Amish Views of Nature and the Environment

Photo by Saloma Miller Furlong taken at her uncle’s farm near Cashton, Wisconsin

 

The pastoral image of Amish communities living simply and in touch with the land strikes a deep chord with many Americans. Environmentalists have lauded the Amish as iconic models for a way of life that is local, self-sufficient, and in harmony with nature. But the Amish themselves do not always embrace their ecological reputation, and critics have long questioned the portrayal of the Amish as models of environmental stewardship.

This is the introduction to a book called Nature and the Environment in Amish Life by David McConnell, Professor of Anthropology at Wooster College, and Marilyn Loveless, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Wooster College. Today I came across an article in The Conversation written by the authors that I read with interest. I kept thinking, YES! as I realized someone is finally debunking the view that the Amish are model stewards of the environment. I was one of the former Amish people McConnell and Loveless interviewed, so I know that their research is thorough in discovering individual attitudes towards nature and the environment. I am looking forward to reading their book.

For many years, I have hoped that the day will come when the people in mainstream society will view the Amish as they really are without elevating them on a pedestal or depicting them as miscreants as in the so-called reality shows produced by Eric and Shannon Evangelista of Hot Snakes Media. This book is one of the building blocks for establishing a more realistic view of the Amish and their lifestyle.

The Amish lifestyle does lend itself to a smaller environmental impact in some ways. By not being hooked into the electric grid, they are not adding to greenhouse gases from producing electricity. By prohibiting car ownership, they are not adding to that form of pollution. They choose to dress simply, which means they are not caught in the trap of keeping up with the latest fashions. By prohibiting computer technologies, they don’t create a desire for the newest technologies. Of course many young people do own cell phones on the sly, but because they need to keep them hidden, it stands to reason that they own fewer of them than people in the mainstream culture. The Amish farmers who still use horses instead of tractors are leaving a smaller footprint.

Perhaps it’s not important WHY the Amish lifestyle has environmentally friendly aspects to it, only that these aspects ARE more environmentally friendly. However, as McConnell and Loveless point out in their article The Amish live simply, but don’t confuse them with environmentalists, there are also ways that the Amish contribute more to pollution than their counterparts in mainstream society. Their attitude that God created nature for man to use is their only defense for polluting streams or raising animals in ways the rest of society views as inhumane.

Back in 2004 at my father’s funeral, we were served food on Styrofoam plates and drinks in Styrofoam cups. That same afternoon, someone lit a fire behind the shop to burn all that Styrofoam. The thick black smoke drove David and me away. David was appalled that they would do such a thing, but I was not at all surprised. We commonly did things like that when I was growing up without thought about what it was doing to our lungs or the environment.

I realize that I’m using the term “the Amish” freely. I use it to mean this is the prevailing attitude among the Amish. I knew several people in my community who believed in growing and eating organic food. Some were more conscientious about the way they treated their horses and other animals than others. But the prevailing belief was that God had appointed man to be rulers of the earth and the animals on it. They also believed God would take care of any over-crowding of the earth, and therefore the number of children they have is not of any consequence.

It is, of course, far easier to see the inconsistencies in cultures such as the Amish because we are outside their circle. But we believe in our own myths. For how long have we been quoting “going green” or “saving trees” by not printing things out in hard copy? This completely avoids the reality of the environmental impact of computer technologies. When I read articles on this subject, it astounds me that people can keep ignoring this by buying the latest iPhone, even though their current one is only a year or two old, or the decision to replace a computer because it cannot run the latest programs or games. According to this article, we would have to use our computers between 33 and 89 years to offset their greenhouse-effect gases emissions. How many people are aware of this?

Having lived inside an Amish community, I have learned some practices that I still hold dear. David put up a clothesline in our backyard that we use for drying laundry, even though we were told by a neighbor that it’s against the rules in this neighborhood. I said, “Then this is a rule I will need to break.” The prevailing attitude that laundry hanging on a clothesline is an eyesore is one I just don’t understand. What is more wholesome and environmentally friendly than seeing sheets billowing in the breezes? Isn’t this one of the things that draws people to Amish country to see their way of life? And yet NIMBY (not in my back yard) is the attitude.

I have, however, also been exposed to modern society for nearly forty years now. My Amish background has made me more thoughtful about which technologies I adopt and why. It was ten years ago in November that we bought this computer I’m typing on. There are programs I cannot run on it, but then I do without them. Those of us who don’t carry a smartphone are becoming extinct. David and I choose not to have cable bringing many channels of television into our home. We do own a flat screen television for watching movies, but only because our son gave it to us for Christmas. I gave back an e-reader he gave me for Christmas another year. We were committed to having one car until recently when David had a job and I was feeling stranded out here in the country without wheels. When our van that has 220+ thousand miles on it dies, we’ll again own one car.

One of the homespun arts I learned from Mem was crocheting rugs from worn out clothes. I have revived this folk art by re-purposing used sheets I buy at thrift stores. All it takes is a crochet hook, a sewing machine (mine is over 100 years old), and a rotary cutter with a self-healing mat.

When David and I first moved here, the town was offering curbside recycling along with the trash pickup. Then they stopped offering recyclable pickup. So David and I still sort and take our recyclables to the transfer station.

These are some of the ways that David and I are doing our part in caring for the earth and its resources.

The ministers in my Amish community used to claim that one had to choose to be Amish or not — one simply could not be partly Amish. For years I believed this to be true. Now as I reflect on the lifestyle I have chosen, I realize that I indeed have blended aspects of Amish life with aspects of modern life, especially in terms of treasuring the resources I’ve been blessed with.

I don’t believe that man should have dominion over earth and the animals on it, but I do believe that people are stewards of the earth and the environment. To me there is a world of difference. As stewards, we are called to do our part in being responsible for the preservation of the earth and its resources.

The prevailing views in the mainstream culture that the Amish are environmental role models hasn’t called them to change. I wonder if the reflections that McConnell and Loveless have published will influence them in embracing their ecological reputation?

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19 thoughts on “Amish Views of Nature and the Environment”

  1. Hi Saloma, the Amish Community here, which I understand is Swartzentruber, uses chemical pesticides on their crops and GMO feed for the cattle. I’ve been a good influence on them for organic, and I’m seeing more changes that way now.

    1. Denise, good for you! That is quite the feat, especially the Swartzentruber Amish. They can be the ones who most stubbornly adhere to what has been done before. If you can get them to change their ways, it will be lasting down through the generations. And it will spread out to other families, and possibly even communities.

  2. I recall a report you posted about a conference you attended a few years back, where one of the speakers discussed where the Amish fell on the “dominion of the Earth” versus “stewardship of the Earth” question. The conclusion — in keeping with your current post and the article from which it draws — was that the Amish were generally on the “dominion” end of the spectrum. I believe that the Amish lack of science education plays a role in development of this worldview. Science (which, as a trained scientist, I’ve personally never found incompatible with faith in God) teaches us that all of Earth’s species and systems are intimately interconnected, so that caring for the Earth also safeguards the future of humanity. And of course, science also takes a very long-term view, spanning billions of years, whereas a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible suggests that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and liable to come to an end at any moment when Jesus returns. This short-term view of the Earth likely leads to complacency about using up Earth’s resources. Thanks for a very thoughtful and interesting post!

    1. Wow, Wendy, you have an awesome memory. It was McConnell and Loveless who had done that presentation at the conference.

      I think you’re right about the lack of science education among the Amish. Theirs is definitely not the long-term view. And I think you’re right… if people believe the earth is about to come to an end, why preserve it?

      Thank you, Wendy, for your insightful comments.

  3. Saloma,
    Your post is right on about what I have thought about the Amish and the environment. You are also challenging me to think more strategically about how I look at the environment. I am missing my clothesline but hope to put a collapsible one on the deck.

    1. Sadie, thank you for your comments and affirmation of the Amish views of the environment.

      So glad you’re missing your clothesline. A collapsible one will work just fine. Oh, and the smell of them when they come of the line… isn’t it divine? I just hung out two loads on this gorgeous day we had.

      I’ve been thinking of you… I’d like to get together. I’ll email you.

  4. Thanks for an interesting read on a sore subject. I suspect that the Amish tend to view their world as being smaller than it is, in the sense that they think that their own actions cannot possibly have global impacts. Letting manure run off into a stream on their property- that is such a small thing- how can that possibly be important. The important thing to them may be that it is THEIR stream on THEIR property.

    My brother and my dad used to have these conversations- they resented laws that restricted their actions.

    They also had good qualities- for instance, my dad treated his animals well. He was a horse trader and horse trainer; he loved horses and valued the people in his family who were in tune with them. I remember that we lived through a big brouhaha when he discovered that my oldest brother had unsaddled his mare and turned her out without cooling her off first. And we would NEVER have had a puppy mill.

    1. Saloma, I was gone for awhile and didn’t have a chance to read your blogs. While I don’t consider myself hooked on social media or using a computer, I found I could very easily get along without access to these things. My dau who has an app and can freely app’en with my sister could let us know if anything went wrong in Holland where we live. That was lesson nu 1. My mother was raised Amish in Kalona, Ia. She was very good at being careful with what and how she did things. I have tried to be as careful as she was. My husband and I live in the Netherlands and we are retired. We used to have greenhouses. We have sun panels on our house. We also have a woodstove and we get pellets from different businesses to burn in the house and it has an instillation that can keep the one greenhouse at a temp that will keep the plants from freezing in the winter. We have drying racks to dry our clothes. There are all kinds of things that can be done and I thot we had passed our ideas to our kids. We have 3 children and one of them is also very conscious of what she does. One thing I never realized is that attitude of the world isn’t going to last long anyhow could be one of the reasons why the Amish can also be not as careful as they could be. They get so caught up in their own way of doing and don’t even think. It isn’t easy to change things if you aren’t exposed to something else. When I first came to Holland, the food would be cooked to death. The cookbooks had a completely different time than an English cookbood for instance. Nowdays with all the completely different types of food and the international influence, you don’t see that anymore. The Amish are definately not perfect and I feel bad about that and some stuff really doesn’t need to be published but they need some good strong people from inside to make a difference. Take care, mary maarsen

      1. Mary, thank you for sharing a bit of your story. I had forgotten that your mother grew up Amish in Iowa. I think most of us who grew up Amish are more thoughtful about how we do things and why. I love that this had a lasting effect on you and on one of your daughters. I think that’s unusual. I was not able to pass these values on to our sons.

        Thank you for sharing the ways in which you contribute to the care of the planet and its resources.

        I agree, any changes among the Amish needs to come from within. But when it gets started, it will spread because many Amish people look to others and emulate. They need some good role models.

        Thank you for your thoughts, Mary. And good for you for unplugging for a while.

    2. Elva, thank you for your comments. Yes, that attitude is exactly as I remember in my community as well. Some people even put their outhouses over a stream. They didn’t seem to think about the people downstream.

      It’s nice to know that your animals were treated well. Ours were not really. I know families who had much more respect for their animals than was shown on our little farmette.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, Elva.

  5. I have always been interested in the Amish religion and way of life. I am sure in the early years before I really knew anything about them I did put them on a pedestal. People, however, are human, with their faults and as I came to understand them more and was able to peel away the misconceptions society puts out there, often for profit, I realized they did not belong on one any more than anyone else does. I’m glad that people like you and David McConnell and Marilyn Loveless, as well as others, are putting the truth out there. The Amish community has its good points and its bad, like all religions. I think there are good things we can take away from their way of life.I came from a family of the more strict Nazarene faith. They were farmers and people who grew up during the depression. I carry within me those things they had installed in them by their parents and grandparents. I too hang clothes out to dry, I can vegetables and fruits every fall, I recycle, I water my outdoor plants from a rain barrel attached to a down spout. I go by the old saying if its not broken, don’t fix it. I use something until it no longer works. My refrigerator isn’t stainless steal and has been in my kitchen since 1999, I have never owned a dish washer. I have one computer,a desk top, no iPad in this house, my phone has no clue what an app is and I still have an inline phone. I think there are things about the Amish way of life we could all use in our every day life. We as a society just need to remember that they are human just like the rest of us. Saloma, you inspire me to continue to take the good that I learned and inwardly inherited from my own family, recognize the bad for what it is and work hard not to repeat it.

    1. Pamela, I agree. There are many ways we can use the Amish as examples for living thinking carefully about the changes we make. Like you, it’s important to me to reflect on the ways I grew up with, sift through them, and preserve the traditions that I value.

      Thank you for sharing the ways you conserve. My, you put me to shame. David is the gardener, and he really wants to adopt the rain barrel method for watering plants. Like you, I don’t have an iPad, I love your description of your cell phone, and we still have a landline also.

      I love your last statement. That just about sums it up for me.

      Thank you for your insights, Pamela.

  6. Saloma, I can’t speak to the points you make regarding the Amish and the environment but I find it interesting how some of us who have moved far from our original communities stubbornly hang on to certain practices we learned there. For me it’s canning food. Growing up it was one job I enjoyed because the final products were beautiful and one see what had been accomplished for the efforts. As a young bride with a tiny city garden behind a row house, I planted enough tomatoes to put up 12–24 quarts of juice each year. Apples for sauce and peaches were found at farmers markets for canning. Now living in a small PA town I’ve added corn and vegetable soup to the list. Because we eat lots of soup using beans in the winter, I buy 3 bags of dried beans which make 10 pints canned. I have received satisfaction from washing the same glass jars year after year (46). The yogurt I make every two weeks goes into some glass jars. I don’t know how many metal or plastic containers I’ve avoided adding to landfill with these efforts but I know how much salt and sugar is added (or not) to my locally grown food.

    1. Erma, I loved reading about your “habit” of canning. How wonderful. For the first time in years, I canned peaches this summer. I have to admit, this is not one of the things I did not enjoy doing when I was growing up. But you’re right — seeing the jars of peaches all lined up gave me great pleasure, and the eating of them does too. Perhaps next summer we’ll be able to put in a nice garden and grow more of our own food. So far we’ve been growing herbs.

      I need to get back to making yogurt. I’ve gotten out of the habit. Perhaps I can get your recipe?

      Thank you for reminding us of the efforts we can make to eat wholesome food and be mindful of the waste we generate (or not).

  7. A great essay, Saloma. Every one of us that walks the earth is responsible for taking care of our planet and our environment. It is not just the Amish who think that they can play God and choose to do what they want. We all take advantage of what is given and most often never think about giving back by being good stewards.

    1. Joan, I believe it comes down to whether we pause to be grateful for what we have, or whether we take these things for granted — whether it be our good health, our resources, or the beauty around us. I think the more grateful we are, the more we tend to give back.

      Thank you for your comments, and have a wonderful weekend.

  8. stephanie mulford

    I just finished your book, Why I Left the Amish. I found it very interesting. I began working for an Amish business, on commission. Over the last 3 years or so, I have become very fond of him and his whole family. I also have become aquainted with a totally different Amish family. I refer to them as the “poor Amish” and there is a world of difference between the two families. A lot of English people hate the Amish as a whole, because they have managed to take work away from them in the construction business. But, the Amish do such high quality work, for at least half the price of English. I know of a brand new home that was constructed by an English contractor that was not done as it should, but that seems to be common in English builders, that the Amish dont practice.

    On the whole though, the Amish I work for, and visit with, is very much like the way I was raised in the 50s. Only we had a vehicle, highschool and college education. What you have described as your life, and what I have seen only confirms to me that the Amish really arent all that different from everyone else.

    I am looking forward to following your blog. Thanks for sharing your life.

    1. Stephanie, thank you for your comments. After having lived inside and outside the Amish culture, I would agree with you that the Amish are as human as the rest of us. Their traditions and culture have them living like many people’s ancestors, but they have joys and struggles like anyone else.

      Thank you for your comments about the book. Do you know about my second book, “Bonnet Strings”?

  9. Pingback: About Amish | When Amish Horse and Buggies Share the Road with Bicyclists and Pedestrians

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