With their creative uses for hydraulic-powered machines, 12-volt conversion technology, fiberglass, and even herbicides, the Amish have a lot to teach the rest of America. By Ed Tenner
Of all of America’s religious communities, few seem less likely to thrive in the 21st century than the Old Order Amish. They are forbidden not only to drive tractors and automobiles but also to install electrical wiring in their homes and businesses. Yet their numbers are doubling every 20 years, and there are 1,600 Amish-owned businesses in Lancaster County, PA, alone, according to Donald Kraybill, author of The Riddle of Amish Culture and coauthor of Amish Enterprise. He notes that more than 90 percent of Amish youth accept baptism and its obligations.
As Kraybill and others have shown, the Amish are so resilient in part because their society tempers discipline with flexibility. Within the decentralized leadership, each bishop allows experimentation before deciding whether an innovation will be sanctioned by the community’s Ordnung – its oral body of customs and rules. For example, the bishops have generally permitted the use of electrical inverters in Amish shops so they can operate standard 110-volt AC machines like cash registers and typewriters with 12-volt batteries. The Amish receive modern medical care and encourage scientific study of their genetic diseases. Many of their famous black buggies are made of fiberglass. And some unbaptized youths experiment with automobiles and computers for a few years of rumspringa (running around) before they decide whether to join the church.
But although the Amish make certain technological concessions, their way of life, of course, imposes limits, which stem from their core value: Gelassenheit, which means yielding to God’s will as manifested in the community’s leadership. This principle informs their view of formal education: in an effort to reduce pride and competitiveness, the Amish do not educate children past the eighth grade.
Self-imposed limitations promote a basic, but valuable, form of innovation. Amish metalworkers have been at the forefront of a revival of horse-drawn agriculture in the United States; the number of horses on U.S. farms increased by 20 percent between 1997 and 2002. Amish shops are leading suppliers of innovative implements – for example, a horse-drawn plow with an external wheel that charges a hydraulic cylinder, which lets a farmer raise and lower the plow with little effort. (Models sold to non-Amish farmers may use rubber tires, forbidden in Amish agriculture.) Amish inventions are of special interest in developing countries, where draft-animal farming is still common.
Amish bishops set limits on the size of companies, so Amish shops tend to have 10 or fewer employees, who are generally Amish themselves. Labor relations are usually excellent, based on teamwork and shared values. When an Amish business grows beyond the prescribed size, the bishops often make the owner sell it, but this can be to the owner”s advantage. He is spared the pains of the middle-sized company that needs professional managers and heavy outside financing. His workers learn a few technologies thoroughly. And Amish profits are often reinvested as low-cost loans within the community.
The ban on connecting to the power grid fosters great ingenuity in hydraulic and compressed-air technology, resulting in devices that are often more energy efficient than conventional electric motors. Since stationary diesel engines are permitted, Amish mechanics also gain valuable experience adapting off-the-shelf machinery to run on diesel-powered hydraulic pumps, air compressors, and battery chargers. Power outages have become more frequent in North America but leave Amish farms and businesses largely undisturbed: the freezing rain that shut down the electrical grid in Quebec in winter 1998 had little effect on the Amish farmers who had established themselves in neighboring northern New York state.
The Amish do not all think alike. Many Amish farmers are enthusiastic users of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified seeds, which they regard as the God-given means of sustaining their farms and communities. Other Amish (Kraybill estimates 10 to 15 percent) are allied with the Green movement; the Yale University environmental historian Steven Stoll applauds organic Amish farmer David Kline, whose way of life Stoll calls postmodern: “traditional without being nostalgic, practical without nodding to technology.”
Amish life might not be utopian, but it remains one of America’s oldest and most robust technological experiments, with something to teach the rest of us. When all else fails, try a little Gelassenheit.