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CNN Wonder List host Bill Weir to headline Geography Awareness Week at MSU

Los Angeles Times
Bill Weir

Bill Weir is a rare combination of brilliant reporter and passionate adventure enthusiast. Known for his front-line reporting and constant exploration of the unknown, Weir is the host and executive producer of CNN’s The Wonder List with Bill Weir, which takes him around the world in search of unique people, places, cultures, and creatures on the brink of seismic change. Weir will highlight Geography Awareness Week with an address at MSU on November 15. 

Kirk Heinze:Well, we just had an excellent interview on Geography Awareness Week with Al Arbogast, who's the Chair of the MSU Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences. And as usual, the celebration, which kicks off Sunday, November the 11th, features an acclaimed keynote speaker, this year, Emmy Award-Winning TV Journalist and Host of CNN's The Wonder List with Bill Weir.

Bill, a pleasure to talk to you and looking forward to your visit to Michigan State University.

Bill Weir:Thank you, Kirk. Likewise, likewise. I can't wait.

Heinze:Before we get into the MSU visit, give us a snapshot of The Wonder List. I guess now you're going into your third season?

Weir:Yeah, the premise of the show is I got a little girl who is going to turn my age in the year 2050. So I wonder, how many elephants will be left in the wild? How many glaciers? How many undeveloped tropical islands? And we look at change from, not just environmental, but social changes in different places. Life moves so fast and we adapt to things so quickly. You get a new gadget and you're bored with it before the warranty expires.

And sometimes, I think it's best to back up and put ourselves in perspective in sort of the lifespan of a child. And say, "This is a place we all agree is pretty special. If we're not careful, it could be gone." Or, "What are the trade offs? What do we get in exchange for a place?"

So that's the driving force of the show. We shot in over 24 countries, and I'm always hoping for our next season. But in the meantime, getting to tell those same kind of big stories of connectivity and context, just closer to home, in America.

Heinze:Well, I spent quite a bit of time looking at video, I'd call them video vignettes on The Wonder List website. And I looked especially at some of the places I've been lucky enough to travel to, like Iceland, New Zealand, Egypt.

You kind of anticipated this question. Your topics are wide-ranging, but broadly speaking, and correct me if I'm wrong, they deal with social, environmental, and economic sustainability?

Weir:For sure, yeah. I mean, just for perspective, there were about three and a half billion people on the planet when I was born. Now there's closer to seven and it's going to be 10 by the time my kid's my age. And so if you ever throw a barbecue for 10 people and 35 show up, those are the same fundamental questions we have to ask on a global scale. What are we going to eat?

How are we going to power our lives if everybody, the exploding middle class in China, over a billion people decide they want two flat screens and two cars each? How much planet are we going to burn through for everybody to have that? And what trade offs do we make every time we decide that this bit of paradise needs an infinity pool and a swim-up bar? How that changes societies and what we lose and what we gain in those trade offs?

Heinze:Well, your talk is going to be Thursday evening, November 15th at the Wharton Center, I think at seven o'clock. Without giving anything away, the title of your talk is very intriguing; Stories and Secrets From the Happiest, Healthiest People in the World. Again, without giving away all of the take home messages, why that topic?

Weir:Well, I think because it grabbed you, right?


Weir:We all are chasing some ideal of a better, happier, safer, healthier life. And after being lucky enough to fill a couple passports on the company dime to explore different corners of the world, and not just sort of drive-by and fill a preconceived checklist and move on, but to spend time in different societies. You realize that some people have it figured out in ways we don't. We love to think that America's number one across the board. But statistically, we're not. We're not close to the healthiest. 

So I've been to a few of these places and I just study the way they organize themselves, and really, what are we made of more than anything? What separates us from the animals are the stories we tell each other. Whether it's a border or a form of currency, or a government, we're the one creature that can imagine a different future, can imagine life on a different planet and go chase those stories. And the stories they tell themselves high on the Himalayas are very different from modern America.

So I try to pull some lessons, some takeaway that we can adapt in our own little lives because everybody's got their own Wonder List, they've got their own hiking trail, or park, or whatever that they cherish, and they realize that connection, they want to protect it. And so it's sort of advice from around the world for practical stuff that makes life a little bit better back at home.

Heinze:I'm talking with Bill Weir, CNN's Host of The Wonder List with Bill Weir. He'll be speaking on the MSU Campus at the Wharton Center on Thursday, November the 15th, at seven p.m., as part of Geography Awareness Week.

The importance of geography, I mean, you've traveled to over 50 nations. I've had that pleasure to travel a lot of places, but geography is a discipline these days. I mean, it used to be more about maps and travel, but boy, the whole notion of where geography has gone, has expanded dramatically over the last 20 years.

Weir:It suffers from bad branding. Sometimes you hear the word, "Geography," and your eyes roll back. You remember having to memorize state capitals. But geography is about understanding intimately those different stories that I was talking about around the world, and to understand that when the Nile Delta goes dry, that 20 million Egyptians will have no work. And they have nowhere to go south because of the desert below them, so they're going north into Europe.

And what does that mean, when 20 million Egyptians, hungry Egyptians hit Europe? It's anticipating supply chain changes and threats around the world. It's understanding what's happening in the United States right now politically, and why the deep divisions we have in the United States, where they come from historically. Who got off of what boat in the day, and what values they brought, and how that seeped into our culture, even in the modern day, when it seems like we're all watching the same shows, going to the same restaurants.

North America is like 11 different distinct cultural nations that we forget about sometimes. So people who say, "Why would you get a geography degree? How would you apply that?" Man, you could walk into the CIA or any corporation and name your price in a lot of ways, if you understand these trends in that way.

Heinze:You mentioned the diaspora that's happening in Egypt and I'm familiar with that. I'd be remiss, you just came back from covering the migrant caravan near the Mexico-Guatemala border. That story, as you know, continues to unfold. What were your impressions coming back from that?

Weir:It's so easy when you look at those drone shots of 7,000 or now it's probably closer to three, it's gone back down. But you see that and it seems like an invading army. It's easy for that image to be used as a political weapon on either side. But when you get down in amongst those folks, and you meet the children and learn their names, and understand what it's like to walk a 1,000 miles in flip-flops, carrying your kids. And to try to understand what would possibly motivate such a desperate journey.

The debate on who should get in or how they get in is what, obviously, what the people vote about. But this has been going on for generations. And our story of that border continues to change. So what I thought about is standing on that bridge as 1,000 people are pinned us up against the Mexican fence, there was tear gas. It's anytime you get an anxious crowd together like that, they ended up plowing themselves down.

But I couldn't help but think about, "What happens when the scene is repeated dozens of times, on every border because of a changing climate, because of changing economic fortunes, where more desperate people will be seeking higher ground, literally and figuratively?" How are we going to manage that? It's scary.

It’s sort of a wide-eyed and sober, empathetic recognition that all of us are connected; the happiest places, the most desperate places, the more crowded things get, the more all of our decisions overlap.

Heinze:Well, Bill, we're certainly looking forward to your visit to Michigan State. Again, you'll be speaking as part of Geography Awareness Week on November the 15th, Thursday, at seven p.m., at the Wharton Center's Pasant Theater.

I'm looking forward to being there and maybe get a chance to meet you in person. But it's been a pleasure. I've been talking with Bill Weir, who is the Host of The Wonder List with Bill Weir on CNN. Thanks so much, Bill.

Weir:Thanks, Kirk.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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