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In this magnum opus about human impact on our planet, world-renowned envi­ronmental photographer James Balog presents the most artistic, innovative, and encompassing view of the Anthropocene ever produced.

Humanity impacts the planet with such intensity that we are changing the nature of nature. This has given rise to a relatively new word, “Anthropocene,” as the name for our current epoch of time.

The Human Element: A Time Capsule from the Anthropocene gives a fresh interpretation of how environmental change—including an altered climate—impacts the health and future of humanity. With compelling photographs created between 1980 and 2020, it covers subjects ranging from catastrophic wildfires and melting glaciers, to floods, animal extinction, and deforestation, and is the product of more than a million miles of travel in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Arctic, and Antarctica.

The conceptual breakthrough underpinning this book is that acknowledging the reality of the Anthropocene—and dealing with its consequences—shouldn’t be avoided, as conventional thinking about the environment would have us do.

As James writes in the introduction:

There is no boundary, no contact zone, separating people from nature.

There is no such opposition as “people” and “nature,” but only one unified state of being.

In damaging nature we are damaging ourselves. In protecting nature we are protecting ourselves. 

The Human Element: A Time Capsule from the Anthropocene is both an artistic tour de force and an environmental call to arms.

Reader Testimonials

  • “A collection of visually arresting, powerful, historical-marker photos of ‘the Anthropocene’ by one of the celebrated naturalists and photographers of our time. Physically the book is large, very heavy, and beautifully produced. It is like a museum exhibition, captured between covers. Since people don’t need printed dictionaries anymore, you’d want to put it on a dictionary stand—both so you don’t have to hold it, and so you can carefully leaf through its hundreds of arresting images. However, you can see this photographic record of our time—in this book, in the gallery exhibits that should resume someday, or otherwise—you should make a point of doing so. This is a beautiful, and alarming, and motivating portrait of our era.”

    James Fallows Contributing writer to The Atlantic, former editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, and former White House Director of Speechwriting
  • "This book is a masterpiece."

    Major Garrett CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent
  • “Truth matters. Evidence matters.” So notes the acclaimed photographer James Balog in the introduction to his new book, The Human Element: A Time Capsule of the Anthropocene (Rizzoli). Balog has been documenting that change — the collision between man and nature — for 40 years, working along a unique path that intersects with photojournalism, fine art, adventure, and science. The new book, at 465 pages and featuring 350 images, is a magnum opus destined to be a photographic classic.”

    David Schonauer American Photography, Pro Photography Daily
  • "James Balog's new book The Human Element is a magnum opus destined to be a photographic classic. It is a profound statement by a force of nature on the forces of nature.”

    Dennis Dimick Former Editor, National Geographic
  • “Your amazing book arrived and I am just blown away. The combination of the images stories and overall framing is so powerful.”

    Rick Smolan Photographer and CEO, Against All Odds Productions
  • “It was wonderful to see in this book a mix of old icons with so many new images…Some serious photographers have tried to achieve what you have done, but you have always led the way.”

    Annie Griffiths Founder, Ripple Effects Images
  • “An epic and triumphant achievement that reveals the decades-long arc of a career of a master photographer and concerned naturalist—as well as his deep commitment to chronicling the adverse and ever-accelerating impact of humanity’s toll on our precious planet.”

    David Friend Vanity Fair
  • "Your magnum opus is clearly a landmark accomplishment, offering forceful reasoning for urgent action! ... You deserve endless credit from the rest of us hapless humans for devoting your life and your astounding talent to ringing the alarm bell with a sharp call to action.”

    Elizabeth Broun Director Emerita, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Chapter Samples


“The dark hours are the best time for an encounter with lava. Night lets you clearly see where the mountain is molten. Night strips away the sky-blue blanket that swaddles our psyches, reminding us of the galactic void always looming above our heads.”


“Alter earth materials and we alter air. Alter air and we alter water. Alter any of those elements and we alter plant life, animal life, wildfires, all the other terms of our biologic existence. Every breath I take, everything I eat, every drop I drink, every mile I drive or fly: I am in and of human tectonics. Said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, “Yo soy yo y mi.”  I am myself and my circumstances.”


Techno sapiens is the essential agent of human tectonics in the Anthropocene. Wealthy Techno sapiens societies have impacts vastly greater than less prosperous ones, but nearly everyone living on this planet is a cell in that great heartbeat of Techno sapiens. From this naked fact, there can be no escape …”


“The pictures become a manifestation of what the animals and I do together. Somehow, they reach through the camera and tell us about themselves, asking us to reconsider the terms of engagement between our own species and the animal world.”


“We humans are losing the memory of what makes nature natural. The amnesia spreads from one generation to another as human tectonics gnaw away at the landscape…we find ourselves with no way to remember what we have lost because it is already gone. The great trees deliver an antidote to amnesia, helping us remember to remember.”


“We all drive our chariots of carbon fire. We all rely on carbon fuels to produce our clothing, food supply, lighting, the thermal comfort in our houses, and much more. Do other ties bind you to fossil fuels?”


“Fire is a shape-shifting trickster. Fire is foe and fire is friend. Fire annihilates and fire rejuvenates. Fire purifies and fire terrifies. Fire cleanses and fire corrupts. Fire is an agent of human tectonics and fire is the result of human tectonics.”


“Ice is where we can see and hear and feel climate change in action. Ice responds to the touch of the air and water around it. When it melts, ice declares in a voice loud and clear that the Earth is warming.”


“The hour is fleeting. The facts of life on Earth are clear, and I submit them for candid consideration: Human tectonics are changing the nature of nature.”

Other Books by James Balog

Wildlife Requiem, 1984 (New York: International Center of Photography)

In modern America, people rarely hunt wild animals in order to survive. And how often hunting is necessary to cull and preserve healthy wildlife populations is open to debate. In Wildlife Requiem, published in 1984, with an introduction from Cornell Capa, we see deer, elk, bear and antelope from their first encounters with hunters to their final resting places as trophies and icons. The beauty—color, light, and design—found in the harsh world of the hunter and the hunted creates a tension between the simultaneous existence of life and death, freedom and constraint, destruction and birth. These dualities raise the question of whether or human action can eradicate not only the animals themselves, but also the anima—the spirit—of the wilderness. The question reflects the imbued tension of the planet today each time people transform the environment into a more profitable, less threatening, or more manageable place.

Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife, 1990 (New York: Harry N. Abrams)

Animal, published in 1999, takes us on a vivid journey through the animal world. These extraordinary photographs—some never published before—explore the abundance of beauty, character and emotional power in the other animals that share the Earth with Homo sapiens.

Anima, 1993 (Boulder (CO): Arts Alternative Press)

With genes found to be 98.4% identical to Homo sapiens, chimpanzees are our link to the animal kingdom. Published in 1993, James Balog’s Anima (a title derived from the thinking of C. G. Jung and James Hillman) challenges our ancient cultural assumptions about humanity’s lofty perch in the world. Anima asks us to re-imagine and re-create a healthier, more integrated relationship between humans and nature.

James Balog’s Animals A to Z, 1996 (San Francisco: Chronicle)

In this ABC board book, graphically appealing silhouetted images of animals will capture children’s attention and engage them for hours. Very young readers will be captivated by the clear, striking photographs. The sturdy format insures the durability of this book to remain a favorite.

Animal, 1999 (New York: Graphis)

In this stunning anthology, James Balog takes us on a vivid journey through the animal world.  These extraordinary photographs, few of them ever published before, explore the abundance of beauty, character, and emotional power in the other animals that share the earth with Homo sapiens.  We see famous, charismatic species like elephant, lion, and wolf.  We see little-known, highly endangered animals like the Wyoming toad.  We experience the adrenaline of the kill and the charm of infant animals.  From the elegance of his acclaimed studio portraits to the timeless beauty of a black-and-white Africa portfolio, this is a wildlife book like you’ve never seen before.

Balog’s photographs are neither romanticizing nor condescending.  He breaks from traditional assumptions that nature photographers should work in a naturalistic style and depict only an idyllic Shangri-La separate from human experience.  Instead, Balog challenges our preconceptions with portraits in a photographic style usually reserved for  humans.  He even confronts unsettling scenes in which people hunt animals.  Throughout this bold work, Balog acknowledges animals as they are, wild, captive, or somewhere along the boundary between the two, and charts the ever-present tension between the natural and civilized.

This book provokes us to reconsider our natural environment and is destined to become a classic of modern photography.

Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, 2004 (New York: Sterling)

A quest to photograph North America’s largest, oldest, and strongest trees, plus a glorious obsession with old growth forests combined to occupy six years of James’ life, resulting in the publication of Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest (2004). At first, he built enormous portrait studios beneath the canopies of the forest. Beginning in 2000 he invented a method to photograph the tallest, 300 plus-foot trees in segments from top to bottom; then composite these segments into portraits, showing the entire tree for the first time. These images stand as an artistic and symbolic reassembling of the continent’s long-lost primeval forests. Across the globe, the planet’s original tree cover has been altered so dramatically that we no longer remember what made nature natural.

Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate, 2009 (Washington: National Geographic)

With 27 cameras positioned in remote locations around the world taking pictures every hour, photographer James Balog captures the rapid retreat of our world’s glaciers in this groundbreaking project. Both still photography and time-lapse video sequences document the dramatic effects of global warming on Earth now.

Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, 2012 (New York: Rizzoli)

In this kaleidoscopic view of remote Arctic and alpine landscapes, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers celebrates a realm of exquisite beauty at the same time as it reveals how climate change is altering our world

Since 2006, renowned environmental photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) team – mountaineers and explorers, artists and earth scientists – have produced an historic, definitive look at ice and glaciers. Greenland … Iceland …  the Himalaya … Alaska … the mountains of Canada and the United States … EIS ventures into the world’s wildest places – some are so remote they have never been touched by human footsteps.

Selected from the million-strong EIS photo archive, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers celebrates the art and architecture of ice. We see stupendous ice sheets transformed by the sun, sea water and time, until they become small, glittering diamonds melting into the ever-rising global ocean.

EIS is famed worldwide for the unprecedented feat of designing, deploying and maintaining a network of glacier-watching cameras that withstand some of the harshest conditions on earth. Dozens of cameras click away every half hour of daylight year-round. Each camera annually records some 8,500 frames. When assembled into time-lapse sequences, these images provide a jaw-dropping look at how changing climate effects even immense, seemingly static landforms like glaciers. When you see these photographs you’ll realize there’s no such thing as “glacial pace.”

Ice matters: it is on glaciers and ice sheets that we can see and hear and touch and feel climate change in action. This book preserves a monumental legacy of how the cryosphere – the landscape of ice – appears today. See it now, because what’s shown in this book will never be seen again in the history of civilization.