Ten Minutes to Help You Understand China's Environmental Emergency

If you don't have time to watch all 30 minutes of the "G+ Hangout" that ended an hour ago, about the current pollution emergency in China, I strongly recommend that you watch at least the last 10 minutes. Here's the background:

This broadcast is part of a weekly series on events in China, run by Fons Tuinstra, whom I knew in Beijing. The main guest is Richard Brubaker, who lives in Shanghai and teaches at a well known business school there. The topic is the recent spate of historically bad air-pollution readings in many Chinese cities, especially Beijing. The whole discussion is important and interesting, and here are some of the early highlights:

  • Time 9:20+ how ordinary Chinese citizens are affected by the emergency
  • 11:15+ why the respective geographies of Beijing and Shanghai usually make problems worse in Beijing (which like LA sits in a bowl where air gets trapped), but why Shanghai is suddenly "catching up" and in a worst-ever situation for air quality;
  • 12:15+ why parents of small children must constantly worry about air quality, along with food safety
  • 13:00-15:00+ why not only foreigners but increasing numbers of young Chinese say they are thinking of leaving the country to escape the air, water, and food problems.

That's just the buildup. What I really want you to watch is ....

... the last ten minutes of the broadcast, starting around time 20:00. Very matter-of-factly Brubaker lays out the basic realities of China's environmental/economic/social/political conundrum:

  • that its pollution and other environmental strains are the direct result of rapidly bringing hundreds of millions of peasants into urban, electrified, motorized life;
  • that China's economic and political stability depends on continuing to bring hundreds of millions more people off the farm and into the cities;
  • that China's practices and standards in city planning, transport, architecture, etc are still so inefficient enough that, even with its all-out clean-up efforts, its growth is disproportionately polluting. In Europe, North America, Japan, etc each 1% increase in GDP means an increase of less than 1% in energy and resource use, emissions, etc. For China, each 1% increment means an increase of more than 1% in environmental burden. And, the most important part for Western readers:
  • this cannot go on. Brubaker makes a point ignored in virtually every breezy prediction of the inevitable Chinese future: that environmental constraints are the most urgent of several limits affecting the famed "Chinese growth model," and because of them it is far from obvious that China will ever "overtake" the United States or anyone else.

None of this is "new," but it is useful to have it all put together so concisely. I respond so strongly to this point because it's a central argument of my recent book and other dispatches for the Atlantic. Also Brubaker explains why it's "true," but meaningless, that every industrializing country has gone through its own stage of hellish rape-of-the-land-and-air. I grew up in the Southern California of the terrible-smog era of the 1960s, and have described what that bodes for possible improvements in Beijing. (Part one, two, and three.) Alexis Madrigal recently compared China's problems to those of Pittsburgh at its worst.

Brubaker's point, which I agree with, is: the comparisons don't matter. China's scale and speed are so different that its environmental problems constitute a unique emergency, for its own people and for the world.

Happy New Year!

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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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