In today’s world, the term ‘ecology’ often evokes images of sacrifice, expense, and inconvenience. In this final episode of our Climate Solutions series, renowned explorer and environmentalist Bertrand Piccard explains why focusing on ecology is not only profitable but also exciting.
Piccard is best known for his groundbreaking achievements in exploration: flying around the world in a solar-powered aeroplane and circumnavigating the globe in a Rozière balloon. These adventures allowed him to witness the beauty and fragility of our planet at first hand, instilling in him a deep sense of responsibility to protect and preserve it.
Talking to host, Sue Stockdale, who is also an explorer, Bertrand discusses the importance of giving ourselves permission to invent our future, highlighting how we are often trained to remain in our zone of comfort, which ultimately limits our potential for adventure and growth. He emphasises the need to step outside of our certainties and embrace the unknown in order to create the life and society we want and shape the future we desire.
About Bertrand Piccard: Clean Tech Pioneer – Founder and President of the Solar Impulse Foundation
Bertrand Piccard is a pioneering spirit and an influential voice to encourage the implementation of efficient solutions. Since the early years of this century he has viewed ecology from a profitability perspective. He is considered an opinion leader on the themes of innovation and sustainability. As President of the Solar Impulse Foundation, he promotes qualitative growth by demonstrating the economic potential of clean technologies.
Denouncing the absurdity of the polluting and inefficient systems still too often used today, he pleads for the modernisation of the legal framework in order to facilitate market access for efficient solutions. His voice is heard within the most important institutions, such as the United Nations, the European Commission, the World Economic Forum. His commitment has earned him several nominations, such as Champion of the Earth and Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations. Together with André Borschberg, co-founder and co-pilot of the Solar Impulse project, Piccard was awarded the RSGS Mungo Park Medal in 2017.
Sue: Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the final episode of this Climate Solutions Series 14, where we’ve partnered with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, a dynamic educational charity working across Scotland and beyond to promote geographical understanding and joined-up thinking. Founded in 1884, the RSGS has developed several exciting projects to enhance your understanding about climate science. To become a member of RSGS, you can go to rsgs.org
This week’s guest is Bertrand Piccard, the legendary aviation pioneer who has achieved two great aeronautical firsts. His non-stop around-the-world balloon flight was the longest ever in aviation history for both duration and distance. More recently, he completed a circumnavigation around the world in a solar aeroplane without using any fuel, demonstrating the immense potential of renewable energies and technologies. Bertrand now combines science and adventure to tackle some of the great challenges of our times. Welcome to the podcast, Bertrand. It’s fantastic to speak to you today!
Bertrand: I’m very happy also – all my friends from Scotland!
Sue: Now, curiosity is something that I know, as an explorer, is close to your heart. What is making you curious at the moment?
Bertrand: The unknown of the world. I think life itself is the biggest adventure. Sometimes we imagine that we have to go to the other side of the world with very special vehicles and things like that. But actually, life is full of unknown, full of unpredictability. And we have to make our way through life, like we do on the ice or in the jungle.
Sue: You’ve been exploring the unknown from an aeronautical perspective with your two great successes, flying around the world in a balloon and a solar-powered aeroplane. I’m wondering, from that view of the world, what did it cause you to reflect upon and to be inspired by?
Bertrand: Of course, you are inspired by nature. You’re inspired by the greatness of the world. You’re inspired by the magic of life that you over-fly. But much more than that, I think, when you go for an adventure like that, you have to prepare yourself. And it’s years and years of preparation, which means that the adventure doesn’t start when you take off and stop when you land. It starts when you are born and it goes through your entire life.
And then you try to make things happen. You do the fundraising, because you have to fund all the adventure. You need the technology, you need the team. And, you know what? You need also all the overflight permissions, the bureaucracy, the certification of your aeroplane or your balloon. And all this is fully part of the adventure. And when people ask me, were you afraid when you were flying across the oceans at night? —No, I was afraid in different moments. I was afraid when I was [dealing with] the bureaucracy and I thought I would never get the certification of the plane. I was afraid when I was asking for overflight permissions that didn’t come. So finally, I was afraid not to fly. I was not at all afraid to fly!
Sue: So, given that the whole journey is not just the flight itself, and if we take that as an analogy for life here on Earth, I’m wondering, from your perspective… you’ve experienced risk-taking, you’ve experienced failing and things going wrong and the unexpected. How could someone who has not done adventurous things bring more adventure into their life, and take more risks?
Bertrand: When I was a teenager, I was not an explorer. I was not an adventurer. I was afraid to climb the tree! I was a bit shy with people, and I just tried to heal myself. So how did I do that? With hang-gliding. The first time I saw a hang-glider flying in the sky in Switzerland – it was in 1974, and I was 16 years old – I thought, ‘That’s my therapy. This is what I need to gain self confidence.’ And I started to fly.
Immediately, I was impressed by the fact that, when you are facing a certain risk, you have to connect to yourself. You have to connect to the present moment. You cannot project yourself any more in all your fears, anxiety, whatever thoughts that you have outside of yourself. No, you connect to yourself. You feel that you are living inside your body in the present moment. And this gives a fantastic performance. There is no space for fear anymore. You are just doing what you need to do at the right moment, with the consciousness of what you are going to do. This was a huge change for me.
And, of course, I wanted to be an explorer because of my father [Jacques Piccard, oceanographer], and because of my grandfather [Auguste Piccard, physicist and inventor]. But I think this was the moment when I gave myself the tools to be able to do it.
Sue: So you had to be present for yourself, and experience that in the moment, to be able to find those tools?
Bertrand: Yes, because in normal life, it’s exactly the opposite from an adventure. In normal life, we are hooked to our certitudes, habits, beliefs, convictions, dogmas, paradigms, exclamation marks, common assumptions. And we’re prisoners of that. And it’s very difficult to go outside our zone of comfort because we are trained to remain in our zone of comfort. So we live exactly the opposite of an adventure.
So what we need to understand is the importance of getting outside our certitudes, to give ourselves the permission to invent something else, not just an invention like an aeroplane or whatever, but invent the life we want, invent the future we want, and be aware that the decisions that we are taking as human beings have a consequence in our life. And the direction of our life will depend on the decisions we take.
It’s a little bit like, in a balloon, when you change your altitude, you find other layers of wind, another direction. So depending on how you change your altitude, you will change your direction. And this makes you understand life, not as a straight line in one dimension, but a 3D vision of the future, where you will navigate at different altitudes. In the balloon, it’s by dropping ballast that you drop weight. And in life, it’s by dropping the certitudes, the habits and the convictions.
Sue: That’s such a lovely analogy. Having done those adventurous things, how did you then move into focusing on helping us all to manage the planet in a different way?
Bertrand: That was a concern that my grandfather and my father had already. You know, when my grandfather made the first ever flight in the stratosphere – when he invented the pressurised cabin and was the first man to see with his own eyes the curvature of the Earth – it was not to break a record. It was to demonstrate that we could fly higher than the bad weather, in thinner air, where the resistance to speed is much lower, and therefore you will reduce fuel consumption. So his vision was already energy efficiency.
When my father made the deepest ever dive into the Mariana Trench in 1960, that was to see if there was life down there, [at a time when] governments wanted to drop their radioactive waste [in the deep oceans]. And when he saw a fish, it was proof that if you sent radioactive waste down there into the deepest trenches, it would pollute the entire ocean and maybe the world. So I was born and raised into that vision of running scientific expeditions to protect the environment.
The balloon flight around the world with Breitling Orbiter 3, that was a dream for myself. But it turned out to be the first point of entry for Solar Impulse. When I landed in the desert of Egypt after 45,000 kilometres and 20 days in the air with my friend Brian Jones, there were only 40 kilos of liquid propane left out of the 3.7 tons we had at the start. And that was the moment when I thought, wow, it’s wrong to say the sky is the limit. The fuel is the limit.
And then I thought, OK, I have everything in my hands now to run a big adventure with no fuel, flying around the world on a solar-powered aeroplane to demonstrate how clean technologies and renewable energies can achieve something completely new, something that people would consider impossible. So it was really the moment when all my education, all my poles of interest, all my concerns, could express themselves into one big project. And that was Solar Impulse….
This is part 1 of 3, look out for the next part on our blog next Friday, or listen to the full podcast episode now.
Access to Inspiration Podcast – interviewed by Sue Stockdale