Can the Good be the Enemy of the Best?

One topic that has been on my mind for a while is the issue of “sunk costs” and potential perverse effects.  Many of the elements of infrastructure (environmental or otherwise) are highly capital intensive.  Having made a particular decision to attack an environmental problem, the spent capital costs act as a deterrent (and perhaps even the technological choice has disincentivized our ability to go down an alternative path which may have even emerged later).  Of course at the time that the decision is made to adopt a particular solution, it may in fact have been the best (and not merely a “good” solution).

I don’t know literature in this area very well and am not sure how this might be approached.  I can think of several areas where clearly this phenomenon has occurred:

  • The use of combined sewers.  HIstorically, as I understand it (at least in some European cities — see The Great Stink of Paris), storm drains pre-existed, while frequently houshold sewerage was allowed to be disposed of in the streets.  When this resulted in odor and health problems, the idea of disposing of sewerage into the storm drains gained hold.  Of course, we now recognize that it would have been better (in terms of avoiding CSO problems, etc.) to construct seperate sewers.  However, having gone the combined sewer option, it has become very expensive to consider retrofitting — imagine having to reconnect every building in a large city!  Newer cities are invariability built out with separate systems.
  • It was once considered standard practice for chemical companies to dispose of their waste (perhaps in drums) in depressions or low lying areas on their property and bury them.  We now recognize, with Love Canal being the early signal example, that this practice (which perhaps was considered acceptable at the time) was really a vast environmental insult and has resulted in multi billion dollars being spent in hazardous waste cleanup.

There may be ongoing situations where such decisions are being made which may make later “best” decisions more difficult.  This is controversial, but it is worth considering a few examples of more recent or current issues:

  • Did the development of the interstate highway system and resulting impacts on patterns of habitation make it more difficult (or even impossible) to develop more sustainable residential and transportation systems?
  • Will the growing use of natural gas as a fossil fuel act to preclude more sustainable and desirable alternatives (because gas is currently considered to be “cheaper” – when externalities are ignored.  See my earlier post on the Commons effect.)

How can we guard against “good” solutions being the enemy of the best.  I don’t know.  Perhaps using concepts of adaptive management can assist. Perhaps implementing solutions on a distributed basis may help.  How do we account for potential transformative changes (which we don’t currently know) that may occur in the future into our current decisions?

I welcome and encourage thoughts and comments on these topics.

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