China's Nascent Environmentalism

By Christina Larson

beijingpark.jpgMany thanks to Jim, and to readers, for your time this past week. In closing, I wanted to offer, as other guests have done, a more thorough introduction and an invitation for readers with similar interests (or "tips," as reporters say) to contact me at christina [dot] larson [@] gmail [dot] com.

Like Jim, I began my journalism career at The Washington Monthly, a dogged little magazine often ahead of the curve in intuiting the national conversation (hiring a 20-something Jim way back in the day wasn't bad, eh?) and in being scrappy before all of new media was scrappy.

After reporting for the Monthly on what I call the long history of America's environmental movement (links here and here) -- starting with 19th century worries about the closing of the western frontier and timber shortages in the East (timber being the "oil" of its time) through today's climate debates -- I began to wonder how other countries have dealt with resource challenges, or failed to.

Since 2007, I have been reporting in China (and elsewhere in Asia), looking at the efforts of China's environmentalists, scientists, lawyers, and others to rein in their country's enormous pollution toll and related problems. Usually I approach these larger questions by chronicling the particular ambitions and struggles of people on the ground trying to make a difference. (Some links here, here, here, here, here.)

A few things distinguish China's recent environmentalism history: the speed and scale of the problems, and the preference of the government to operate in top-down fashion.

Consider that the impetus for America's environmental protection system often came from the ground up -- independent journalists like Rachel Carson and George Bird Grinnell identifying failures in government policy, and powerful outside organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council suing the EPA when regulations weren't upheld. There's much less space for journalists and activists in China, although more than you might guess. (Hence my interest in writing for The Atlantic about Chinese reporters and grassroots leaders.)

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for smog+london+1952.jpgChina may clean up its environmental mess eventually, as the United States and Western Europe have done (once Londoners couldn't see the sun at noon, so thick was "London smog"), but it almost certainly won't do so in the same fashion as the West. In the meantime, China's mess is everyone's business; mercury pollution from Chinese coal plants drifts across the Pacific to plague the U.S. west coast, while its carbon emissions threaten the planet.

The story isn't all black, though, as necessity is the mother of invention. Today, China is a vast laboratory for green experimentation, from carbon-exchange markets to eco-cities designs -- some of which will turn out to be merely hype, and some of which may yield new insights that planners in America and the West can learn from.

Thumbnail image for CLnotebook.jpgOn that topic, dear reader, I do encourage you to reach out with your ideas and observations. I am writing from DC, but will heading back to China in May. Once my guest-blogging tenure is up, if you're looking to find me: I'm a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine (another small magazine with terrific colleagues) and a fellow at the New America Foundation. You'll also, time to time, find my related work in The New Republic, Time, Scientific American, Washington Monthly, Yale Environment 360, Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
 Happy trails.

Christina Larson is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow or message her on Twitter at @larsonchristina.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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