Even before climate change emerged as an existential threat, the Amish were lauded for their environmentally friendly, off-the-grid lifestyle. Horse-drawn transportation, huge vegetable gardens, emphasis on nature and more have made the Amish seem like the antidote to a culture with an increasingly destructive effect on the natural world. “If we all lived like they do, this host of modern problems we have would disappear,” declared a blogger on sustainability.
In their wide-ranging book, Nature and the Environment in Amish Life, David L. McConnell and Marilyn D. Loveless, professors at the College of Wooster in Ohio, set out to discover if the Amish are indeed inspirational environmentalists. The answer, unsurprisingly, is complicated.
Compared to the general population, the Amish undeniably have a lower impact on natural resources and perhaps a keener understanding of nature — but tree-huggers they’re not. In fact, the prevailing Amish perspective is that nature has value only in its benefit to humans.
One Amish man takes care of the trees on his property because they are useful to him as firewood and possibly timber to sell. “Any Amish behavior that seems to outsiders to be environmentally motivated, he said, is really just a by-product of religious values that emphasize thrift, simplicity and responsible use of God-given resources,” McConnell and Loveless write. “That perspective differs sharply from the assumption that many outsiders make that Amish simplicity stems from a desire to protect the earth.”
McConnell, an anthropologist, and Loveless, a biologist, give some attention to the Amish religious ethos. The authors note that the “Amish believe the earth is temporary and its end could be near,” thus making the “long view” of environmental concerns, such as preservation of natural resources for future generations, of little importance.
But Nature and the Environment in Amish Life mostly focuses on practical expressions of Amish beliefs about the environment. According to McConnell and Loveless, profits have overtaken traditional principles in some cases.
Breeding high-end horses, deer for hunting and exotic animals, such as parrots and pot-bellied pigs, has pushed some Amish to reject some traditional community practices.
Despite concerns about being unequally yoked, and their generally negative view of government, the Amish have joined and even served as officers of livestock associations and are quick to solicit help from the government. Some Amish have even broken the law in their business ventures, all with the goal of making more money.
The clash between Amish values and worldly ways is especially evident in education. Given their rural locations, and eschewing video games and other technology, Amish students grow up immersed in nature. But the science of nature is considered suspicious, if it is considered at all. The authors report that while conducting interviews for the book, Amish individuals often expressed confusion about what science is, usually deferring to interpretations offered by their religious views.
Teachers, even those of a progressive bent, were reluctant to push too far — evolution is certainly forbidden — resulting in what one teacher called “science lite.” That has implications, for instance, for understanding the ecology of wetlands and accepting the facts about Chronic Wasting Disease, which has plagued deer populations.
McConnell and Loveless have written a fascinating and insightful contribution to the field of Amish studies. It’s the first book to examine Amish attitudes about the environment — a vital topic, given the current cultural and political context. After all, the fate of the world is literally at stake.
But the authors have done much more, as the findings about money-making and education demonstrate, adding nuance and complexity to a people who are often idealized. We see that the Amish are like the rest of us, their faith often compromised by failings and foibles.
That is what makes Nature and the Environment in Amish Life a book about religion, whether or not McConnell and Loveless intended it to be such. They have produced a study of how the steadfastly traditional Amish interact with a world undergoing tremendous change — and not always with encouraging results.
Another example of the clash between the insular religious beliefs of the Amish and the dynamics of the world is large family size. “Children are a gift from God,” McConnell and Loveless write. “With little understanding of global-resource distribution or population trends, the Amish do not connect their own reproductive choices with environmental stresses on food, water or land at the international level. But even if they did, their faith rests in God’s promise to provide for them.”
Other topics covered include genetically modified crops, solar energy, herbal and natural medicines, hunting and travel.
The book is generally accessible but occasionally strays into a more daunting academic writing style. That is particularly the case with the first chapter (“Deciphering the Amish Relationship with Nature”) and appendix (“Methods”). These can be skipped in favor of the more engaging content. It’s there that insights and understandings are found.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.