Sunday, December 6, 2015

Amish Paradise

Amish men work at a barn raising. Note the crane at right,
run by a non-Amish worker to lift the trusses into place.
A couple of days ago, Adam Ozimek of the blog Modeled Behavior stumbled on an article I wrote about Amish population trends. (Short version: They're having lots and lots of kids. Specifically, they're at 300,000 and counting, and are growing at more than five times the overall U.S. rate.)

Adam tweeted a tongue-in-cheek comment:
Which yielded a bunch of followups:

Your basic humorous Twitter riffing, clearly not meant to be taken seriously ... but also illustrative of a couple of stereotypes of the Amish that just plain (so to speak) aren't true. Amish scholar Donald Kraybill occasionally uses a certain famous Weird Al song as a jumping-off point for serious discussions of Amish life; so, in that spirit:

1. "Troubling implications for innovation": Yes and no. True, the Amish end schooling after eighth grade, and they go light on the biology and science because they don't want students asking awkward questions about the veracity of Scripture. But the Amish don't oppose technology per se. Rather, they evaluate technology based on its effect on family and community life. They reject innovations they think are too disruptive, but others they embrace. Sometimes they modify them to mitigate the perceived harm:
Stoltzfus is among the Amish businessmen who have entered the computer age. A company that outfits computers for Amish people touts in its advertising what the machines do not have: "no Internet, no video, no music."
Donald Kraybill has documented an Amish business that uses 3-D printers to make energy-efficient LED lights for buggies. That doesn't sound like an anti-innovation mindset to me.

2. "Great news for climate change, though": Sadly, not so much. The Amish are farmers, and they're not especially cutting-edge farmers, so they do their share of ecological damage. Worldwide, agriculture contributes about 18 percent of total greenhouse gases. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess the Amish are probably about average in terms of per-acre emissions. (They do a lot of dairy farming.)

In Lancaster County, a major ecological concern with the Amish is manure runoff from their farms, which contributes to the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay. Officials are trying hard to get the Amish to improve their practices, with some success, but it's an uphill battle.

3. "... leading to a reconsideration of mass transit": The Amish don't oppose mass transit. They're quite happy taking buses, trains, subways and even airplanes, as needed. Their objection to modern vehicles isn't the technology per se (see item 1), but the way car ownership promotes independence and weakens community ties.

On the other hand, the Amish reject dense settlement and the kind of centralized organization you need to run mass transit systems. So they probably wouldn't want them after they took over, and if they did, they'd have to keep a few thousand of us English around to run the networks for them.

4. "Should help save on our defense budget": Um, yeah, can't really disagree with that. The Amish commitment to nonviolence is deep-rooted and non-negotiable. Full marks there.