Monday, April 13, 2009

They are prepared for sustainable self-sufficiency, but for all the wrong reasons

And now to what I really wanted to talk about today: the Amish! I have frequently been intrigued by the fact that living right among us are communities of people who still know how to do everything for themselves and if necessary could get by quite nicely without modern infrastructure and technology. Although they are not totally detached from our economy (they use the gas/diesel engines sparingly and take advantage of modern medicine and sell things to non-Amish consumers), I believe that they would have no problem adapting if these things went away. I use the term "Amish" as a label for all sorts of religiously motivated simple-living farm communities; there are different varieties of these with differing religious beliefs and rules for living. But as a whole they represent an extreme contrast to the world most of us live in.

I was especially impressed by M.I.T. grad student Eric Brende's book, "Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology". Brende lives among this sort of community for 18 months, without electricity and many other things I take for granted. He comes away convinced that his life was not lacking during this period and may have been qualitatively better. He also describes the physical effort involved in a positive way and is surprised that it's not back-breaking bone-weary work. After learning more about these people he observes that about half of their crop is dedicated to providing feed for their horses, yet horses are not absolutely necessary to this lifestyle. Farming could be done by hand without that much more effort (and the total land farmed would be reduced if not providing for the horses). He concludes that a person could live like this by working only half the time, and would have the other half free for study, reflection, or other interests. It seems that the horse is the Amish equivalent of our car - they just like to have them so they can drive that buggy to church on Sunday!

This brings me to the "for all the wrong reasons" part: I did some more reading and discovered that the driving force behind the Amish lifestyle is not a desire for sustainability or even complete self-sufficiency. Instead it is the determination to keep their community intact and to keep their faith pure. This is accomplished through strict religious control and peer pressure, and by minimizing influence from the outside world. As a Christian you might think that I would agree with the idea of maintain purity in faith. My answer is that I don't wish to be someone who thinks they have all the answers and won't listen to other ideas, and I think this is wrong and unhealthy for a Christian community. We should not be afraid of the truth and we should not believe that we understand it perfectly.

Back to the Amish: cars, for instance, are prohibited because they would lead to working outside the community, would become status symbols disrupting the social order, and easy travel would bring more outside influence. Motorized tractors with rubber tires are not allowed because they could be driven into town, which would eventually lead to cars. However, horse drawn motors used to power farming operations are okay.

I am interested in these people because I think they can show us a way to a simple yet rewarding life. But can we accomplish this without their rigid social and religious control? Probably not, but when it comes to living this way because we have no other choice, they will be a great resource to learn from.

One thing that we need to learn from them is to think about long term outcomes. They give great thought and debate to making any changes that would possibly result in a change to their way of life. If there's a chance for this outcome, they simply don't do it.

I know you and I don't want someone making all our decisions for us, this is the standard argument against central planning and I think there is a lot of truth in it. But if we have no planning and restrictions at all, we end up where we are today.

No comments: