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Stunning aerial photos capture the extent of humanity’s impact on the planet

From massive fields of greenhouses to melted glaciers, see what humanity has managed to build—and what effects that building has had.

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More than two decades ago, long before the advent of cheap drones, photographer George Steinmetz started strapping on a motorized paraglider—a lightweight machine powered by a backpack motor, with a parachute attached—and sailed over remote areas capturing images of the planet from above.

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[Cover Image: courtesy Abrams Books]
In a new book, The Human Planet: Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene, Steinmetz shares stunning photos from his archive, both of the beauty of nature and of the scale of human influence, including plastic-roofed greenhouses sprawling over 74,000 acres in Spain, a mega-dairy in Wisconsin, and buildings packed together on a tiny island in the Maldives that is now more densely populated than Manhattan.

“When you see all this put together, I think that it communicates the magnitude of our impact on the planet,” Steinmetz says. He says that he didn’t begin the project with an environmental agenda. “I’m not a tree hugger . . . I love exploring the world, and I just started seeing things that were disturbing.”

“From 1818 into the 1860s, at the tail end of a cold period called the Little Ice Age, some villagers in the Swiss Alps adopted an annual rite of planting crosses at the termini of glaciers advancing toward their communities and praying to slow the ice. Now climate change is rapidly melting alpine ice, transforming landscapes and economies. Just a few decades ago, the Trift Glacier was nearly 100-feet thick directly beneath where this pedestrian suspension bridge spans an alpine valley. Now the snout of the glacier is barely visible up the slope.” Gadmen, Bern Canton, Switzerland. [Photo: © 2020 George Steinmetz]
In Switzerland, he saw a suspension bridge built to replace a glacial path that had melted away; if carbon emissions continue unabated, nearly all of the ice in the Alps will be gone by the end of the century. In Greenland, he watched as glaciologists dyed water to study the loss of ice. (Greenland lost record levels of ice in 2019, and if it melts completely, sea levels could eventually rise 20 feet.) In Mongolia, he photographed a massive open-pit coal mine that supplies coal to the rest of China. He also documented some more sustainable solutions—like Aerofarms, a New Jersey-based company that develops indoor farming technology that can save large amounts of water compared to traditional agriculture.

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“One of the takeaways is that maybe it’s time for us as a collective to start reconsidering our relationship to the world and think about how we can live a little more lightly,” he says. “The little things we do can have a significant cumulative effect. I don’t think it’s too big to solve.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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