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.
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.”
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.
“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.”