The Indispensable State, Sustaining Our Future

In 2012, I traveled to Youyu County, nestled in the northwestern corner of China’s Shanxi Province. It can be easy to assume and expect that Youyu County, like large parts of central China, is a dusty, arid semidesert—especially after you learn that almost 90 percent of the local economy is driven by coal mining. But Youyu County isn’t brown; it’s green. Forests and grasslands blanket the landscape, holding back the nearby deserts.

This wasn’t always the case. The county is close to the Ordos Desert, which had steadily expanded into the region due to soil erosion and drought. In 1949, over three-quarters of the region’s land had been affected by desertification. This was clearly bad ...

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