Manila, Philippines. Photo by Alan Weisman.

In his his bestselling 2007 book The World Without Us, Homelands senior producer Alan Weisman imagined a planet where all the human beings had suddenly disappeared. How would natural systems respond? How long would it take for Earth to recover?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, his phone has been ringing off the hook. People want to know what The World Without Us can teach us about the current moment.

In an essay in the Boston Globe Magazine (full text here) marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, he argues that the lessons of the crisis have little to do with a post-human world. The heart of the problem is the subject of his subsequent book, Countdown: that human beings have grown too numerous and too destructive for a planet with finite resources.

“[A]s we salvage our wrecked economies, let’s discard the notion that growth equals health. Endless economic growth clearly isn’t possible on a planet that doesn’t grow — look where it’s gotten us…. Real health means fewer of us crowding and infecting each other, clear skies and water, ample room to breathe, and thriving wildlife: not for sale, but in its element, where it’s thrilling to see, and where it can keep its microbes and viruses to itself.”

Also, in case you missed the announcement, Slate named The World Without Us one of the top 50 nonfiction books of the last 25 years.

Homelands producer Bear Guerra remembers looking at the sky as a child and feeling a strange mixture of “awe, fear, and hope.” In a 40-image photo essay for Emergence Magazine, he embraces all three of those sensations, exploring what darkness means not just for himself, but for humanity and the planet.

“The images in this series are evidence of an intimate personal journey, as I contemplate our light-polluted world and seek to reconnect with the night; as I ponder how the technology to which we are now tethered is affecting me and those closest to me; as I wonder how I can guide my own child to embrace the night and understand that without darkness we are not just incomplete … we fail to dream.”

You can see the images here.

In an op-ed in The Guardian, senior producer Sandy Tolan decries the decision of Wisconsin’s supreme court to hold the state’s April 7 primary election as scheduled despite the rising risk of Covid-19 and the governor’s order to postpone the vote. But he says the court is not the only political player putting Wisconsinites’ lives at risk.

Read the article here.

Border patrol truck through fence

The United States immigration system wasn’t always so punitive or so cruel, observes Ruxandra Guidi in an analysis for High Country News. Drawing on her years of reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border and interviews with immigration experts, she traces the ways in which the very act of migration has become criminalized.

“U.S. authorities haven’t always viewed migration through a criminal lens. Yet the Trump administration has not only done so, it has chosen to apply deterrence theory to an extreme degree. Whether a person is an undocumented migrant, or a child seeking to reunite with her parents, or an asylum seeker with credible persecution claims makes no difference to our current administration, which considers them all ‘illegal.’”

You can read the essay here.

Photo by Roberto (Bear) Guerra.

On January 13, reporters at the Chicago Tribune were offered buyouts. For many, the signal was clear: the Tribune, one of America’s proudest and most essential news organizations, was about to be hollowed out, as other regional papers around the country have been.

Our dear friend Gary Marx, an extraordinary investigative reporter there, decided not to take the threat lying down. He and his colleague David Jackson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on January 19 decrying the predatory tactics of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has sucked much of the life out of The Denver Post, The Mercury News, and other newspapers.

The fund holds 32 percent of the Tribune’s shares, making it the company’s largest single shareholder.

Gary and David called for a “civic-minded local owner or group of owners” to step in and save the Tribune. Strong local newspapers, they wrote, are “vital to their communities and American democracy.”

On January 25, Gary took his case to NPR, where he spoke with Weekend Edition host (and proud Chicagoan) Scott Simon. Anticipated cuts “would be absolutely devastating,” he said. “[W]e’re not just part of the community. We’re helping create this community.”

Bear Guerra in Mexico
Bear Guerra on assignment for High Country News near Agua Prieta, Mexico, in 2019. Photo by May Kapoor.

We are pleased to announce that Roberto (Bear) Guerra has been named photo editor of High Country News.

Bear is an award-winning documentary photographer and photojournalist whose work addresses globalization, development, and social and environmental justice. He is a native of San Antonio, Texas, and lives with his wife, fellow Homelander Ruxandra Guidi, and their daughter in Tucson, Arizona.

He will be starting his new job in January, and is eager to connect and collaborate with documentary and reportage photographers living and working in the American West. If you fit that description, you can contact him via Instagram.

Based in Colorado, High Country News is an independent nonprofit media organization that covers the American West. Its mission is “to inform and inspire people – through in-depth journalism – to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.” It produces a magazine, website, special reports, and books on topics including climate, public lands, indigenous affairs, water, and immigration.

Slate has selected Homelands co-founder Alan Weisman’s 2007 bestseller The World Without Us as one of the top 50 English-language nonfiction books of the last 25 years.

Book critics Dan Kois and Laura Miller write: “We are a culture intoxicated by apocalypse and ruin, forever telling one another stories about what we’d do to survive should civilization as we know it collapse. But what if humanity itself went poof and left behind the entire apparatus of our existence without a single soul remaining to start over? That is the irresistible premise of Weisman’s book, a thought experiment substantiated by deep research into what it takes to keep the built world functioning and what has happened in the few places (Chernobyl, the Korean Demilitarized Zone) where there has been no one around to prop it up.”

The experiment, they conclude, is “executed with a methodical bravado that’s breathtaking.”

Read the complete story here.

Antonia Cereijido speaks at the award ceremony on November 5. Photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Latino USA producer Antonia Cereijido received the first annual Cecilia Vaisman Award, named after the Homelands Productions co-founder who died in 2015.

Antonia was a student of Cecilia’s at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have a career because of her,” she said at the November 5 ceremony.

The award was created to celebrate audio and video journalists from the Latinx community and was conceived by students from Northwestern’s chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Read the story in the Daily Northwestern.

Cecilia’s husband, Gary Marx, was among the speakers at the event. Gary is an award-winning investigative journalist at the Chicago Tribune. Below is the text of his remarks.

I want to thank NAHJ and Medill for establishing this award in Cecilia’s honor. Cecilia’s life and career were dedicated to promoting diversity and nurturing the next generation of journalists. This award carries on her legacy in a very real way and I speak from the heart when I say that our two children – Ana and Andres – and our entire family are grateful.

I’d like to say a few words about Cecilia – or Ceci as I called her – for those of you who didn’t know her. She was born in Argentina and came as a baby to the States with her family. She grew up in New Jersey. Her mother Carmen loved opera, raised four kids and worked in factories before becoming a pattern maker. She made all of the family’s clothes by hand. Her father Adolfo loved Boca Juniors, and held various jobs including working as a furniture store salesman.

“She was thoughtful and deep and warm and generous and very beautiful – and exacting.”

Gary Marx, Cecilia’s husband

Ceci earned a scholarship to Barnard, joined the college radio station, and then NPR after graduation. Her dream was to do long-form audio documentaries in Latin America and that’s what she did when she helped found Homelands Productions.

Ceci was an artist, a musician, a great bass player, and sound was sacred to her – the human voice above all else. She was thoughtful and deep and warm and generous and very beautiful – and exacting. When she peered over her glasses at you, you knew she expected better.

Teaching came late to Ceci but she loved it. How much? Even in the last months of her life, she did not want to leave Medill. She did not want to leave her students.

I had to convince her that it was time.

Antonia, there was no student she loved more than you. Ceci spoke about you often – about your thoughtfulness, integrity and smarts – not to mention your shared Argentine background.

When I asked you last week to send me a few of your stories so I could catch up with your work, the response surprised me.

Yes, there was a piece about the plight of the Dream 9 activists – young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the US yet left and tried to reenter the country from Mexico to protest our unjust immigration policies. But there also was a story that tried to answer a ridiculously profound question: Do Latinos and Latinas cry more than the rest of us? And the third story you sent me was about Dora the Explorer, the animated Nickelodeon TV character.

I was intrigued. Then I listened. Each of the three pieces carried the hallmarks of great journalism – all the hallmarks of Ceci’s journalism. The piece on the young immigration activists could have been a simple, triumphant celebration of their efforts. It covered that but the story also talked about the devastating infighting among immigration reformers, the personal sacrifice and cost of activism among the Dream 9, and most of all – it raised the question – without ever asking the listener directly – what are each of us doing in our own lives to bring more justice to this world.

The story had integrity, power and honesty, just like Ceci would have demanded.

The story about the frequency of Latinos crying made me laugh, until it didn’t. It was done tongue in cheek and it was fun to listen to – the Mexican actor you interviewed, the references to telenovelas, the mythology of tears in Latino culture, the high-pitched yet solemn ranchera music – and of course your own imprecise poll of people of diverse backgrounds and their habits regarding the shedding of tears.

The story was about emotion and cultural norms, but it was also about our shared humanity….and by the end I was thinking about my own relationship to sadness and tears…And how true your conclusion was – not that Latinos cry more, even though I’m positive they do – but that pain brings tears and tears help sooth us.

I know that firsthand, especially since Ceci’s passing. The story was so honest. So universal.

Then there is Dora The Explorer, who frankly I knew little about before listening to the piece. For those of you of my generation, Dora is a 7-year-old, bilingual, backpack-toting Latina who, with her sidekick Boots, goes on adventures solving riddles and overcoming obstacles with the help of her audience. She was the first animated TV character who looked and spoke like her.

The hook for the story was a new Dora movie that was coming out… but Antonia’s piece was really about the show’s significant contribution to helping make inclusivity and diversity one of the most important values in our society. Yet, as the piece ends, the audience is left with a disturbing contradiction: The globalist, open borders vision of the world that Dora represents stands under the greatest threat in a generation. Are people of color today – people like Dora – less safe in America than when she was ruling the Nickelodeon airwaves a decade ago?

The story leaves that question hanging with the listener like a tidal wave about to hit the shoreline.

Antonia… Cecilia would have been so proud of your work… and of you. So am I. Congratulations.