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Map of the week: Global wealth

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Mark Easton | 11:10 UK time, Monday, 29 September 2008

Our Map of the week this week is culled from a new book, The Atlas of the Real World, out next month.

The book uses 'cartograms' to analyse how different aspects of life look in global terms - depicting the areas and countries of the world not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance.

Each territory on a map displays its data graphically by being made larger or smaller proportional to the other territories, which are in turn scaled according to the data within them.

The maps have been created by Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford - academics behind the renowned website .

There are lots of fascinating maps in the book and I shall no doubt borrow more in the future, but a series which immediately caught my eye looks at 2000 years of wealth.

Map-OneWealth Year 1

Map-TwoWealth Year 1500

Map-ThreeWealth Year 1900

Map-FourWealth Year 1960

Wealth Year 1990

Wealth Year 2015

It is a simple animation over six frames that reveals an amazing story of global power shifting across the planet and the UK's place within that.

Wealth is measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) defined as the total market value of all goods and services produced within a territory in a given year. The figures are also adjusted for purchasing power parity.

The first map entitled Wealth Year 1 shows how wealth was distributed across the world 2,000 years ago, in terms of modern boundaries.

The best current estimates indicate that average GDP per person living in the year AD1 expressed in current US dollars, was $445. By 1990 the equivalent was $5,248.

The researchers surmised that there was probably little variation between regions at the time. Indeed, since variations in GDP per person were low this map looks very similar to the population map for AD1.

By 1500, Europe had become one of the wealthiest areas of the world with Britain the sixth richest country in terms of GDP per person after Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and France.

In 1900, Britain dominates the picture, the richest country on the planet per capita.Within 60 years, we are not even in the top 10 and by 1990 the United States had become number one. But looking ahead and the Far East swells up, back to the size it had been 500 years earlier.

In 2015, the richest country in terms of GDP per person is expected to be Taiwan with the US in sixth. The UK is not quite back to its 1500 status but I think we can see the direction of travel.

The maps, of course, also reveal poverty around the world. The shrunken, deformed shape of Africa tells its own story.

The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live is published by Thames and Hudson on 6 Oct.


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  • 1. At 3:38pm on 29 Sep 2008, herbmanbob wrote:

    Nice examples of how things have changed i presume the swelll on the map indicates the growth in the time displayed.

    wonder how the map looks this very day with the current collapse of world wealth.

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  • 2. At 3:53pm on 29 Sep 2008, worldwideryan wrote:

    I think the 2015 map is much to generous on the US. Our (I'm American) economy is collapsing as if we've got hit by a 8.0 financial earthquake.

    We also might have a knock on effect to China if we stop buying from them.

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  • 3. At 5:32pm on 29 Sep 2008, HardWorkingHobbes wrote:

    I must say I'm suprised by the size of the Middle East countries, I would have thought with all the oil wealth countries like the UAE would have been a lot larger.

    The same could also be said of the tax exile countries like Monico, Leitchenstien, Andora... with low numbers of high net worth individuals and off-shore companies.

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  • 4. At 5:46pm on 29 Sep 2008, JBRebel wrote:

    Very interesting maps - minor stylistic point, though - the modern blight to add "in terms of" as if it enlightens has taken over a little bit, I counted at least three uses.

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  • 5. At 5:49pm on 29 Sep 2008, U11846789 wrote:

    The map is pretty basic isnt it.

    Spain was wealthier than France in 1500 and by a long way. Yet on the map it's not.

    Sweden was wealthy in 1960. Much wealthier than at other times. And yet on the map there is no difference.

    India in 2015 stands a good chance of being much wealthier than us. Yet the map doesnt show that either.

    3/10 for effort.

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  • 6. At 5:53pm on 29 Sep 2008, GideonMitchell wrote:

    These are fascinating. The story of the relative decline of Africa is particularly sad.

    I would be interested to see this information drawn in terms of absolute wealth, for example by projecting the maps onto a globe (or rectangle) whose size represents total absolute wealth. In terms of absolute wealth I assume that even Africa is wealthier than it was 2000 years ago.

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  • 7. At 5:59pm on 29 Sep 2008, Soddball wrote:

    I find the early material questionable, particularly the decision to place modern borders around countries. Why is Germany so large in AD1? How do the authors calculate 'wealth' for the Germanic tribes of the Rhine and Elbe, considering the paucity of archaeological sites and the complete lack of towns? Is there a large body of research I have missed? Do we have new texts showing trade agreements between Arminius and Augustus?

    I also doubt the value of placing a dollar value on anything before the modern currency system began. Everything is worth what someone will pay for it. What is defined as the worth of something and how do the authors calculate exchange rates? How do they calculate inflationary pressures (which affected even the Romans)?

    Yes, it looks pretty, but as a piece of academic research it has considerable (probably insurmountable) faults. I also question the idea that past performance is a guide to future wealth.

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  • 8. At 6:42pm on 29 Sep 2008, SuperCharybdis wrote:

    I don't believe Belgium was a nation in 1500, nevertheless, I take the point that the map reflects well on the Hanseatic League's trading monopoly from the 13th to the 17th century.

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  • 9. At 6:53pm on 29 Sep 2008, stwl wrote:

    In answer to #3 and #5, the amounts of area allocated to Sweden, Luxembourg, UAE etc. are held down by their low population. The map does not depict wealth per capita, as far as I can see. Mark Easton has slightly muddied the waters by referring to per capita figures to explain the 'dispropotionate' sizes of some countries.

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  • 10. At 7:36pm on 29 Sep 2008, Leo Jones wrote:

    Most of the comments on here and the original article would do badly in an A Level Geography exam. You are interpreting the maps to show the UK getting less wealthy. They do not show that at all, rather they show that whilst our wealth has gone up, so over time has others so that the relative wealth of the UK has changed over time. But, for each map 1 - 5 we are wealthier. Some comments are surprised that the arab states are so small. It is a modern urban myth that the UK is poor now and that the Arabs and Chinese are richer. Not by a long shot. Our per capita wealth is in the top 20 and our cumulative wealth is massive, as big as the 1 billion Chinese.

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  • 11. At 7:43pm on 29 Sep 2008, MikeFay wrote:

    The Midland 20: the map depicts GDP, not per capita, so a larger population (e.g. France in 1500) can be wealthier

    Also Spain didn't become instantly massively wealthy the moment Columbus arrived back with news of his discoveries, it took a few years. The amount of treasure coming back in 1500 wasn't enough to counter the wealth generated by France's larger population. So Spain wasn't wealthier than France in 1500.

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  • 12. At 9:37pm on 29 Sep 2008, tarquin wrote:

    This is a pretty cool tool, I don't know about the stats specifically but certainly it shows the general trends i'm aware of - the comparative wealth of the far east until the seventeenth century for example, and of course Europe's growing dominance after the 15th century - although it wouldve been nice from a british POV to see 1800 as well as 1900, when the US was about to overtake us

    I think Spain gets a raw deal tho, it became the biggest player in the 16th century and subsequently declined, these maps chosen completely miss that period and make it look quite constant, rather than its big rise and fall, which is pretty major in european (and world) history

    as for criticism of using modern nation state mapping - it would be pretty hard to show regions on a geographically distorted map wouldn't it - works ok for islands like Britain and Japan - but you wouldn't have a clue about India, China, Russia, Germany, France etc

    also, the strength of Indonesia and that region surprised me, obviously there's a growth in 1500 from the spice trade but i didn't expect it would remain so prominent

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  • 13. At 10:42pm on 29 Sep 2008, kuhmassy wrote:

    Is Russia really going to be that poor in 2015? And Eastern Europe? Where's Canada anyway? It might only have 30 odd million inhabitants but is a pretty big country to start with.
    I would also like to hear a bit more about the assumptions which were made to predict wealth in 7 years' time, before I believe it.

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  • 14. At 09:32am on 30 Sep 2008, ephialtes wrote:

    Really the globe should be much bigger now than it was in 1 CE. Europe's relative wealth in 1500 didn't stop people starving to death.

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  • 15. At 12:18pm on 01 Oct 2008, sblake7 wrote:

    Quite simply it shows the failiure of Britains socialist post war policies in order to change the deflating status of the UK she must be more colonial in its foregn policy or be a spent force

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  • 16. At 3:51pm on 01 Oct 2008, metalhappyclappy wrote:

    What struck me was that India under the Raj was wealthier than it is now, despite revisionist historians attempt to portray the empire as completely and irredeemably evil.

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  • 17. At 5:03pm on 01 Oct 2008, Have your say Rejected wrote:

    wasnt the UK the main super power till WW2, russia was a power but the usa was still young and growing, as an english man im glad america is in decline what goes around comes around, it will teach them for those loans they imposed on us after the war which crippled us, an idea maybe the uk could bail out the US, and then cripple them with interest rated and repayments, on a serious note i feel shame when i look at this map and dont see africa such a naturally resource rich continent, that is so poor, we really should be ashamed

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  • 18. At 8:41pm on 03 Oct 2008, liesdamnlies wrote:

    This is very interesting but surely there must be anomalies in this map. For instance you have Japan which has a very small land mass with a large population of 100 million plus and is a wealthy nation obviously it will be bigger on this map. Then you have Australia with a huge land mass and a relatively small population and also a wealthy nation it could only shrink in size.
    It's not quite clear what information is used to make this map but it looks as though it was designed to show how poor Africa is - which it does. A combination of average wealth(in a monetary sense) per capita,size of land mass and population would always create anomalies and create alot more questions than answers . The time scale is also odd and the statistics for the early years are probably highly dubious.

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