The Amish Question

Amish girls

Or a title that won’t quite fit as neatly into the blog menu–

“On How Even the Amish Don’t Live Like the Amish”.

Many, myself included, admire the Amish. They seem to have found a way to coexist with nature, to blunt the most intrusive aspects of technology, to keep their focus on their families and their social communities. They live simpler lives, far from the rat race. They do plenty of work, as they preserve their peaches and attend to their draft horses, split firewood, or sew their own clothes, but it’s honest, wholesome, meaningful work, and they often do it together with others, in social situations, whether that be a family shelling beans together by the fire at night, or a whole community coming together to raise a barn. Their kids don’t sit around in a stupor with their senses dulled by electronic gizmos. They eat their meals as families. We drive through their communities in our non-Amish pell-mell fashions at 65 miles per hour, and find ourselves wondering whether they have gotten something right that the rest of us have missed. The images we see of the Amish are telling; well-tended wooden barns, fields of crops, horse and buggy transportation, families together.

Why, we think, couldn’t we all just live like the Amish? If the whole world lived like they do, this host of modern problems we have would disappear. In this vision, we wouldn’t have giant chemical factories in New Jersey, or huge factory fishing ships, or huge congested cities, or gyres of floating plastics in the oceans. The cities would actually just shrink up, as people moved to the countryside. Not everyone wants to live exactly like the Amish, of course, but the back-to-the-land version of where we should be heading is a common one. It was the idea behind the rural hippie communes of the 60’s, and plays a part in the decisions of families like mine, as we move to beautiful rural places like Vermont, grow large gardens, and get some chickens. And there is no harm in the impulse—done right, such moves can result in lower carbon footprints, less ecological damage, and more fulfilling lifestyles.

Unfortunately, it just can’t happen on a large scale, for everyone. The whole world can’t live like the Amish. It just wouldn’t work. And here’s my point—not even the Amish “live like the Amish”. I don’t mean to denigrate the Amish in any way, but only to point out that they do not live self-sufficient lifestyles. Their lifestyles are certainly more self-sufficient, and have dramatically smaller environmental impacts, than the typical American’s, but they don’t exist in a bubble. They sew their own clothes, but they don’t raise the cotton and spin their own thread and weave their own cloth. So their clothes are made from cotton grown with tractors and pesticides in places like Texas, and then that cotton is ginned and shipped with power that comes from fossil fuels, and then likely woven in factories overseas by poorly paid workers, and then shipped back to the U.S. on massive container ships, and then moved by truck to be sold in stores, where the bolts of cloth are perused and purchased by Amish families as their horses wait patiently outside with the buggies. The same is true with, say, the iron equipment that the Amish use, or the steel hinges on their barn doors. These metals were likely mined in a huge industrial operation halfway around the world, and smelted, manufactured, and shipped with prodigious amounts of fossil fuel. This is true of virtually all of the physical items that they purchase. These items, in turn, were demanded, produced, and distributed by markets, many of them very efficient ones. Again—I’m not disparaging the Amish. But the impulse to live smaller, simpler, and more rural comes with economic realities that can’t be ignored. Imagine, in a hypothetical Amish-community-writ-large, how ALL of these items would be made in an Amish fashion.  Iron ore might be dug from the ground by humans with picks, then pulled along in carts on wooden rails by horses, to smelters run by charcoal made from hardwood trees. Those trees would have been felled by hand, and moved via horse and wagon. You can see how this plays out, as every aspect of every operation is done is a less efficient way, using less energy.

Today the world uses systems that are the exact opposite of the Amish approach—today’s market system creates more and more efficiency, more and more production at lower costs, and more and more ways to turn energy into the goods we desire. The power in the system is immense; we are so good at harnessing energy on such large and efficient scales that we can literally move mountains, erase entire forests, and vacuum every fish from the sea.

That power and destruction is partly what is behind, I believe, the impulse to de-industrialize. People see the problems in market systems, the inequality and the mindless consumption and the negative externalities, the narrowly defined skill sets, and the extraordinary growth of the human footprint and its concomitant environmental destruction, and they recoil. They shake their heads in disgust, and have the urge to go live in a commune and grow kale and divorce themselves from the modern world. BUT—we need this market power in our current dilemma; we can’t afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is the most powerful tool that we have. What people don’t tend to see amidst the negatives is that this very same system is what provides them with every bit of their material comfort; that without it they would be living, at best, like poor medieval peasants. Should we opt for subsistence agriculture, it would require nearly every bit of every person’s time, and we would all be very, very poor.

So we can’t go there. We can consume less and we can waste less, but we can’t de-industrialize completely. It wouldn’t work. Even if it would, by some stretch of the imagination, there is zero evidence that the world would choose that path. (One need only look at China today and to see how millions are fleeing to the cities, to escape from this very same subsistence lifestyle and wealth-level.) As such, we must abandon these visions that go backward; it just isn’t a viable option. Small groups might go backwards, but the system as a whole cannot. So, like a firearm that can be used for good or ill, we must take this powerful tool—the market—and make sure that it’s pointed in the right direction.

(Note– I’ve refined my views on this just a bit in the time since I wrote this post—see later post “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“.)

Image credit: stephaniefrey / 123RF Stock Photo