If Richard Branson realizes his ambition to travel into space, he'll be able to look down on the world and reflect on the mark he's made on it. The entrepreneur built his Virgin brand into a renowned international business empire by packaging pleasure. His record label made bedfellows of the Sex Pistols and Genesis; his transatlantic airline sexed up a straitlaced industry. He possesses a Caribbean island and a thirst for adventure that has driven his record-breaking exploits in boats and balloons. He's an inexhaustible party animal, and now he has booked himself a seat on the inaugural commercial Virgin Galactic flight, set to launch as soon as the company's private spacecraft is deemed ready.
So why on earth or above it has TIME named Britain's best-known avatar of conspicuous consumption a champion of the environment? Because Branson is worried about that mark he's made on the world and he's decided to clean it up. While he's at it, he may just help save the planet. "There's a frightening potential scenario out there that means that anybody who's in a position to do something must do something. In particular because I'm in one of the dirty businesses, the airline business, I've got all the more responsibility to do something," he says.
Branson fears the world faces catastrophe as the population outgrows food supplies and global warming threatens devastation. He believes scientific research holds out the best hope for averting disaster. In 2006 he pledged to invest $3 billion over 10 years including 100% of any proceeds from Virgin's airlines and train companies into developing clean fuels, renewable energy and environmental technologies.
Critics accuse him of self-interest. They're right, but it's of the enlightened kind. Soaring oil prices are squeezing airline profits. Pressure from governments and green lobbies to curb emissions is growing. Branson doesn't want to curtail his transport businesses but to make them more successful and more eco-friendly. That means flying lighter aircraft using low-carbon fuels. So, early next year, Virgin will begin test flights on a 747 partially powered by a biofuel. And a Virgin-sponsored competition to be judged by Branson, Al Gore and a panel of distinguished scientists is offering $25 million in prize money to spur inventors to find ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Branson may be a bon vivant, but he may yet teach us all how to live well.