When we were living in Ohio, USA, just over four years ago, there was a severe ice storm just before Christmas and about 9000 homes in our area were left without electricity. (Ours was out for five days.)
Many of us who had no alternative heating spent that Christmas displaced. Especially bizarre was the fact that on any one street, some had power and some did not, depending on which company you were hooked up through. This meant that while some families had to sleep on the floor at the YMCA, others had their houses ablaze with decorative lighting.
The people who, from the outside, seemed least affected were the Amish, who had never relied on the grid in the first place.
During our time there, I had been with our daughter on a trip (organised by the college’s Jewish student group; anyone could go along) to nearby Holmes County to experience Amish diplomacy/hospitality. The aim was to increase understanding, to give a little insight into how Amish people live, with a “host” well accustomed to explaining and interacting at the interface between his culture and the wider world. There’s much to admire in the Amish emphasis on community and small-scale living.
(As vegans, Katherine and I were a little adrift in the Amish restaurant, sticking to the side salads in an incredibly meat-heavy environment; while veganism was an unfamiliar idea to our Amish host, he had – of course! – no problem with the idea of strong principles that might put you at odds with your surroundings...)
It’s easy to romanticise the notion of Amish living, especially when it’s portrayed with the kind of moral idealism of a film like Peter Weir’s Witness. But the reality is always more complex.
There’s a fascinating investigation of Amish attitudes to technology on Kevin Kelly's site The Technium. Many of the responses posted below his article are also interesting.
Particularly disturbing is the readiness to take up GM technology in a kind of functional-utilitarian manner, as it’s depicted there. Of course, as Kelly shows, the Amish are not homogeneous. What happens in one group may not happen in another.