also disappears. The top countries include Zimbabwe (with the lowest GDP: spending only about $55 per person annually), both of the Congos, and Liberia, among many more. The list includes a total of 81 countries to be taken out. There is power that comes with having a high GDP even when the population of a country is small, which is shown through many aspects in this map, including not only the exclusion of certain countries but the distortion of the map and, furthermore, the way Silver describes it in his accompanying article.

Power is a central factor in any map, and there are many interests that must be considered. Nate Silver, the cartographer of this map and is a famous political writer and statistician, chose to put Africa in the center of the map, where most of the countries were ‘destroyed’. He did this knowing it would draw attention to the amount of land that completely disappears. This is considered by J.B. Harley in his book Maps, Knowledge, and Power to be a silence in a map. This silence, he says, reveals the author’s true intention by what is excluded. Had Silver put Africa and the adjoining Middle East off to the side of the map, the focus would have been taken off of them and the destroyed land would be less absorbing. The distortion looks to be somewhere between the Peters and the Mercator Projections, so the land is not equal area nor are the exact shapes of countries preserved. The orientation is no different than a majority of maps because the author wanted people to recognize the (so-called) normal parameters so when countries were taken out, the map people expect to see is different for only one reason.

Nate Silver criticizes other people in his article but fails to include the downfalls of his map. As Denis Wood would say, all maps are inherently biased, but some of the decisions Silver made may make the map more biased than it ought to be. According to his accompanying article, he chose which countries to destroy by going down the list of lowest per capita GDP’s, abolishing the countries as he went. At one point, he had to skip Indonesia because “they didn’t fit into the budget”. How could he decide to leave a country out? This could skew the number of countries that fit into this lowest five percent GDP. Had he included Indonesia, which is a fairly large country, many smaller countries probably wouldn’t have been included. The number would not be 81 countries but would instead be quite a bit lower than that. This small deletion completely changes what will be viewed by the audience. Although the difference between 70 and 80 may not seem quite that large, many of the countries after Indonesia were part of the Middle East, which, as discussed above, is part of the focus of this map. Indonesia, although it is large, is located in the bottom right and would not be as noticeable if destroyed. To make his point, the cartographer had to take out as many countries as possible to intrigue the audience and make them see this as a bigger problem than it truly is.

Ultimately, Silver is trying to make a point about global warming. Jim Manzi, a conservative commentator, wrote an article against a House bill aimed at helping and preventing climate change that global warming will “reduce global GDP by ‘only’ 5 percent one hundred years hence”. The cartographer is opposed to this viewpoint, and illustrating through this map that if 5% of the global GDP is taken away, this makes a huge impact on the shape of our Earth. Underneath this, he may also be questioning the way we value different places around the world. GDP seems to be a good way of placing numerical value on a particular country and its worth. However, if so many large countries have such a low GDP, does that mean the residents in those countries are not as important as large countries with a high GDP? By defining a country’s worth using its GDP, we are rendering many people inferior when in reality we all are sharing the Earth’s limited resources. Inequalities are really just social constructions we make to try to understand a world that will never truly be understood. The cartographer shows this through the map and supporting statistics without stating it outright.

Lastly, in the article, Silver has a satirical tone. He calls the 11.7 million citizens of Zimbabwe greedy bastards for consuming .0196% of the world’s resources as an example. It is an effective way to make the audience rethink the way they think about poverty and social constructions we create. This radical map goes to challenge the accepted ways of thinking and challenge the power that countries with higher GDPs have.

The map in conjunction with the article proves that even if “only” 5% of the GDP is taken from the Earth, this is a large chunk of people that would not be included. By literally wiping people off the map, Silver illustrates the true impact losing 5% would have. Even if global warming reduces the global GDP only 5% in the next one hundred years, this can have a large impact on the global population. The type of distortion used and the countries the cartographer chooses to “destroy” reveal some of the deeper values and underlying motives that are not stated in the article. All of this aside, it still makes for a pretty cool map!

Lauren McRae

Map Citation: Downie, James. “What Makes up 5% of the World’s GDP?” Foreign Policy. July 7, 2009. Accessed September 22, 2014.

Accompanying Article Link:

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