How maps can guide us to a better future

Published in Thrive Global

By Robert Muggah

Amid the deluge of bad news, there is still a case to be made for informed optimism. Taking the long view, it is an extraordinary moment to be alive, maybe the best in human history. This might sound crazy given the immense challenges we’re facing – whether the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency or our bitterly polarized politics. But it’s easy to forget the many technological, social, economic and political revolutions that are reshaping our lives, mostly for the better. Despite recent setbacks, more people are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives than at any period since Homo Sapiens started their journey out of Africa 200,000 years ago.

As explained in my new book with Ian Goldin – Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years – maps can help make sense of the world around us. They are also one of our most incredible inventions. Think about it. For most of human history we had literally no idea where we were. What could not be directly observed was unknown. That started to change when our ancestors started painting their cave walls with the images of berry patches, herds of deer and natural springs. About 3,000 years ago, they started committing maps to paper, or rather papyrus. For the next few millennia they marked unexplored areas with fantastic and terrifying beasts – dragons, serpents and lions. Until recently, our planet (and progress) was virtually unknown.

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