Most of us go up or down in the world, but for Bertrand Piccard the alternatives were particularly acute. His grandfather, Auguste Piccard, set altitude records by balloon, becoming the first person to enter the stratosphere and thus observe the curvature of the Earth. And his father, Jacques, set the submarine depth record by descending nearly 11,000 metres to touch the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Bertrand chose neither direction, deciding instead to go around the Earth – but in new ways, by balloon and solar-powered aircraft. But he is following in their footsteps as an environmentalist. His grandfather – who made modern aviation and space travel possible by inventing the pressurized cabin – advocated the use of solar energy and heat pumps as early as 1942. And his father helped persuade governments to abandon dumping toxic waste in ocean trenches by showing the world that life existed in the deepest part of the seas, where no one had expected to find it.
Thus Piccard's current project, an attempt to fly round the world in the 72-metre wingspan Solar Impulse 2 is, as he told Our Planet, “in a straight line with my education and with the aspiration to promote the clean technologies that are so important for a better future and for the protection of the environment”. He is a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador.
Back in 1999, Piccard and Brian Jones, his co-pilot at the time, completed the first non-stop around-the-world balloon flight, covering 45,755 km in less than 20 days. It taught him a lot. As in a balloon, so in life, he says, you are pushed by the wind at its own speed and direction and when this is wrong you have to “learn how to change altitude – psychologically, philosophically, spiritually – to find better currents, other ideas, influences [or] solutions to enable you to find a more favourable trajectory for the future”.
After their flight, he and Jones set up the Winds of Hope Foundation to tackle the neglected Noma disease, which is directly related to malnutrition and poor hygiene. The disease, he says is “a symbol of the imbalance of a world split between a wasteful society and starving populations, between sophisticated technologies and total destitution”.
The solar circumnavigation, which began in Abu Dhabi in March 2015, has paused in Hawaii while the aircraft's batteries undergo repairs; the journey is scheduled to restart in April 2016. The aim of the trip, he says, “is not to revolutionize aviation, but rather to achieve a revolution in the mindset of the people. All the old polluting devices that the world is using today can be replaced by clean technological solutions. This will create jobs and profit, while at the same time protecting the environment.”
He goes on: “People have to understand that tackling climate change is a profitable opportunity, rather than an expensive problem.” He adds that the public will become mobilized only “if we emphasize the tangible benefits of existing clean solutions”.
And he calls on environmentalists to “stop threatening human mobility, comfort and economic development in order to protect nature. Asking people to make sacrifices for no immediate return only creates resistance. Who would renounce driving their car because of sea levels rising in 30 years? On the contrary, let's demonstrate that everyone can maintain, and even improve, their standard of living thanks to affordable and accessible clean technology solutions, while reducing the impact of their lifestyle on the environment.”
Thus he concludes, we should “act in the interest of today's generation and not only for future generations. Very few people will change their current behaviour in favour of those living in the future. Let's demonstrate that the changes we need can already deliver a favourable result [for] today's economic, industrial and political development.”