One of the most beautifully sited cities in the world must be Luzern in Switzerland, and one of the most pleasant things to do in it is to stroll along the Lidostrasse and look across the lake, the Vierwaldstättersee, towards the mountains that rise up straight from the shore on the other side. I went there with my family in April. The atmospheric clarity, the still blue-green waters of the lake, the jagged black mountains, snow-dappled and with small cream clouds moored below their summits—it’s like a picture, we said, in the words of millions before us.
Switzerland absolutely fulfils our idea of the picturesque, bred from generations of paintings and photographs, postcards and calendars. Switzerland has the most spectacular scenery in Europe and, ever since ‘untamed nature’ inspired romantic feeling and became a landscape for recreation, it has set a world benchmark for our notions of natural beauty. Places masquerading as ‘little Switzerland’ exist in every other continent. Never mind what Harry Lime said about the cuckoo clock (wrongly, in any case, because the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany): what Switzerland gave the Western world was the idea that the drama of natural phenomena alone could make a place worth the journey, without the scholarly excuses of the classical historian, the religious reasons of the pilgrim, the commercial motives of the trader, or the scientific curiosity of the explorer.
Tourists have been coming here for more than two centuries. One of the delightful things about Switzerland is that wilderness is so close to comfort: cold glaciers and peaks can be almost touched from the doors of warm restaurants and railway coaches. Look back towards town from the Lidostrasse and you can see magnificently solid nineteenth-century hotels with names such as the Palace, the Derby, the Château Gütsch; across the bay lies a white fleet of half a dozen elegant old steamers being readied for their summer season on the lake; ahead is the peak of Mount Pilatus, 7,000 feet high, and climbed in 1868 by Queen Victoria on a mule. Invisible to the naked eye are the many small railways and cableways that climb up the hills and mountains, including Pilatus, and that long ago made mules, guides and ice-picks redundant. As well as being a beautiful country, Switzerland is also a beautifully engineered one. By the time the Queen died, even the plumpest Victorian traveller, breathless from cigars and six-course dinners, could reach several of the lower summits without fearing the gradient, and from there see the ice fields and rock faces of mountains which only a few decades earlier, and often by Englishmen, had been scaled for the first time (the Eiger in 1858, the Matterhorn in 1865).
The mechanical conquest of the Alps is a marvellous story, and the best place to see the techniques that made it possible is Luzern’s Verkehrshaus, which was our destination that day on the Lidostrasse. The Verkehrshaus is Switzerland’s transport museum and its halls are filled with locomotives, automobiles, cable cars and pieces of funicular railway, as well as a steamer’s hull and, suspended from the ceiling, many aircraft with the Swiss cross painted on their tails. Models show how things work. Many displays are interactive. We could pretend to be Zurich air-traffic control and give directions for landing and take-off, or imagine ourselves as engine drivers negotiating our way up the pass to the St Gotthard Tunnel. We enjoyed all these, and then I noticed in a neglected corner of the aircraft hall a separate display which would make any visitor wonder where all these forms of travel (but particularly flying and driving) were finally helping to take us: the display made no bones about the terrifying destination—an increase in average global temperatures of somewhere between 2 and 5 degrees Celsius in the next hundred years, bringing rising sea levels, melting polar icecaps, the vanishing glaciers which in Switzerland have already lost half their volume since the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Travel isn’t the only cause, but its contribution to the total of the greenhouse gases that warm the world is steadily increasing. Carbon emissions from aircraft occur in the higher atmosphere and have three times the potency of the gases that rise from the ground. The display’s captions told their chastening story. Since 1970, the distance travelled in aircraft by Swiss citizens had multiplied by four; more than fifty per cent of passengers leaving Switzerland by air (excluding transit passengers) were flying only 600 kilometres or fewer; eighty per cent of cut flowers arrived by air; civil aviation caused about ten per cent of all Switzerland’s greenhouse gas output. What to do? By pressing buttons and watching columns of lights, we worked out that travelling by train from London had saved half as much of the energy as the same journey by air, and cut our carbon emissions by four fifths. Any feelings of smugness quickly disappeared at the next set of captions. To mitigate the effects of global warming—because all we can now do is to modify the severity of the inevitable—we would need to ration the carbon dioxide produced by travelling to an allowance of no more than half a tonne a year for every human being now alive. That translated into 2,200 kilometres by car a year, with no air travel, or 1,000 kilometres by car a year with a return flight from Europe to Bali once every fifteen years.
Fortunately for the climate, a lot of the world’s population is too poor to do much travelling at all. But if that were to change, as it almost certainly will in India and China, then a more equitable world hoping to stabilize a changing climate—and prevent, say, the complete inundation of Bangladesh—would outlaw or punitively tax all forms of travel which it judged particularly draining of the earth’s resources and harmful to the atmosphere. No government or electorate is yet willing to debate such a possibility, far less act on it; even climate-change lobbyists continue to fly to their conventions, trailing CO2 on their way. And yet something has changed. Travel no longer seems so innocent or beneficent (‘travel broadens the mind’), unless one journeys in some pre-industrial carbon-neutral way, like Thomas Coryat walking all the way from Somerset to India in the early seventeenth century, or R. L. Stevenson on his donkey in the Cévennes, or Queen Victoria getting up Pilatus on her mule.
We left the museum. The snow at the top of Pilatus was still glistening in the afternoon sun. But in the feelings that the sight prompts, something has also changed. The snow no longer seems ordained, falling winter after winter; it may still lie through spring in the lives of our yet-to-be-born grandchildren, or it may not. The lake may be fuller or emptier. Nobody really knows. All we know is that a changing climate is slowly eating away our belief in permanence, of nature continuing as it was before we began to glimpse the consequences of our massive, unknowing interference with it.
This general concern is very new. As recently as 2003, in Granta‘s issue on climate change, This Overheating World, Bill McKibben could write that most Americans still thought about ‘global warming’ as a problem on a par with ‘violence on television’ or ‘growing trade deficits’—’as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all’. As to its presence in travel writing—or any other literary form—it is only now beginning to make an impression. Granta‘s three previous issues devoted to travel, published in 1983, 1986 and 1989, take climate as a given when they mention it at all, and this is entirely understandable since man-made climate change was still a debate confined to scientists through most of the 1980s, until McKibben published the first popular account of it, The End of Nature, in 1989.
Travel writing was then in its boom decade. Bill Buford, then the editor of Granta, wrote in his introduction to the travel issue of 1983 that the pieces inside succeeded ‘not by the virtue of the details they report—exotic as they are—but by the contrivance of their reporting’. All were ‘informed by the sheer glee of story-telling, a narrative eloquence that situates them, with wonderful ambiguity, somewhere between fiction and fact’. As a keen reader of travel writers—Naipaul, Chatwin, Theroux—the thought of their ‘wonderful ambiguity’ had never occurred to me: I imagined that what had been described was what had happened, in more or less the order it had happened in. Now, perhaps, we have a more sophisticated understanding of the omission and distortion that narrative always imposes, and of the sometimes blurry divisions between fiction and exact fact. Still, it seems to me that if travel writing is to be more than a persuasive literary entertainment—if it’s to have some genuinely illuminating and perhaps even, these times being what they are, some moral purpose—then the information it contains needs to be trustworthy. How else do you justify the carbon emissions spent in its research?
John McGahern died at his farm in County Leitrim, Ireland, in March, a few days after a small piece on his thoughts about God was published in our previous issue. It may have been the last piece he ever wrote; certainly it was the last piece to be published in his lifetime. He was a great writer, whose best work evoked the people and the landscape of the county he was born in, died in, and lived in for so many years of his life. Perhaps in that way he was among the last of a certain kind of writer—the opposite of a travel writer and increasing numbers of novelists—whose imagination depended on the intimate knowledge of a small and settled community, when its world was steady. He was a delight to know, to edit, and (most of all) to read. Granta is honoured to have published him.