Move over David Suzuki. Make way Al Gore. Switzerland’s most engaging hero after tennis star Roger Federer is now a proponent of renewable energy.

Dr. Bertrand Piccard’s affinity for TV cameras won’t hurt his reputation, but it’s his inspiring talks and efforts to promote solar energy that will put him on centre stage in this age of the environment. At 49, Piccard is no “muesli-eating environmentalist.” He’s a psychiatrist and adventurer, most famous for being the first person to circumnavigate the Earth in a hot air balloon.

His talk, “We can do it if we want to! Building a Sustainable Future is like Flying Around the World with a Hot Air Balloon,” could be retitled, but his message, casually passionate delivery and engaging French accent captivated the audience at the European Sustainable Energy Forum held in Switzerland in July. “Life is like a balloon,” he said. “We are pushed by the winds.” And so it is with the global move toward sustainable development. We are being nudged by the wind and we don’t have a map.

His advice is to handle this journey by controlling what we can. In Piccard’s case this meant his flying altitude, since wind direction and speed vary at different heights. By changing height, a balloonist can find the right route.

“We have to be ready to do the opposite of what we have done normally.” And for this, he says, “We need weather forecasters.” They help us find the right altitude, but we have to make the move and be willing to follow the wind where it takes us.

Piccard comes from a line of adventurers. His father, in 1960, reached the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, an underwater spot believed to be the deepest place on Earth. His grandfather, in 1931, climbed to the record-breaking height of 15,785 metres in a balloon.

Now Piccard wants to be one of the pilots to circumnavigate Earth in a solar-powered airplane. “Just think,” he said of the journey planned for 2012, “an airplane that can fly around the world without fuel.”

Piccard’s fascination with solar energy reflects his home country’s focus on renewables. Despite the fact that it is fast becoming a technological leader in solar power, cloudy Switzerland isn’t a good candidate to capture much of the sun’s free energy. But that isn’t stopping this land of precision watches. Over time, Switzerland plans to replace its aging nuclear plants with renewable energy.

Although the country lags behind Germany, it has taken Piccard’s advice. The Swiss Parliament has “changed altitudes.” I

n this issue of Alternatives, we ask our leaders to change their altitude too. The Water Soft Path marks a departure from traditional patterns of water use. Piccard once said, “I went in search of new ideas blowing in the wind, to try and live better on Earth. …” The winds of change are blowing us toward a more sustainable future; the Water Soft Path is one way to get there.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.

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