- Nature and the Environment in Amish Life by David L. McConnell, Marilyn D. Loveless
Are the Amish environmental saints or sinner? On the one hand, popular American consciousness holds the Amish up as model environmental stewards— their agriculture-based, technology-free lifestyle suggests ecological harmony. On the other hand, a recent chorus of critical voices has emerged that admonishes Amish communities for degrading watersheds, for treating farm animals inhumanely, and for relying too much on carcinogen-containing fertilizers and pesticides, among other ecologically detrimental cultural practices. The Amish, in this way, are not unlike Native Americans—mythologized as ecologically mindful but harshly criticized when further attention reveals their land-based practices to be less environmentally sympathetic than first assumed.
David McConnell and Marilyn Loveless’s new book seeks to complicate this overly simplistic picture of Amish communities’ relationship to the natural world. Nature and the Environment in Amish Life digs beneath the superficial thinking [End Page 121] the non-Amish world imposes on Amish society to explore the diversity of Amish lives and livelihoods, thus evidencing the rich perspectives constitutive of the Amish ecological imagination, as well as its relevance “for the broader effort to promote a sustainable world” (7).
McConnell and Loveless conclude that the Amish are “by and large united in seeing nature as existing for human use” (224). This does not mean, however, that Amish communities encourage the thoughtless exploitation of the natural environment. McConnell and Loveless deploy an interdisciplinary methodology—borrowed from the field of political ecology—to consider Amish cosmological constructions of nature, the structures of power and inequality that govern Amish economic livelihoods, the historical contexts shaping contemporary Amish relationships to the natural world, and finally the physical landscape and resources that Amish choices and lifestyles affect. The authors examine an impressive number of dimensions inherent to Amish life, from childrearing to woodworking, animal breeding to gardening, and outdoor leisure to medicinal horticulture. Concerns about ecology indeed do not dominate Amish day-today considerations, and those behaviors that seem ecologically sensitive from the outside are, as McConnell and Loveless observe, “by-products of other factors rather than performed with environmental intent” (227). For this reason, McConnell and Loveless argue that the Amish are more “parochial” stewards of the land and its ecology than they are proto-environmentalists.
Nature and the Environment in Amish Life is a detailed and thoughtful study that demystifies Amish thought and practice—which has long confounded modern American sensibilities—in order to clarify their ecological significance. Readers (both scholars and the general public alike) will not find a more thorough, more perspicacious analysis of Amish political ecology. Especially strong in McConnell and Loveless’s analysis is their refusal to assume a causal link between religious worldviews and ecological practice. Lynn White Jr.’s influential 1966 critique of Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism looms large over the academic subfield of religion and ecology. McConnell and Loveless note White’s argument that environmentally extractive and destructive behaviors naturally follow from anthropocentric worldviews, but McConnell and Loveless also nuance their analysis by illuminating how the environmental intentions and outcomes of a given religious culture cannot be understood solely in terms of that culture’s anthropocentric predilections. The result is a more careful, more searching exposition of Amish life, one that is open to the complex and always-changing standards governing Amish-nature relationality. [End Page 122]