The Most Important Speech You'll Read Today

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OK, I know that may seem crabbed praise. But this is something really worth taking time to consider. It's an address by Jonathan Watts, who is winding up nine years as a correspondent in China, about what he calls "The world's most important story": how China fares in the struggle to control the forces now destroying its, and the world's environment.

I agree with his claim.

The virtue of Watts's speech, on the always-valuable China Dialogue site, is that it is sophisticated and "balanced" in the right sense. That is, it acknowledges both how dark many of the prospects for China and the world environment are -- and also how hard many parts of the Chinese system are trying to correct them. As he puts it:

My mantra [on arrival in 2003] was that in China "nothing is certain, so everything is possible".

This was true for the environment, which was horrible. I very quickly came to the conclusion that the situation was so appalling in China that this was the country most likely to make a change for the better. I told journalist friends at the time of my hopes for a green revolution here but they were more focused on politics and hopes for reform.

But when I look back at the past nine years, the environment and the economy have been bigger drivers of change....

Under president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, there has been almost zero political reform. But there have been a number of very significant steps forward in terms of environmental policy: anti-desertification campaigns; tree planting; environmental transparency law; adoption of carbon targets; eco-services compensation; eco accounting; caps on water; lower economic growth targets; the 12th Five-Year Plan; debate and increased monitoring of PM 2.5 [fine particulate matter]; investments in renewables and clean tech...

You can read more at China Dialogue, and in Watts's book When a Billion Chinese Jump. I've written to similar effect lots of times on this site and in our magazine -- and in a new story I'm proud of in Popular Science, adapted from my forthcoming book. That's not my reason for writing this item: it's to direct you to Watts's speech on a topic that can't be emphasized enough.

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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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