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?