Simplicity vs Complexity (or the difference between hand-milking and modern dairying)

I was asked in response to my last blog what is simplicity vs complexity. Here’s an example from experience, looking at milking a cow, that explores the continuum of simplicity and complexity.

The simplest way of all to milk a cow is to handmilk. It requires no technology other than that used to make a churn to collect the milk in. Other than that you just milk away into the churn. It takes more time, and more muscular endurance, but it’s simple. No cleaning of equipment, other than a churn, and all you have to do is carry the churn to the kitchen and pour into bottles. No oil required, with its required mining, markets and military invasions. It’s a system that works, and is no different today than it was 10,000 years ago.

Next on the level of complexity is to introduce a portable milking machine. It’s powered by electricity which requires fuel, a complex power grid with maintenance, and the mining of metals to furnish the machine with what it needs. The machine speeds up the time taken to milk the cow, but now you have to clean it too, which requires special cleaning chemicals, which again need transportation, mining and laboratories with their associated needs such as labour, training and running costs. The milk from the machine is then decanted into bottles and refrigerated. This method requires a vast increase in complexity over hand-milking. It requires a globalised network powered by energy-hungry machinery. The benefit is that it leads to a product with higher levels of cleanliness than handmilking, and for the sale of raw milk in the UK, which is one of the things we do for a living, it’s pretty much required. So it’s a complexity we’ve embraced.

The next step up again is to the more typical commercial dairy. You now need a refrigerated bulk tank, a larger vacuum pump, several clusters (the bit that ‘sucks’ the milk out of the cow’s udder), tubing and so on. All of this too requires cleaning. And all of this too requires a large globalised network. On top of this you have to add in a transportation network for the milk which includes large lorries, road maintenance, oil etc. The milk is then transported to centralised processing facilities — most of which are a few hours away, where the milk is pasteurised and homogenised, bottled, labelled, and packaged up, ready for delivery to supermarkets so people can buy their milk. You also have to factor in the complexity associated with the supermarket. In the country, the milk, may be sent back to a supermarket next door to the dairy farm that produced it in the first place, with 400 miles added on top. You also have to factor in the extra food safety professionals needed, the factory workers, the people that make and maintain the factory components, the miners and so on. Quite quickly you realise that in order to produce that milk you need thousands of people, who all need energy, food, livelihood and so forth. All just to have a pint of milk. It’s mind-blowing when you consider the full ramifications. And of course here I’m leaving out extra layers of complexity that come with the transition towards an industrialised, modern dairy system, for, well, simplicity.

So each further level of complexity requires more and more people and resources. Multiply that across all human systems and you have a fair idea why increasing complexity, over time requires increasing complexity, and that extra complexity costs more money to maintain, and at some point the cost of maintaining the extra complexity becomes crippling and self-defeating. That in essence is the challenge facing industrial society with resource depletion, declining energy density and increasing populations. Combine that with a greater frequency of ‘freak’ weather events and unstable economy, and it’s perhaps a good reason to consider simplifying our world once again. Through a gradual process of simplification we can transition to a more realistic and sustainable future. Simplification leads to less required enegry, food and people. The other alternative is to turn the treadmill up another level, but it’s only a matter of time before we fall over and injure ourselves or have a heart attack.

The question is not whether we will simplify, it’s whether we will do it by our own accord, or will external crises force it upon us. I hope and strive for the first, but my gut feeling tells me it will be the latter.

NB. The above isn’t a criticism of large-scale dairying, it’s an allegory for society. Dairying is no less subjected to the dynamics of a society than anything else.

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