Do the Amish care about the environment? How do they respond to challenges like pollution, the impact of pesticides, and habitat loss?

College of Wooster professors David McConnell and Lyn Loveless wrote about Amish views of nature in their last post.

They return today with a look at the Amish and environmental problems in their communities and beyond. Do these issues concern Amish people? Is the Amish lifestyle “ecological” as some outsiders believe?

As they write at the end, your thoughts and contributions are welcome as they explore this interesting topic for their upcoming book.

Recently, we’ve been thinking about attitudes within Amish communities to local and regional environmental issues. Amish farms and communities are part of a larger landscape and are embedded within a political system that must confront a variety of environmental challenges.

These include water and air pollution, pesticide use, over-development, land use and zoning, and habitat loss and degradation. Local, state, and federal regulations have been created to address many of these shared problems. We are curious about how the Amish respond to these challenges and whether and how the Amish embrace the idea of ecological limits to human activities.

Skepticism & An Ecological Illusion?

One the one hand, many Amish with whom we’ve spoken associate environmentalism with liberalism and tend to downplay the seriousness of regional and global environmental problems. Like some non-Amish, they are nonplussed by the environmental agendas espoused by the state and federal government and feel frustrated when outsiders who appear to have little practical knowledge seemingly meddle in their affairs.

The Amish tendency to refrain from certain types of civic participation and activism also limits their ability to confront larger ecological challenges that cross property lines and state and national borders.

holmes-county-amish-farm-landscape

In addition, the Amish suspicion of scientific evidence and their reluctance to base decisions on information beyond their own experiences may lead to a reactive, not proactive, stance. While most Amish will comply with environmental regulations, they may see them as a nuisance and a constraint on their activities, and not as appropriate restrictions on behavior that contributes to the common good.

One middle-aged man from the Andy Weaver affiliation expressed this perspective to us quite clearly: He told us that he can’t EVER remember being taught by his parents about the ecological value of nature.

He gave the example of the trees on his property. He takes good care of them because they are useful to him as firewood and possibly to sell for timber, not because taking care of them is ecological. He concluded by asserting that any Amish behavior that looks ecological to outsiders is really just a by-product of religious values that emphasize thriftiness, simplicity and responsible use of God-given resources.

Alternative Examples

And yet on the other hand, we’ve come across some interesting examples of Amish who are actively involved in protecting natural landscapes or who are changing their farming practices to address water pollution. In several settlements, for example, Amish individuals have served on the boards of Rails to Trails programs that convert old railroad lines into bike, buggy and walking paths.

And in some instances, they actively protect natural habitats. We know of at least one example of an Amish man buying a prime area of wetlands to preserve for shorebird migration, while another individual had planted native prairie grasses on his property, in part to educate future generations.

In the Lancaster settlement, Amish farmers have generally been very cooperative with programs sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency to address the dead zones in Chesapeake Bay caused in part by nitrates and phosphates in farm runoff. And we’ve learned about Amish participation in some recycling programs (both for household waste and for plastics used in farming), though it’s not clear how widespread these are.

Nevertheless, these examples suggest that some Amish do not assume Creation will stand up to any possible consequences of human behavior, but instead recognize ecological limits to our actions.

Questions

Do you know of local or regional environmental issues or challenges in which the Amish are involved?

If so, how do they explain their interest in addressing these issues? Do they find the ecological rationale compelling? Or do they focus on other benefits that will come from such behaviors?

Do they acknowledge the need to reduce their impact on natural systems, or do they generally doubt that their actions could have long-term negative consequences on others?

Since we’re limited in our ability to travel, we’d appreciate hearing (either in this forum or, if you prefer, off-line at dmcconnell@wooster.edu or mloveless@wooster.edu) about any examples from Amish settlements across North America with which readers are familiar.