On Sunday March 1 at 10:00 p.m. EST, CNN will debut The Wonder List with Bill Weir, which sends the primetime news anchor into some of the world’s most far-flung destinations — from the obscure volcanic islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific to the vacation hotspot of Venice, Italy. But The Wonder List is not your typical travel show. Each destination is on the brink of massive disruption, either from an environmental force, like climate change, or from the pressure of human development, like overcrowding in India. We caught up with Weir days before the premier to talk about his new adventure lifestyle and storytelling at the crossroads.
What’s The Wonder List about?
In its stripped-down, one-word essence it’s a show about change. It all started when I looked at my now 11-year-old daughter and realized that she is going to turn my age in 2050, and I just wondered. Will she still live on a planet with wild tigers? With a Jordan River and a Dead Sea? How much of the glaciers in the Alps will be gone? How many species in the Galapagos will be gone? Will there still be perfect little island nations without strip malls and burger joints? The basic idea was to ask these grand existential questions about an age of blazingly fast change, and then go to these fantastic places — which we all agree are precious in their current form—and meet the people who are witnessing these changes, and understand how they feel about it, for better or for worse.
How did you choose which places to include on the list?
We wanted it to be as diverse as possible, and as surprising as possible and not just make it a series about a changing climate or species extinction, but to touch on all of these, and then throw in some unexpected ones like this island in Greece, one of the so-called blue zones, where people live to 100 at a staggering rate. Using that episode as an example, there are a dozen different reasons these folks have figured out how to beat the grim reaper, but one big reason is that modern society has pretty much passed them by. As a quirk of geography and geology, this island really missed out while the rest of Europe entered the 21st century. But now they’re getting Facebook and Wi-Fi, and junk food and a lot of folks are worried that this life is going to disappear. That concept became a one-hour program on lifestyle and aging. I want each one of these to stand alone as sort of a little cinematic time capsule of amazing places.
Are any of these places really at risk for disappearing altogether?
I think they’re changing in radical ways. For example, the Taj Mahal. It’s not going to crumble anytime soon, but in our experience there are real worries about crowd management in a country like India, a third the size of the United States and with four times as many people. And so the chance to walk up to a magnificent token of love like this may go away as they are forced into issues of crowd control. Venice probably isn’t going to sink beneath the waves in our lifetime, but the number of flooding incidents there has risen in staggering ways, and they’ve spent billions on this new floodgate system to protect themselves and they’re wrestling with the flood of tourists. These places may not be disappearing, but they’re on the brink of fundamental change. Species are a different story. In the Galapagos, I went to look at a couple species — finches and mockingbirds — where there are less than 100 of them on the planet. Those will be gone unless drastic steps are taken.
Are there places in the world, like the Northwest Passage or Greenland, that might actually become more hospitable?
Absolutely. There are winners and losers with every change. You know, the wine growers of British Columbia will probably make a killing in the next few decades. And that’s what I really want to get at, that not all change is bad, obviously. But there are tradeoffs. When I was born, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet, and when my daughter is my age, it will be well over 9 billion. I don’t know about you, but anytime I throw a dinner party for 10 and 50 show up, nothing good can come of that. One thing is for sure, we live in an age of staggering innovation and as a storyteller I wouldn’t want to live in any other time.
What about skiing and mountaineering? Are we at risk for losing these types of sports as we know them?
They’re already seeing it [in the Alps]. One of my guides in Chamonix was Anselme Baud, who is a legend. He was skiing, you know, 55-degree steeps back in the days before avalanche beacons and helmets. He knows the Alps better than anyone and just goes down the list of all the runs that are no longer accessible. Just in his lifetime. You hear a glaciologist talk about a retreating glacier and that doesn’t matter to most folks. But to go into the Alps and climb up these glaciers with some of the most acclaimed mountaineers and extreme skiers was the thrill of a lifetime. One of our guides on top of the Bossons glacier put it pointedly. She said that what’s happening [to the glaciers] is revolting, that they sit around après ski and talk about whether their kids will have to be mountain biking guides because there’ll be no ice left to climb.
How does this series differ from others dealing with global change, like Earth: A New Wild and Years of Living Dangerously?
My flavor as a reporter has always been to sort of take the viewer by the hand and bring them along on this adventure of exploration. And most of my stories are very character driven. Anthony Bourdain [Parts Unknown] goes to a fabulous place and explores cultures through the prism of food and drink. I really try to show these places through the eyes of the best characters I can possibly find and walk in their shoes for a few days.
You filmed eight episodes in eight places. Did any one single adventure stand out?
We were in the Middle East, where the Dead Sea is disappearing at a staggering rate. The Jordan River has been damned and diverted to the point where the Dead Sea is literally evaporating. Giant sinkholes are opening up around the shores, but most people aren’t even aware of real issue because it’s been a militarized zone on both sides of the Jordan River for so long. So we asked for permission from both the Jordanian Military and the Israeli Military to go look at the river. And this Israeli park ranger, a former soldier said, “I want to show you something that gives me hope.” And he didn’t tell us where we were going; we drove across mine fields, passed barbed wire, to a bunker from the Six-Day War. Heading into this stifling hot, 120-degree, dark tunnel to get into this bunker, we still have no idea what he’s going to show us, and then turn the corner and it’s filled with thousands of bats. Migrating bats—from Africa to Europe—that have been driven out of their caves by goat herders. Meanwhile naturalists have been looking for the “disappearing bats of the Middle East” and sure enough, they’re in this bunker. Walking out, you realize that when human beings stop fighting and get out of the way, nature comes back in full force.