The political ecology of robots: Dairy labor, automation, and the secret life of cows

Authors: Paul Robbins*, Nelson Institute for Environmental StudiesUniversity of Wisconsin, Douglas Reinemann, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Agricultural Geography, United States
Keywords: automation, labor, agriculture, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In agricultural economies where energy is plentiful and labor is scarce, automation has taken a central place in production. This change has enormous implications for socio-ecological metabolism, including the flow of inputs, the environmental footprint of production, and the experience of agricultural work itself. The case of American dairy is instructive in this regard. Here, the cost of labor has skyrocketed, immigration has been curtailed, and demographic change is ongoing. As a result, the structure of milk production has been fundamentally altered. Here, new experiments are ongoing, which seek to scale outputs while containing the costs of variable capital: workers. Specifically, two competing models of production have entered the economy: giant Rotolactors and milking robots. Where the former are geared towards consolidated mega-dairies, the latter have been adopted by relatively smaller family farms. This paper assesses the impact of these technologies on production, work, and farm ownership, using the case of Wisconsin dairy systems. The conclusions point to the surprising way that some systems of automation allow worker-owner farmers flexibility, competitive scale, and economic autonomy in an industry otherwise dominated by consolidated capitalist firms. Indeed, robots are shown to hold the potential for removing dairy farms from industrial modes of production – those dependent on wage labor - altogether, and towards a kind of high-tech peasant economics. The larger implications of such robotized smallholders for the future of automated agriculture, more generally, remains opaque but intriguing.

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