Bertrand Piccard: Profits And Saving The Planet Go Together

Five Questions for the legendary pilot, environmental activist and founder of Solar Impulse Foundation, supporting solutions that are profitable and protect the planet.

In partnership with: ChangeNOW

Environmentalist, Psychiatrist, Aviator, Explorer, Entrepreneur. Bertrand Piccard's many hats have made him a pioneer and leading voice on the themes of innovation, clean technologies and sustainability. He is the first person to complete a non-stop balloon flight around the globe, as well as the co-pilot of the maiden around-the-world flight in a solar-powered airplane.

Founder and Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, the Lausanne-born 63-year-old has made it his mission to select 1000 solutions to protect the environment in a profitable way. He is currently United Nations Ambassador for the Environment and Special Advisor to the European Commission.

Ahead of the 2021 changeNOW summit, the world's largest gathering of innovations for the planet, where he will be sharing his vision and pioneering spirit, we asked Bertrand Piccard 5 questions about building a smarter future.

WORLDCRUNCH: What has the pandemic shown us about the need to act now and bring about a more sustainable future?

BERTRAND PICCARD: The pandemic has shown us that nearly shutting down the economy for several months only brought a 7% drop in CO2 emissions; and we have seen a lot of people lose their jobs, a lot of companies going bankrupt and a lot of economic suffering for many people around the world.

For me it's a perfect example that we will not protect the environment by fighting against the economy, but by introducing new technology that can make industry and the economy sustainable and carbon neutral.

So instead of shutting down the economy, believing that this will help the environment, we have to make the economy and the industry more efficient. This is maybe the biggest lesson: Our world is inefficient and is wasting energy, food, natural resources. We are in a world that is polluting because of its inefficiency.

If we manage to become more efficient thanks to all the new technologies, we can at the same time protect the environment and the economy. This is the work we are doing with the Solar Impulse Foundation: We have identified 1,150 solutions that can make the world both more efficient, more clean and more profitable. What we really need now is to implement all these technologies. There are billions of dollars and euros flooding the markets for the post COVID-19 recovery, and this money could be used to speed up the implementation of new technological solutions, the circular economy, new industrial opportunities such as hydrogen, electric mobility, renewable energies, etc.

I think it's a unique window of opportunity that we have today and if we waste it by continuing to put money into old industries of the past, the crisis we have gone through will be completely useless, we will have learned nothing from it.

Environment and economy have to work together and if they don't, we will achieve nothing. The more efficient we are thanks to new technology, the more profitable the world will be, because the companies who are selling these efficient solutions will develop, will create new jobs, will bloom and the people who will use these solutions will save a lot of money.

What is the specific role of entrepreneurs in addressing today's challenges?

We need entrepreneurs now to use the technologies that the innovators have invented to be more efficient. We need entrepreneurs to use the solutions that exist and we also need them to push the governments to adopt more modern regulations that are really going to encourage efficient renewable energies and protection of the environment.

This is a role for the entrepreneurs that we don't speak about enough. The governments are afraid to change regulations, they are afraid that everybody will be opposed to that. So industry and the entrepreneurs have to push the governments to modernize the regulations in order to speed up the arrival of the new efficient solutions on the market.

ChangeNOW is about identifying top leaders across different sectors, how is that part of Solar Impulse 1000 Solutions?

ChangeNOW is really bringing all the entrepreneurs from every field in contact with business and political leaders, so this is really useful. Our part at the Solar Impulse Foundation is a bit more specific: What we do is we identify the solutions that are both financially profitable and protect the environment. We can work with changeNOW to present these solutions to key opinion leaders and decision makers. So it's a great collaboration.

Can you share 3 of the solutions you deem particularly worthy of attention?

Take for instance the smoke that comes from the factory chimneys: it is not just smoke, it is also heat, which means it is energy. So one of the solutions that we have identified is recovering this heat to give it back to the factory's energy system. This is a win-win situation, both for Eco-Tech Ceram, the company which is producing and selling this system and for the factory which will recover the heat and save a lot of money, but also for the environment, as less energy is wasted.

There is also a company called WeNow which provides software to help drivers reduce their fuel consumption by giving them behavioral advice. This can help save as much as 17% in fuel. Celsius, a spinoff of Schlumberger, is drilling to use geothermal energy in the center of cities. They can drill in parking lots for instance and then install heat pumps in buildings. Normally, heat pumps cannot be installed in city centers, but with this solution it's possible, and the pumps are actually four times more energy efficient than normal heating systems.

All of the solutions that we have identified around the world offer the same types of benefits: They reduce energy waste, they recover what can be recovered, they go into the circular economy: to make profits, to save money, to protect the environment, to develop industry. All these solutions exist but the governments don't know about them. A lot of factories have never heard about these possibilities. We need to make these solutions known. ChangeNOW is a perfect opportunity to promote them.

Finally, we often hear astronauts talk about the "overview effect", the cognitive shift that comes from seeing Earth from above. How have your flights (in a balloon, in an airplane) changed your perception of our planet?

I was aware of the beauty of our planet before I traveled around the world in a balloon and a solar-powered airplane, because my father and my grandfather were already involved in great expeditions that showed how magical life is on this planet and the beauty of nature. But I also am aware of the fact that when you talk about this to key decision-makers, it doesn't change the world. They are not taking decisions because of the beauty of the planet or wishful thinking, but rather because they want to seek profitability and job creation. It's much more efficient to speak to them in down-to-earth ways about how we can use green, renewable technologies to earn more profits and create more jobs. This is what will change the world.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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