Flying high above Earth, Bertrand Piccard, the world-renowned explorer and environmentalist, refines his vision for global sustainability. At this altitude, Piccard is free to think broadly. It is a freedom he embraces. “The problems of the world come from the fact that people focus far too much on the problems in their own fields, and they lose the general vision,” said Piccard, 59, when GCA spoke with him in October 2017. “They forget the systemic approach.” Piccard’s ability to see the big picture—to dream big—combined with an inherited attraction to record-setting challenges, has led him repeatedly to the limelight in the last twenty years. He first made headlines in 1999 by completing the first ever non-stop round-the-world balloon voyage. For 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes, Piccard and his co-pilot traversed the stratosphere, 36,000 feet above sea level. A full circumnavigation. Sixteen years later, in 2015, Piccard embarked on yet another global expedition, this time trading in the balloon for a solar-powered plane. The voyage, “Solar Impulse,” was a resounding success. Without a drop of fuel, Solar Impulse 2 circled the globe in 23 days of flying time. Indeed, it is an accomplishment worthy of his pedigree: Piccard’s father, Jacques, was the first person to explore the 10,916m deep Mariana Trench and his grandfather, Auguste, was the first to breach Earth’s stratosphere. “All the people that influenced me in my life, like my father and my grandfather, but also the astronauts and explorers I grew up with— they all faced very big challenges. They were never afraid of having a global vision or doing something difficult and ambitious. This has pushed me to do the same.”
They were never afraid of having a global vision or doing something difficult and ambitious. This has pushed me to do the same.
In recent years, Piccard’s “global vision” has pushed his ambition beyond record books, driving him to tackle the “much more difficult” task of realizing a sustainable global economy. Using Solar Impulse as his launching pad, Piccard has leveraged newfound fame to lead an international environmental campaign. In between TED talks and meetings with Presidents and Prime Ministers, he has been busy building the newly inaugurated World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, an organization dedicated to promoting clean technology. At its core, the Alliance hopes to create a global network through which sustainable innovators can connect with inspired investors and industry incumbents. With the intrepid Swiss pilot at the helm, the Alliance will present a list of 1,000 profitable solutions for a sustainable economy at COP 24 next December. In true Piccard fashion, it is a lofty goal anchored in a pragmatic approach. “The most exciting thing is to be useful, to bring another vision of what can be done and to stimulate people to do better,” Piccard says. “For the Alliance, this means you need to have profitable solutions to protect the environment and allow industry to continue.” At 28,000 feet above sea level, things are clear for Bertrand Piccard. The SUN RUN 03 A trained psychiatrist, Piccard’s perspective affords him a unique view on catalyzing such change. “My experience with patients in psychotherapy has shown that people will never change something in their lives if they don’t either face a crisis or find a personal advantage,” he observes. With respect to climate action, “once you demonstrate the personal and communal advantages, you see that it is possible to take action because you will stop thinking of problems to solve and start thinking of solutions to implement.” With that in mind, Piccard is determined to crack the inertia that binds world leaders— political and corporate—to business-as-usual thinking. He is doing it the best way he knows how. “What I love is to promote the pioneering spirit, the spirit of exploration. Which means to free ourselves from certitudes, and from our habits, that keep us prisoners of old ways of thinking, in order to do things differently, to be more efficient. Today, it is not a question of being only ecological, it is a question of being logical. And logical today is to have clean growth that is better than the dirty status quo.”
Interview: Where does your focus on sustainable economic growth come from?
The problems of the world come from the fact that people focus far too much on little details, sectors, fields and lose the general vision. Lose the systemic approach. When I was trained as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I was always interested in the systemic approach more than the individual approach. And in the systemic approach, you don’t try to solve just one problem. You try to address the entire system. You try to have the entire vision and you understand before you act. In our world, we need to change what has brought the problems of today: the gap between ecology and industry. On the one hand, you have the ecology contingent, who for 50 years has said we have to protect the environment, and the only solutions they had were to threaten mobility, threaten modern lifestyle and growth, which does not work. And on the other side, you have industry who is providing a good quality of life but at the cost of environmental destruction and depletion of natural resources. So, if you see the systemic approach—if you have the global vision—you understand that you have to put them both together. You need to have profitable solutions to protect the environment and continue with industry. It is easier to solve the big problem with a general vision and a general understanding than to solve small problems individually and separately.
It is easier to solve the big problem with a general vision and a general understanding than to solve small problems individually and separately.
What has been the most exciting aspect of building the Alliance thus far?
The most exciting thing is to be useful. To stimulate people to do better. What I love is to promote the pioneering spirit, the spirit of exploration. This means departing from our certitudes, from our habits, out of our normal way of thinking in order to do things differently, to be more efficient. It is so exciting to present the goal of 1,000 solutions (submitted by companies around the world) to heads of states and CEOs, and observe how thrilled and desperate they are to receive the list. They need the work that we are doing.
What are the largest challenges for the World Alliance?
Compared to the solar impulse project? Both seemed impossible at the beginning. Solar Impulse was considered to be impossible by the experts. The aviation industry refused to build the plane, for example, so we had the plane built by a shipyard. For the Alliance, we want to present 1,000 profitable solutions that will protect the environment. You also have to think completely differently in this situation. With the Alliance, we must mobilize the worlds of finance, ecology, industry and politics. We need to bring all these people together. In other words, we need to bring the solution-providers together with the people who can fund and people who are seeking solutions.
The motto for the Solar Impulse was, “exploration to change the world.” The motto for the World Alliance is, “solutions to change the world.”
If we aim to fly around the world in a solar airplane and we only get 75% of the way, it might already be an incredible feat, but it’s still a failure. If we bring 1,000 profitable sustainability solutions to heads of states but we change nothing in the world, it’s also a failure. We have committed ourselves to do something difficult and we accept the risk of failing because if we don’t accept that risk we will never succeed.
Which solutions, technological or otherwise, are you most excited about?
There are two fields in which I see a lot of hope. The first is the production of renewable energy and, in particular, its decrease in costs. When I speak with different heads of states, they tell me, ‘in my country the public bids to produce electricity are won by renewables against fossil fuels.’ This is fantastic! The other part relates to energy efficiency. It’s useless to produce new energy if we continue to waste half of it. In the world of energy efficiency, you have hundreds and hundreds of little pieces, individual solutions, which are part of a larger puzzle. Putting silica in tires, for example, saves 6% of fuel consumption. New composite materials are emerging for use in wind turbines. New systems for heat transport. And so on. If you combine all energy efficiency solutions and put them to work, you can divide CO2 emissions by two! That is why bringing these solutions to light, through the World Alliance, can have such a big impact. The motto for the Solar Impulse was, “exploration to change the world.” The motto for the World Alliance is, “solutions to change the world.”
About Sustainable Heroes
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