Learning from the Amish.

Whenever late October rolls around and advertisements start promoting the trappings of Halloween my mind is transported to a holiday I once enjoyed travelling in the eastern United States of America. The principal reason for the recollection is the enormous displays of large pumpkins that were to be seen everywhere. It is the time of year when the harvest is plentiful and farm produce is displayed with pride especially in the agricultural regions such as Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. It is a most beautiful region with town names like “Bird in Hand” and “Intercourse” – made famous for its appearance in the Harrison Ford movie Witness.

I spent most enjoyable time in this part of the Amish world and came to marvel at the lushness of the agriculture which is produced with an absolute minimum of modern technology. The farms run on horsepower generated by real horses. Although some concessions are made for the purposes of hygiene and practicality these communities still tend to disdain much of the modern technological advances that have been the hallmark of the growth in America over the last two centuries.


Can minimalism and resource conservation work elsewhere?

Obviously the Amish model works in an agrarian context but could it be successful in a more industrialised environment? It would be an interesting Lancmulesexperiment to see how much of Australia’s economy would continue to operate on mule power rather than 20th-century technology. Almost every office today will have its desktop or laptop computers connected to the Internet and perhaps even augmented by iPads and smartphones. Production machinery is managed by computers and the checkouts of retail stores use barcodes so that shoppers can self process their shopping. There is so much abundant technology around us that often we are oblivious to it.

(Image courtesy lancasterrealitycheck.com)

This thought however triggers a speculation as to how many of our business and even government organisations operate today using only a minimum of the available technology. Even with a computer on every desk it is highly apparent that the vast majority of users hardly if ever access the majority of programs and computing power available to them. Consider also the impact on economies of the capital cost and ongoing expense of maintaining the hardware and on a regular basis updating to new versions of software. I often think it is like ordering and paying for an eight course banquet meal and only ever eating the entree. Moreover we do this day after day.

I admit to being bound up in the same vicious circle. I have a scanner/ printer which boasts a wide variety of functions many of which I never use and probably wouldn’t know how to if I suddenly had need for them. The saving grace is the very inexpensive purchase price of the unit such that I do not feel that I am paying for the extensive additional unused capacity. The marketing of such devices encourages me to feel that way whilst at the same time being complicit in the consumption of the extraordinary resources used to produce such units.

On the other hand what are the costs of NOT using available technology?

Learning from the Amish


I see practices in certain sectors of our economy that encourage the consumption of extraordinary volumes of natural resources because of the failure to use available technology. I recently observed a train of lawyers heading toward the courts. Each robed and bewigged barrister trundled behind them a pull along suitcase filled with paper documents. In some cases they were accompanied by an assistant with a similar cache of paper. Whilst everyone can understand the need for readily accessible information surely we are in a position to find an alternative that is less resource hungry. (Image courtesy SMH)

I recently bought for just a few dollars an 8Gb USB stick no bigger than my thumb on which can be stored tens of thousands of pages of documents. The effort and energy required to scan and save that volume may not be much less than required to produce photocopies but it only needs to be done once – after which unlimited copies can be shared with others electronically.

 Whilst caught in the crossfire of conservation vs technology I have become so sensitive to reducing my impact on resources – particularly forest resources – that I now take even more seriously that little exhortation under the signature block of my own emails that says “Consider the environment before printing this email“. My conversion is such that Reinforcements now has its own adopted Environmental Policy.

So back to the Amish – whose philosophy includes minimising human impact on the earth and its resources. Although we may see them as a somewhat curious society and perhaps anachronistic they are still to be greatly admired as leading examples of practicing resource conservation. When the world runs out of fossil fuels we may be grateful to ride in one of those quaint buggies.


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