Laudator Temporis Acti

The great philosopher Billy Joel once said, the good ole days weren’t always good, and tomorrow aint as bad as it seems. I am quite fond of the quote and have reached back to it for the last 25 years or so.(1)

The Latin term for the anitithesis of one who subscribes to Billy Joel’s line of thinking is laudator temporis acti. It translates, praiser of times past.(2)

Another favorite phrase of mine from an unknown author is, if it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid. I particularly like this one because of it’s corollary – if it appears to be smart but doesn’t work, it’s not smart.(3)

When Congress created the Clean Water Act and set goals for the quality of our National waters(4), they likely didn’t have a clue how we might achieve those goals. But they trusted that American engineering, innovation, creativity, and hard work would get us there before the set deadlines.  They were wrong. We let them down.

The well-intended EPA led and continues to lead us along a path of applying tried and true approaches of times past to this very complex problem. In many ways, the approach worked. The quality of our land, air, and water today is much better than it was 50 years ago. However, we have nearly reached the limits of what hard engineering, prescriptive regulation, and factory-like compliance can do for us. The easy problems have been solved; a society that was born and raised on those principles has changed; the remaining problems are complex, diffuse, and in many cases, not even technical.

To finish this up, we must think differently about different things. We must recognize that what once appeared to be smart and may have been effective to an extent, is no longer working for us.

A few alternatives to consider as we refocus – effectiveness over compliance; consensus over compromise; how we behave over how we practice; autonomy, mastery, and purpose over carrot and stick.(5)



(1) Yes, it has been that long. And yes, we are getting old.

(2) I don’t mean to pretend I know Latin. Three solid references helped me with this – my wife, my daughter, and Wikipedia.

(3) I made that one up.

(4) Goals from 33 U.S. Code § 1251  – the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985; the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and …recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.

(5) autonomy, mastery, and purpose from the book, Drive by Daniel Pink, subtitle – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

One thought on “Laudator Temporis Acti

  • Good stuff. I’ll add another alternative to your list: performance trumps prescription. Highly prescribed ‘requirements’ that are unbendable have hindered innovation in stormwater nearly as much as ‘approved products’ lists (typically on a 5-10 year review plan). Both presume that what we know now is the end all – be all, locking in old technologies and locking out new ones.

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