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Making sense of the world

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Making sense of the world

If you find that trying to understand the world by digesting facts and figures makes your head hurt, then The State of the World Atlas is for you. Now in its ninth edition, it is unique in presenting current events and global trends in a factual, graphic and easily comprehensible manner. Stephen Williams reports.

The State of the World Atlas was compiled and edited by Dan Smith, the secretary-general of International Alert, the international peace-building organisation.

Being both meticulously researched and ingeniously designed, it graphically presents almost every key indicator and vital statistic of modern life.

Here you will find countries and their populations; human diversity and issues surrounding wealth and poverty. So too, the Atlas presents the tough realities of conflict and suffering; human rights and their abuses; the health of the world’s population and the wellbeing of the planet itself. It is not absolutely comprehensive – for example, somewhat surprisingly given the amount of attention the subject has received, it neglects to present the situation regarding youth unemployment.

But as Dan Smith told New African, he spent many sleepless nights worrying about what this Atlas contained, and in many ways he was constrained by the lack of reliable statistics. Nevertheless, the Atlas has more than 50 maps and illustrations. The themes are grouped into six categories: Who We Are; War and Peace; Health of the People; Health of the Planet; Wealth and Poverty; and Rights and Respect. We might have chosen any of the maps to show the wealth of detail and the research that has gone into producing them.

But we opted for the map titled “Transnationals” (above), found in the Wealth and Poverty section, which illustrates the amazing fact that in Africa only two countries, Egypt and South Africa, have a Gross National Income (GNI) larger than the revenue of any transnational.

Even countries as big as Algeria, Libya, and Nigeria, with their enormous oil and gas wealth, have GNIs smaller than the revenues of the US-based giant supermarket chain Walmart ($421.8bn). Worldwide, only 27 countries have GNIs bigger than Walmart’s revenues, and some 50 countries in the world have populations smaller than Walmarts global workforce (2.1 million). And more than 20 African countries have GNIs smaller than the revenues of the fastfood chain McDonald’s ($24.1bn).

These are extraordinary statistics and they are made instantly understandable by the excellent graphics of this Atlas. Interestingly, the team that put together this work was overwhelmingly made up of women –six of the seven acknowledgments the editor makes are to his female colleagues.

Another interesting aspect of the Atlas is in the choice of the projection used. We are probably all familiar with the problems of the standard world map, the one developed by Gerardus Mercator (the 16th century Mercator projection) that overemphasises landmasses further from the Equator. The Peter projection, developed in 1973 by Arno Peters, building on the work of the Scottish clergyman James Gall, is more accurate, though not perfect, so the Atlas uses the Winkel-Tripel projection which compromises on the three elements of area, direction and distance and keeps distortion down to a minimum – although illustrating a sphere in two dimensions will always prove problematic.

(The State of the World Atlas, New Internationalist, £14.99. Print ISBN: 978-1-78026-121-8; ebook ISBN: 978-1-78026-135-5)

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