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When China jumps, the planet shakes

Jonathan Watts

Jonathan Watts used to say a prayer as a young boy living in Britain that included the request: “Please make sure everyone in China doesn’t jump at the same time.”

Today, living in China as the Guardian’s Asia environment correspondent, Watts no longer worries that such a coordinated ‘people’s movement’ would wreak havoc on the planet. Instead, he’s concerned that China’s rapid economic growth will, if it follows the Western path of industrialization, do much more damage than a billion Chinese leaping in concert could ever accomplish.

When a Billion Chinese Jump” is the title of Watt’s book, an entertaining travelogue that frames his sobering examination of the environmental consequences of China’s rush to modernity and global economic leadership. He spoke Thursday evening at the UW’s Kane Hall, his lecture sponsored by the World Affairs Council’s young professionals international network.

In a nutshell, Watts says China is growing at the expense of its water, air and environment.

“It’s the worst in the world, on a number of fronts,” he told me over drinks. At the same time, Watts says China is moving into renewable energy much faster than the U.S. or most European nations.

“You often hear that China builds a coal-fired plant once a week,” he said. “But they are also building a new wind turbine every hour.”

The Chinese know they are at a tipping point, Watts says, trying to prevent an environmental death spiral without sacrificing economic growth. The subtitle is “How China Will Save Mankind – or Destroy it.”

China is not going to choose to stop growing as an industrial power just because the rest of us, with our two cars and air-conditioned homes, want it to stop spewing carbon and contributing to climate change. But they may choose a greener path, Watts says, if we can all move toward an economic system that incorporates incentives for increasing environmental wealth at the same time.

China’s path to progress is inextricably linked to our well-being, environmentally and economically. The Chinese are jumping forward at a pace unprecedented in history. Which direction they take and where they land, Watts says, is of critical importance to the entire planet.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.