The air over there

In the new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) I have a short article about a topic I discussed constantly with Chinese and foreign friends over the past few years: how dangerous it is, really, just to live in China. To breathe the air,  drink the water, eat the food. Won't spoil the suspense about conclusions in the article itself. But the note below is from a reader whose experience is similar to mine:

"I just returned to the US after a four-year tour in Shanghai. I major reason for returning was that I knew that living over there was terrible for my health. I always told myself that I couldn't live in that poor environment for five years. Aside from the terrible air quality, I did four stints in hospitals for food poisoning.

"But since I have been back, I have found that recovery has been easier than expected. I am now running about four to six miles four times a week. I think it may have been like living at high altitudes - you body gets used to being deprived of oxygen and becomes more efficient. 

"Plus, just having the space and good weather adds to the motivation. As I am sure you know."

For perspective, here is today's real-time air pollution map for the US, emphasizing the dangerous small-particulate pollution (PM2.5) plus ozone (O3). Green "good" areas have readings below 50; the yellow "moderate" areas are 51-100; and the little spot of orange "unsafe for sensitive groups" air, near Pittsburgh, is 101-150. Maybe they're reopening the steel works? Most times when I look at this map, it's virtually all green.


Meanwhile, readings earlier today from Beijing, taken by the clandestine "Beijing Air" monitoring station I describe in the article:

The point is that the Chinese readings would be in the red "unhealthy" (151-200) or magenta "very unhealthy" (201-300) zones if they were mapped. Like anyone in Beijing, I've breathed my way through a large number of purple "hazardous" days, with readings over 300.

For the benefit of Chinese readers, let me say for the millionth time that to stress this comparison is not to put down China's successes, underestimate the difficulties of dealing with these problems, deny that a high-pollution phase is part of every move toward industrialization, etc. China's situation is tough, and a lot of forces within the country are working to improve it, as laid out at length here. Instead it's worth emphasizing that the people of China themselves are the ones with most at stake in improving its environment. And because of global effects of climate, as I've also said a million times, it's crucial for the US and China, the two biggest-emitting countries, to work together on energy and pollution issues. Indeed, this is the historically most important business for the two countries to take up.

In the meantime, it's a nice day in DC, so like my correspondent I'll plan to take another run.

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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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