This flying photographer is documenting how humans are impacting the planet

Updated 16th July 2020
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This flying photographer is documenting how humans are impacting the planet
Written by Stephanie Bailey, CNN
Flying hundreds of feet above the ground in a motorized paraglider, George Steinmetz has photographed the world's most remote environments from the sky.
Over the past four decades, Steinmetz has captured pictures from the mega dunes of the Namibian desert to rice paddies in Yunnan Province, southwest China.
Each location was unique, but the Steinmetz noticed a common theme -- humans were changing the planet.
He could see how even the most isolated places had been damaged and their wildlife decimated as they were exploited for resources.
After a 2018 New York Times Magazine assignment that sent him to every continent to document climate change, Steinmetz decided to put together a book, collecting images spanning his whole career. "Human Planet" chronicles our impact on the environment and the solutions we have come up with to try to save it.

A life-changing trip

After graduating college in 1979 with a degree in geophysics, Steinmetz, who was born and raised in California, decided to hitchhike around Africa. On his travels he fell in love with photography. While riding on trucks and trains, he had the idea of capturing photos from above.
"I started to fantasize, and I thought it would be really cool if I could get a little higher and I could fly over those landscapes, kind of bird height," he said. "Then I could understand the physical geography of the continent."
In 1997, Steinmetz purchased his first motorized paraglider and set off to take pictures of the Sahara Desert. After that, Steinmetz, now 62, spent some 15 years flying over every extreme desert in the world.
He went on to survey and photograph forests, oceans, cities and farmland, first by combing through maps looking for interesting features, then using satellite data provided by NASA. Today, he says he uses Google Earth.
"As an observation platform, it's incredible," said Steinmetz. "You have an idea, but you get up and it's always different and that difference is actually what makes it interesting."

The accidental environmentalist

This bird's-eye view of the world allowed Steinmetz to witness -- and document -- the ways humans have changed the planet.
"When I started looking around the deserts, I perceived them as the most static and sterile environments in the world, but I started to see that even deserts were having severe environmental impacts," he explained. "You'd see how over-exploited they were."
The photographer says he didn't intend to document climate change, but his archive of work made humanity's footprint undeniable.
Steinmetz says one of the most dramatic examples he has photographed is the Dead Sea. The water level here is falling by about a meter a year as the rivers feeding the salt lake are drained for irrigation and industry. He has also captured the effects of climate change on the Maldives, which are threatened by rising sea levels.
"I didn't really set out to be an environmentalist, I was just a young guy who was curious about the world," explained Steinmetz. "Some of these pictures were taken years apart but you start connecting the dots and the larger impact of humans on the planet becomes apparent."

Sustainable solutions

But as well as seeing how fragile the Earth can be, Steinmetz has learned that humans have the capacity to find solutions and live in harmony with the environment.
"It'd be foolish to underestimate the creativity of humans," he said. "Our creativity is extraordinary and if we focus on that I don't see why solutions can't be found."
Steinmetz has photographed innovations from vertical farming -- a method of growing food without soil or natural light in vertically stacked beds -- to renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels.
While he notes not all the solutions are perfect, he believes technologies will improve.
"Solar didn't start out being economic ... but now prices are dropping and the technology has evolved, and it is very price competitive," he said.
Recently, Steinmetz has started using drones instead of his paraglider and hopes to continue to chronicle climate change.
"I hope people realize we have to make some compromises," he said. "I think everybody has to dial back and look at the Earth, otherwise we are not going to have much left."