Environmental Stewardship and the 90% Rule

I found this passage in apiarist Todd Myers’s RealClearMarkets post on bringing our notions of environmentalism into the 21st century attention-grabbing:

In 2010, Bill Ruckelshaus, the first director of the EPA, described the dramatic changes since the agency was launched. He noted that when the EPA was created, “85% of the problems of water pollution in the country were large, point-source discharges, like municipal sewage-treatment plants or industrial operations.” Today, by way of contrast, 85 percent of remaining pollution comes from “non-point sources,” like runoff from streets, lawns and other distributed sources.

There’s a phenomenon well-known to project managers called the “90% rule”. It can be summarized as 90% of the time and cost in doing anything will be in executing 10% of the project. If Mr. Ruckelshaus’s characterization of the EPA’s mandate is correct, the EPA accomplished that portion of its mandate long ago. Getting beyond that will take much, much more money and be significantly more intrusive than the first 90%. Perhaps cost-benefit analysis is long overdue.

While I found Mr. Myers’s plea for an updated environmentalism intriguing, I’d be happy if we got beyond what I would call “NIMBY environmentalism” or, possibly “SOBBY” (Some Other Bugger’s Back Yard), the belief that as long as it isn’t happening here it isn’t happening at all.

Our European cousins have been very proud of their efforts in conservation and reducing emissions but I can’t help but wonder if most of what they’ve accomplished has been simply due to offshoring their heavy manufacturing to China. The VW emissions scandal certainly suggests that some of their assumptions should be revisited. If their autos weren’t as green as they thought, they can’t be producing the results that have been claimed.

2 comments… add one
  • steve

    Lot of truth there. The EPA did a lot of good work that needed doing. Contra libertarian opinion, if you read Boudreaux, this wasn’t happening w/o the EPA. The problem now is that they have carried things too far sometimes. Of course the GOP wants to roll things back, so not sure their plans are so great.


  • Janis Gore

    Off topic, but pertains to electric cars, automation, employment, tech, Tesla, all themes you cover:


    Advanced industries don’t necessary make it easier on employees.

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