One of the trickiest questions of environmental politics is always whether we are actually managing to deal with problems, or whether we are just shifting them elsewhere - either spatially or temporally. This is true on many fronts: with regards to pollution, with regards to resources, and with regards to the overall intensity with which we are exploiting the earth. Our experiences of environmental conditions in the rich world are certainly not reflective of the overall global story, nor of the ultimate consequences.
Looking first at pollution: during the early periods of their industrialization, the countries that are now the world's cleanest were polluted to the point of seriously impinging upon the health of those who lived within them, particularly in the cities. London's notorious fogs were more the product of particulate matter from burning coal than the product of the natural humidity of the place. Some Japanese cities were so saturated with heavy metals from industrial sources that they became notorious for the illnesses and birth defects that resulted. Evidently, the bulk of these problems have now been overcome in the developed world. Zoning laws, environmental regulations, new technologies, and the rest have all come together to make our air and water broadly safer than they have been since the industrial revolution.
The extent to which we can cheer this is, however, mitigated somewhat in the knowledge that much of the health and safety we enjoy is the product of misery elsewhere. Consider the conditions in the industrializing regions of India or China. Consider the conditions in the various resource sectors that provide the raw materials of affluence: from coal and diamond mines to hazardous timber industries run by corrupt national armies and organized crime syndicates in the Asia Pacific.
Indeed, resources are probably the area where this outsourcing can be most obviously seen. What forests remain in much of the developed world are fairly rigorously protected. Even Canada's vast timber industry has requirements for conservation, replanting, and the protection of streams. I am certainly not claiming that this industry is perfect, nor entirely sustainable in its present form, but it is clear that these kind of standards certainly do not exist worldwide. Where once the big area of concern among environmentalists was the Amazon rainforest in Brazil (certainly still in danger from a growing human population and the desire for land), the real, widespread damage being done today is in Asia: where the smoke from massive land-clearing forest fires occasionally rains down on cities and where Japan uses more tropical hardwood than any other nation in the world. The primary use: shaping concrete.
The most difficult to assess area in which such phenomena are occurring is in terms of just how much stress vital ecological and climatological systems can endure before they are degraded in the long term. I needn't remind any long-term readers about the example of fisheries, but is also bears considering just how much toxic and radioactive sludge we can continue dumping into the sea before the problem comes back to bite us. Consider the dozens of Soviet nuclear warships and submarines that have been scuttled off obscure portions of the Russian coastline: both well-stuffed with spent fuel and other radioactive waste and, in most cases, themselves rendered dangerously radioactive. Like the concrete tomb in which the Chernobyl reactor has been encased, it is only a matter of time before these containers are broken down by time and corrosion.
A similar story of large scale pollution can be told about the atmosphere - and I am not talking about greenhouse gasses and climate change. A broad collection of chemicals including the products of burning garbage, as Japan does widely, industrial chemicals, like the PCBs leaking from the old RADAR stations along Canada's Distant Early Warning Line, and pesticides have such chemical compositions that they break down only extremely slowly in the biosphere. They do, however, concentrate in fatty tissues and in ever-greater concentrations as they progress up the food chain. The long-term ramifications of these persistent organic pollutants are, naturally, far from entirely known.
As for climate change, this is the macro-level elephant in the room. While we don't know exactly what it will involve, what magnitude it will be, and what it will cost to deal with, the reality of climate change demonstrates how human activity can impact the entire planet. It also underscores the extent to which our present prosperity may be banking colossal problems for future generations.
The point of this is not to be overly alarmist, nor to endorse specific policies for dealing with the above problems. The point is related to how problems need to reach a certain level of severity before action against them comes together. Look at the present political circuses about health care and pensions in all the demographically-shifting rich states. Sometimes, action taken at the point where danger is apprehended is effective. Look at the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons: the major class of chemicals that was eroding the ozone layer. Within a couple of decades of the identification of the problem, a fairly effective international regime was in place to begin dealing with it. The ozone is generally considered to be recovering.
Looking through the literature, you will see the ozone example a lot. That's not just because it is a fairly good example of international cooperation on a clear environmental problem: it's because it is one of a few success stories among myriad failures. Hopefully, in the next few decades, we will gain tools to better understand the future consequences of present choices and actions. Likewise, I am hopeful that we will develop the wisdom - individual and collective - to begin curbing contemporary demands and wasteful and destructive contemporary practices, both with an eye to global equity and another towards those who are to succeed us on this planet.
This entry can also be found on my blog: http://www.sindark.com/2006/01/orrery-of-errors.html