The Illustration of “Small Is Beautiful” with The Amish Culture

While exploring the Islandness imagination of smallness and isolation, I think about a famous book from Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Matter, published in 1973.  At the same time, I also discovered an ethnic group, call “the Amish”, whose culture represents full traits of Islandness and can also be defined as an illustration for Schumacher’s concept. The purpose of this article is to express my thought about the linkage between the Amish culture and an island, which serves as an excellent example for Schumacher’s voice, “Smallness is beautiful”. The article’s sequence will be organized into three parts: The Amish and Islandness, Small is Beautiful: Old Order is a choice of life, and the Paradox of their smallness and Isolation.


THE AMISH AND ISLANDNESS

The Amish is a traditionalist religious ethnic group of Anabaptists. They originated from Germany around the 1500s and later stretched to other regions of Switzerland and Alsace between 1525 and 1860s. Jakob Ammann was the prominent leader of this Christian group, and he moved to Alsace in 1693 because Louis XIV expelled all anabaptists, including his family from their homeland. Since then, Ammann became the church leader for the group following him, so they were called “the Amish”.

Between the 1700s and 1800s, the compulsory order to have more men serving in the country’s army infected this Christian community. This is an intolerant matter in the Amish principle of no military involvement. Subsequently, this unwanted situation became the main cause of Amish emigrating to the United States via Pennsylvania’s port to seek a new beginning of their faith’s independence.  This new land was where they started growing a big divergent community in North America until today (Nolt).

The Amish hay barn- Ken Atlantic

The Amish called themselves the Plain people (Egenes 14). Plainness is the signature attribute that the modern world talks about them. Interesting facts of the Amish’s traditions include horses and buggies as the principal transportation mode, abandonment of modern technology and electricity, and no higher education, to truly dedicate oneself to the church’s faith:

In contrast to mainstream culture’s narcissistic emphasis on me first, in Amish life the church-community comes first, then the family, and finally the individual

Cates 20

What is the relevance between the Amish and Islandness? I realized the similarity between the Amish and an island: both are commonly stereotyped as being small and isolated. The island’s imagination is small and bounded because of its physical boundaries of the coastal line and the ocean, apart from the mainland. Likewise, the Amish community is distinct from “our other communities” because most of their lifetime is spent within their religious community and churches. But, for them, the only border to the outside world that they called “the English” is language:

The Amish often refer to those who are not Amish as the English. All Amish people are bilingual, but their first language is a German dialect and English is their second language – one that they use especially as they interact with the wider world. As a result, they refer generally to all outsiders with the “English” label.

Nolt 20

Another characteristic of islandness is remoteness or isolation. Likewise, Amish people’s “strangeness” to distance themselves from the modern culture is well-known by the others. The media also give a hand to push this to a greater extent, such as “people-in-the-old-time” or “people-who-abandon-the-modernity.” These made this Christian community somewhat “far” from the reach of any outsider. Though, it should not refer to any sign of them being isolated in this context at all as Steven M. Nolt once stated in his book The Amish :

In neither case- large settlements nor small ones- do the Amish live in isolation. Everywhere they live mixed among rural neighbors of other faiths and traditions… there is nothing like an Amish “country” in the sense of a set-aside reservation or bounded space

Nolt 20

By chance or as-it-is, the Amish becomes a lure of imagination in a similar way that one thinks about an island.

Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: OLD ORDER IS A CHOICE OF LIFE

How Schumacher’s thought comes into the scene? In his famous book Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Matter (1973), Schumacher expressed his thought on materialism as the dominant growth mentality at that time: everything must be at big scale to solve the production’s problems:

I was brought up on the theory that in order to be prosperous, a country had to be big – the bigger, the better

Schumacher 59

However, this belief was one of the most fateful error of our ages (12), the book’s author argued. He also admitted human beings could successfully solve the above problems somehow, but with a cost that they did not envision: dehumanization in all processes, inequality led to violence, unsustainability, and socioecological issues. These impacts are seen as the consequences of “that illusion of unlimited power” (13):

A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problem of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital. How, then, could we overlook this vital fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth and, in particular, the economies of its rich passengers.

Schumacher 13

When looking at the globe from the universe, the only feasible border is the black space and once depicted as a “spaceman economy” by Boulding in the article “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” published in 1997.  Boulding intended to request human beings to consider the Earth as a spaceship in the universe, a closed system with fuel limits. It would depreciate over time by our continuous abuse.  The spaceship crews must then carefully manage the operational state if they want the ship to last longer and go farther in future:

Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman” economy, in which the Earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.

Boulding

The globe’s economy and population cannot expand infinitely; so, a systematic biosphere’s conservation is vital. Human beings must do the right thing by conducting appropriate attitudes towards the current over-consumption state of mind, as Vaclav Smil stated in his famous book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities:

I want to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares on crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends do not seem to realize that .

Smil

Coming back to the Amish choice of life.  Ordnung is a set of disciplines created in the 1900s by the Amish church leaders to shape behaviors aligning with the old order in their culture and faiths after emigration to the States. Thus, following the Ordnung is an important life choice that one could not take lightly. After being baptized by the church leader, the Ordnung navigates Amish adults’ minds and behaviors internally and externally. An Amish could be shunned or excommunicated for not complying with its rules:

Yielding to the Ordnung is considered an imitation of Christ, who willingly submitted to God, even to the point of death

Cates 21

The Amish have never rejected technology, but they use it on their own terms, terms that shape their lives and work in ways that reinforce their distinctive identity and separation from the world

Nolt 90

It is said that the Amish reject using cars and mobile phones, but, in fact, that is the intentional choice not to follow the consumer culture in all aspects of their life such as modern devices and appliances or electricity. It is not necessarily bad things to them, but it triggers the initiation of growing infinite needs in mind.

Abandoning unnecessary modernity’s means, the Amish accept and believe that an individual needs to restrict himself, which is an essential expression as Jesus’s followers:

The horse barn – Ken Atlantic

We are more bound to human limits. Man was not designed to work twenty-four hours a day. When the horse gets tired, you have to stop. You cannot go all day like you can with a car or a tractor.

Nolt 102

From this point of view, the Amish’s way of life is meant to be on a small-scale, and “they participate in modern life on their own terms” (Nolt 11), the same as our approach to islands. We may tell that Old Order is a moral choice for an Amish, as an islander who chooses to live by his own terms:

… a place is what its place-makers – humans or non-humans – do… my argument is that sense of island place, or Islandness, is an outcome of what islanders do, and in particular of how islanders move.

Vannini and Taggart 228

THE PARADOX OF AMISH’S SMALLNESS AND ISOLATION

Are they small? One day I read the news of the Amish movement to Prince Edward Island in 2016, so out of curiosity, I decided to visit their farms. I was blessed to meet and had a conversation with a young Amish girl. Her name is Veronica, and she seemed to be in her teenage years. Her family was among seventeen families who decided to move to PEI four years ago. In my mind, I assumed the Amish community is not comfortable to reach and approach, but I was wrong. Veronica’s family was friendly and hospitable.

After greeting her mother, Veronica showed me around the farm, the horse and cow barns, the dried hay storage, and finally, the legendary horse buggies. Everything looked exactly as I was imagining on the way there.

The horse buggies – Ken Atlantic

However, there were some differences that I noticed. First, they are not small. The Amish population in North America is estimated roughly 350,000 people in 2020, and they double their number every fifteen years. I asked Veronica why the family moved to PEI, and she humbly answered:” It is getting crowded in Ontario, not enough space for everyone, and the prices are high and rising”. Her family could now afford a seven-hundred-acre farm and many barns in this small town. Their buildings are not much different from any other buildings on our island. She was wiping the building’ glass windows when I passed by and asked to buy some eggs.

Telephone booth – Ken Atlantic

My thought is that the Amish are meant to be isolated but on their own term. For instance, they probably do not use a cell phone, but the flexibility of having one telephone booth close by allows the families to take the call at dedicated time. Veronica’s family has one. The booth was located outside of the house near the barns.  I was excited to see the phonebooth first and more thoughts about their life choice were coming right after that. It is indeed the choice they make not to abandon technology but use it with appropriate responsibility to the church, the community and their family.

I asked Veronica another question about “Rumspringa”. The Ordnung stated that is a period a teenager is allowed to experience the modern world, then that person will decide to come back to be baptized and officially become a church’s member, or leave forever. The young girl replied with a holy voice:” That tradition is commonly practiced in the United States, but we do not do it here; everybody chooses to stay and live the life.” Her family’s last greetings were when I met her brother, who was operating a tractor, and her father just drove back home by car. At that time, I had a deeper understanding of the Amish in the present day. They are people who conserve the values, and these people have a strong faith to do so. Rumspringa gives each person the opportunity to get out of “the island and only come back if they wish to, while “the flexible negotiating on the force of modern life has allowed them to flourish” (Nolt 11):

The Amish Ordnung, the code that governs life together, turns out to be not a cage but a pathway, leading to a distinct kind of freedom.

Miller 38

Several Island studies’ approaches towards “Small is Beautiful” concept (Schumacher) were presented throughout this blog. First, we mentioned the relevance between the Amish culture and Islandness in Island Studies. Second, we aligned the contemporary thinking from Schumacher’s book with how traditional Amish culture and Islandness are seen as its illustrations. The third part described an experience visiting an Amish family on the island to explore the other sides of their smallness and isolation. Based on these comparative demonstrations,  I believe that the Amish culture and an Island are identical in their characteristics and expressions to the outside world, especially as they reasonably fit in the model of “Small is Beautiful” : the responsibility to the society and the whole environment. Though a question:

Is sustainability’s answer which modern civilization struggle to achieve, merely the way of life that the Amish are conducting every day?

The “logic of production” is neither the logic of life nor that of society. It is a small and subservient part of both.

Schumacher 278
Amish farm – Ken Atlantic

Works Cited

Boulding, K. E. The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, in Henry Jarrett (Ed.). EDWARD ELGAR PUBLISHING LTD, Great Britain, 1997, https://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?qurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dedsbl%26AN%3dRN020871222%26site%3deds-live%26scope%3dsite%26profile%3Deds.

Cates, James A. Serving the Amish : A Cultural Guide for Professionals. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, https://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?qurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dcat01065a%26AN%3dupei.1260815%26site%3deds-live%26scope%3dsite%26profile%3Deds http://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?url=http://site.ebrary.com/lib/upei/Doc?id=10926412.

Egenes, Linda. Visits with the Amish : Impressions of the Plain Life. vol. 1st University of Iowa Press ed, University Of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2009, https://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?qurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dnlebk%26AN%3d301778%26site%3deds-live%26scope%3dsite%26profile%3Deds.

Miller, Eric. “Why we Love Amish Romances: In our Brave, Liberated New World, More American Evangelical Readers are Seeking Freedom in the Old Order.” Christianity today (Washington), vol. 55, no. 4, Apr 1, 2011, pp. 38.

Nolt, Steven M. The Amish : A Concise Introduction. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016, https://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?qurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dcat01065a%26AN%3dupei.1426080%26site%3deds-live%26scope%3dsite%26profile%3Deds http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/upei/detail.action?docID=4439553.

Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful : Economics as if People Mattered. Harper & Row, 1973, https://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?qurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dcat01065a%26AN%3dupei.20834%26site%3deds-live%26scope%3dsite%26profile%3Deds.

Smil, Vaclav. “Growth : From Microorganisms to Megacities.”/z-wcorg/, 2019, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=2247466.

Vannini, Phillip, and Jonathan Taggart. “Doing Islandness: A Non-Representational Approach to an Island’s Sense of Place.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 20, no. 2, 2013, pp. 225, https://proxy.library.upei.ca/login?qurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dedsjsr%26AN%3dedsjsr.44289605%26site%3deds-live%26scope%3dsite%26profile%3Deds.

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