On the self-limiting nature of stupidity

Texas farm blaze kills 18,000 cows in deadliest barn fire on record in the US

Headline in THe Guardian, 14/04/2023

It is not, of course, news that people do stupid things. People have been doing stupid things for as long as there have been people. I don’t have statistics for this, because no such statistics are available, but I would suggest that the majority of these stupid things have been done by (mostly adolescent) males, in the futile hope of impressing women.

The above story is, however, an example of a stupid thing that occurred without any very pronounced ambition to impress women, although it is apparently true that some women are impressed by large amounts of money, so there’s that. But this is the result of a whole constellation of stupid decisions.

  • Cheap milk is great! Let’s cut every possible corner to achieve that, because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • Nobody cares about animal welfare, so let’s completely ignore that, because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • Nobody cares about the quality of milk either, so let’s stuff those cows with drugs because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • It’s so expensive to do anything about preventing the outbreak of fire in an environment rich in things like, ooh I don’t know, methane? Let’s build this thing in a state which doesn’t mandate any safety regulations, because there are $$$ and that’s what matters!
  • Tragically, we have to waste a few of those lovely $$$ to pay some poor sap to look after those 18,000 cows. Maybe he might get injured, or even killed, because the place he’s working is likely to go up like a Roman candle, but hey – there are $$$ and that’s what matters!

Do you see a pattern emerging here?

There’s a special kind of stupidity involved in this kind of thought-process, if I can dignify it with such a name. It’s a kind that as far as I know only Homo sapiens sapiens is able to achieve – a dismal enough distinction, but one I believe we can fairly claim. It’s the ability to focus on one single thing – profit, in this case, as in so many others – to the complete exclusion of everything else.

There are some parallels in Nature, I suppose. There are the rutting stags who die of exhaustion in the struggle to pass on their genes. Even that makes some sense in the wider context of optimising the gene-pool of their species. It takes hairless chimpanzees to be this clueless.

The relationship between human beings and the various mammals from which we take milk goes back several millennia – in the case of sheep and goats, about ten. For the vast majority of that time, it has been a trade-off that is reasonably tolerable for both parties. These animals have always lost a proportion of their young to predators; we have taken that proportion for our own consumption, and also the milk that is surplus to requirements. This isn’t too problematic, unless you happen to be a wolf.

We have now evolved the conversation to this place:


We have bred cattle who could no longer meet their nutritional requirements from eating the stuff cows evolved to eat (grass, leaves and so forth), as a consequence of which we have to feed them grains, with which we could otherwise feed ourselves directly. The result is cows who look like walking skeletons even when they are well-fed, because we are only interested in animals who convert almost all of their nutrition into milk.

This is a typical specimen of the modern dairy cow, apart from the fact that it is in a field with grass as opposed to a multi-story intensive dairy unit. Note the huge udder, absence of horns, and prominent ribs. What you can’t see in the photo is the scarily low genetic diversity amongst dairy cattle.

This is what a cow should actually look like. It has horns, a moderately-sized udder, and is eating grass. A herd of these could survive quite adequately in the wild, if that fence in the background went away. Indeed, herds of these do indeed manage quite well roaming more or less freely in the mountains of northern Spain; I’ve seen them myself. To be fair, this breed is now mostly kept as a beef cow, but it was originally a dual-purpose breed and there are certainly still people milking them on a small scale.

This is a microcosm of industrial civilisation’s relationship with the natural world. As Captain Jack Sparrow succinctly puts it: “Take what you can, give nothing back.” This approach works brilliantly, until it doesn’t. There are limits. Nobody wants to hear that, especially when there are $$$ at stake, but that’s the universe we inhabit.

If you were to consider the natural world as a person (Mother Nature, perhaps) and industrial civilisation as another (Homo colossus, say, following William Catton), you would have no trouble identifying the psychopath. But we don’t do that, because it would be unscientific, and we like being able to buy cheap milk – or milk-like substances – and hey, $$$!

Maybe when all our industrial units have been destroyed we’ll learn some sense. Until then, the best we can do as individuals is to tiptoe quietly away. Properly-produced milk is available, by the way, if you’re prepared to pay what it costs. Me, I’m thinking about getting a house cow.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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