Good News for Beijing

Here was the typical view out my window in Beijing through the first half of 2008, leading up to the Olympics, as highlighted maybe a million times on this site:

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And here is how things looked 60 years earlier in Los Angeles. Below, a downtown view in 1948, with what was then the tallest building in town, City Hall, hazily visible on the left:

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This picture thanks to reader Robert Bott, who sends a link to an LA Times archive of "smog in LA" pictures that show how the Southland looked before the big cleanup of roughly the 1970s onward.

The fumy shot above is before my time, but I certainly remember conditions sort of like it in the 1960s. For instance, one high school tennis tournament in Pomona when it seemed hard even to see across the net (the serves came out of nowhere) and it burned your throat simply to breathe.

Why is this good news for Beijing? Well, because it shows that in fact things can be cleaned up. This is the same lesson as taught by the improvement in London air quality from Dickens's time to now, or in Chicago's environment, or Tokyo's. And why is it not so consoling? Because it took decades for LA and California -- and they were already rich when they were starting. They also were not just on the cusp, as Beijing and the rest of China are, of a huge boom in automobile ownership and the movement of the peasantry into mechanized urban life. So maybe the proper sentiment is not so much "good news" as "good luck!" -- as explained during the Olympic year here.

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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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