How many continents are there?

Come on kids, between us we can crack this. Image: Getty.

Once upon a time, “How many continents are there” was one of those questions with straightforward answers, like “How many colours are in a rainbow” or “what is the weather like in summer”. There are seven. Of course there are seven: all those picture books I had as a kid said there were seven.

Except, it turns out that, as with so many of the things we tell our children, this number owed as much to social convention as it does to objective reality. And social conventions can differ: depending on where you are in the world, there can be anywhere between four and seven continents, and you sometimes don’t have to travel very far to get a different answer.

So, to coin a phrase: what on Earth is going on?

Rules and regulations

First define your continent. The Wikipedia page on the matter contains this helpful explanation:

By convention, “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”.

Which sounds simple enough. Except the very next sentence is this:

Many of the seven most commonly recognized continents identified by convention are not discrete landmasses separated completely by water.

Which feels like an unexpected piece of dry humour from an open-sourced encyclopaedia.

But it has a point: it’s the work of all of four seconds to think of vast numbers of ways in which the seven things you almost certainly think of as continents don’t fit this rule. Off the top of my head:

  • Islands like Great Britain are considered part of continents despite not being part of continuous masses of land;

  • North and South America are not discrete masses of land, they’re connected by an isthmus;

  • Neither are Africa and Asia;

  • Europe and Asia aren’t even vaguely separated, they’re quite obviously the same bloody thing;

  • If Europe gets to be a continent because it’s separated from Asia by some mountains and some inland seas, then why is India only a sub-continent?

  • If Australia is a continent why is Greenland only an island? Okay, it’s smaller, but where’s the line? What are the rules here?

And so on and so on.

Spinning plates

There is another way of dividing the Earth up into roughly continent sized bits, which has a rather more scientific basis to it: plate tectonics, the geological theory which explains mountain ranges, volcanoes, and so on by showing how bits of the Earth’s surface have been sliding about and banging into each other for the last few billion years.

In this theory, it’s quite obvious why the Americas are two continents, why Australia is one but Greenland isn’t, and why Africa is a different thing to Asia despite being attached to it. It also highlights a very good reason for considering Britain to be part of Europe: they’re part of the same continental shelf, even if part of that shelf is submerged under water. Despite Brexit, Britain will always be in Europe.

The plates. Click to expand. Image: USGS/Wikimedia Commons.

In many other ways, though, the map of the tectonic plates doesn’t look anything like the map of the continents. For one thing there are a bunch of oceanic ones, which on maps of the world are mostly just water with a few islands in them.

For another, the Middle East and India are their own plates, so aren’t part of Asia; neither is the Russian Far East, which is actually part of the North American plate. Europe, meanwhile, very clearly is part of Asia, except for Iceland, which is half Asian, half North American.

There are good reasons why plate tectonics isn’t going to get us very far in explaining why we mostly think we have seven continents. One is that it’s a surprisingly recent theory: it wasn’t widely recognised by the scientific community until the 1960s, so there are plenty of people around now whose school text books will have laughed at the idea.

Another is that the plate boundaries are often invisible or, at least at the human scale, nonsensical: any system which splits Iceland into two separate continents is not going to be a useful categorisation.

Geography is written by the victors

The real reason we count Europe as a continent and include Britain in it, treat India as a part of Asia, and so forth is (this is where we came in) social convention: we do it because we do.

More than that, we do it because the rules on this stuff were largely formulated by the Europeans who spent much of the last five hundred years or so conquering the world. That’s why Europe is a seen as a single, diverse continent but the Indian subcontinent, with its own patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, isn’t: because the former was the imperial power that conquered the latter.

A related point is that, if you ignore plate tectonics, the entire world doesn’t divide neatly up into continents at all. The reason a huge bunch of Pacific islands get bundled together with Australia as a slightly miscellaneous category called “Oceania” is as much because people wanted to make everything fit in somewhere, as it is because of any real connection between the two.

So those lengthy explanations aside, how many continents actually are there?

Counting continents

There seem to be six different systems, helpfully portrayed in this gif:

A gif of the various models. Click to expand. Image: AlexCovarrubia/Wikimedia Commons.

The seven continent system is the one you’re probably familiar with. That’s the one that’s standard in the English-speaking world, China, south Asia, and parts of western Europe. The British Empire can probably be blamed, at least in part, for its dominance.

There’s also an ultra-stripped down four continent model which divides the world into four major landmasses: Eurasia-Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia. This, best I can tell, isn’t taught anywhere; but it is the logical end point of the definition that involves big bits of land divided by water, so it’s worth including it anyway.

In between there are four other models:

  • A six-continent system in which Europe and Asia are one continent. This, the internet tells me, is the standard in Russia and Eastern Europe (which makes sense, given that the slavic world straddles the Urals), and also Japan (although, citation needed).

  • A different six-continent system treats Europe and Asia as separate, but combines North and South America. That one seems to be favoured in France, much of southern Europe and various places colonised by those countries.

  • There’s also a five continent system which combines the Americas but ignores Antarctica because, to the first approximation, nobody lives there. This is the one favoured by the UN and the International Olympic Committee (count the rings).

  • Lastly, there’s a variant five-continent system consisting of Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. I can find no reference whatsoever to anyone using this one, but it’s in the gif and also this National Geographic page, so I’m including it for the sake of completism.

So, there you go. The best we can say is that the world has “some continents”. Assuming you accept the notion that continents exist at all.

I’m still really angry at those picture books which promised me snow in winter and heat in summer, incidentally.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.

He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.