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8 photos show the ‘human footprint on the land’

February 16, 2021, 10:04 AM UTC

This article is part of Fortune‘s Blueprint for a climate breakthrough package, guest edited by Bill Gates.

In the afterward of his newest book, The Human Planet: Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene, George Steinmetz calls himself “The Accidental Environmentalist.” After 40 years of traveling the world making photos, Steinmetz writes it had “become clear to me that we are entering an era of limits, because we can’t keep consuming resources at today’s pace if we wish to leave a habitable planet to the next generations. The classic narrative of man versus nature might need to be rethought, as a narrative of man with nature.”

Fortune worked with Bill Gates and his colleagues at Breakthrough Energy and Gates Ventures to put together this extensive package of stories on the signal crisis of our age. That crisis is not the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s climate change. Click the image above to read the rest of the stories.

The selection of photos document “how we are reshaping the world for our own purposes,” showing the technologies and methods humans have created to be “with nature.” In an interview with Fortune, Steinmetz noted that “the most arable land on this planet has been repurposed…We’ve carved it all up, and there’s not much original stuff left.” 

Riding his motorized paraglider, though now more often using drones, Steinmetz hovers his lens low enough that we imagine ourselves inside the photo picking licorice plants—but high enough to reveal the surrounding landscape of vast fields of solar panels, and beyond that horizon line, the world. “From the air you can get a sense of the human footprint on the land,” he says.

“As a photographer, one of the great challenges is creating visual surprises and to show people things that either they’ve ever seen or to show them things they know in a different way. That’s really the goal for me,” Steinmetz concludes.

Licorice growing around the solar panels at Elion Resources, part of a 310-megawatt power plant on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert in China.
George Stenmetz
Cactus Feeders owns 10 feed yards that provide fattening services for ranch owners in Texas and Kansas. The yards hold a total of 500,000 cattle, which spend five to six months there, growing up to 1,300 pounds. They gain an average of 3.3 pounds per day. Pen riders on horseback check on the health of all the cattle each morning and take any unwell cattle to a medical station for treatment. The cowboys start at sunrise and have a one-hour break at noon before finishing up at 3 p.m.
George Steinmetz
A 5,400-hectare (54 sq. km) clear-cut in the Amazon forest that has just been made to create a new farm near the edge of Xingu National Park in Brazil.
George Steinmetz
Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, is a pair of avant-garde residential towers in Milan’s Porta Nuova district. Designed by Boeri Studio, the towers incorporate more than 900 trees to help mitigate smog and moderate temperatures inside the building.
George Steinmetz
This Costa Rican plantation was established in 1958 to harvest sugarcane. It produces 85 to 90 metric tons of sugar annually from 6,000 hectares of irrigated farmland.
George Steinmetz
Koppert Cress greenhouse complex grows hydroponic micro greens for European and Middle Eastern markets.
George Steinmetz
A water truck delivers the weekly supply of 200 to 300 liters of drinking water to each household in a community on the edge of Nouakchott, Mauritania. Nouakchott was a small village of little importance in 1958 when it was selected to be the future nation’s capital. It was designed to accommodate 15,000 people, but droughts and increasing desertification since the 1970s have displaced a vast number of Mauritanians, who resettled in Nouakchott. It now has over 1 million inhabitants, some 40% of the desert country’s population. Local residents complained about the moving sand, which has been getting worse. It now makes many of the roads impassable and partially buries homes. Since 2015, social services have been provided by a local NGO called “the white hand.”
George Steinmetz
An aerial view of a wind farm near Hitchland, Texas.
George Steinmetz

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