#13 – The Insustainability of Making America Amish
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#13 – The Insustainability of Making America Amish

I’ve been thinking lately that a reason so many Americans now reject science is an intentional or subconscious reaction to the economic disruption that science and resulting technology create. As just one example, I assume some people reject the science that proves human-accelerated climate change, and they are suspicious about sustainable sources of energy, because the solutions to climate change will shift the job market and force them to adapt to a world where fossil fuels are replaced by sustainable sources such as solar and wind (or, what’s happening now, by cheaper natural gas).

Such distaste and distrust of change — in the face of necessary change — is nothing new. A century ago, while many horse fans hated the motor car, leaders in New York City were legitimately worried about being buried in horse manure. Gas-fueled motor cars solved that challenge but eventually created their own pollution problem.  Today, fossil fuel is re-energized, and science is on the defensive. But, science and technology made oil refining possible and will eventually make fossil fuels generally obsolete.

It brings the Amish to mind. Before I go on, let me be clear that the Amish, from what I have read and observed second-hand, are among the kindest, most industrious and godly people to ever grace planet earth. They are people of integrity, and I admire them greatly — even wistfully. I don’t claim they are perfect, nor are real-life Amish people a monolithic stereotype. I doubt they claim perfection for themselves. What they do claim, based on my understanding, is that the old ways are the godliest ways. Even so, they do not live in caves or in trees. And they use wheels. Their capacity to build a house or move from place to place faster than on foot — even doing it in old ways — comes from the adoption of long-ago advances in applied science.

Now, many times I have longed for a simpler way than modern times thrust upon us. Yet, as much as I admire the most conservative of the Amish population and respect their choices, I will not be giving up my car or my smartphone. 

The reason Amish communities have survived is that they function as self-insulated and self-sustaining economies. There is a push today in some parts of the US population to essentially replicate the Amish example on a national basis — to insulate the economy, withdraw into our borders and “bring back” manufacturing (never mind the reality of global supply chains, assembly and testing) … and bring back coal mining, and bring back bring back bring back other jobs displaced by automation or cheaper offshore alternatives.

Why can’t we be great in the old ways? Sigh. Let’s keep in mind that America IS great (though imperfect, for the record). The US is still the world’s greatest cumulative source of innovation and opportunity, just as it has been for more than a century. It’s just that the opportunities now are significantly different than they were just 5 years ago, and opportunities 5 years from now will be different than they are today. It’s mind-boggling, and no wonder some people want to stop the world and hang tight for awhile just to catch their breath and feel like they’re finally getting a break. I can sympathize with that, and I empathize as well. I’m in the same boat and even more concerned for the well-being of my kids.

The reason we should mindfully embrace change is: 1) it’s inevitable, so let’s lead it, and 2) survival depends upon adaptability to new conditions. The explosion of human populations and innovations are creating new conditions as powerful as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, an event that gave mammals the opportunity to ascend. If survival went to the “strongest” — a common misconception among people who failed to understand Darwin or who twisted his discovery for selfish economic purposes — then T-Rex would still roam the earth rather than being fossilized dregs that today’s humans burn for energy. Darwin recognized that adaptability trumps strength (and, for the record, he saw that cooperation trumps self-centeredness.)

Amish communities adapt slowly by intent. These communities survive in the modern world because they are protected by the people, culture and laws of a broader nation with a Constitution that allows them to live their chosen life. The US has no such higher, overarching framework that would allow us to thrive in the modern world without constant adaptation. If the US chooses to cling to outdated ways (from trying to revitalize the coal industry to seeking manufacturing jobs that are being automated out of existence) then we’re missing the straight facts about the global economy and its technology-driven direction.

Technology has been displacing manual labor for centuries. Now, even mental labor is being automated (Turbo Tax is the tiniest of examples). We can try and ignore this fact — that traditional work in almost all stripes is being displaced by automation. But, that’s like a restaurant denying that their knew competitor next door serves food that tastes almost as good but costs 75 percent less. Change or die, my friends. One can be angry as hell about the disruptions from globalization, and legitimately so. But you can’t wish it away or make it go away. It can be sidetracked temporarily, but that train will ultimately keep rolling … and those who jumped off will find themselves alone at a ghost-town station.

The inexorable trend of technology doesn’t have to be dystopian for common folk like me. One optimistic view (and a critique) is summarized in this Wikipedia article about The End of Work, which Jeremy Rifkin published more than 20 years ago. Or, consider this 2017 Bloomberg interview with Mark Cuban (start at 7:45 minutes in). Whether for good or ill, the digital dam has burst, and it will continue washing away the old ways of work — at lightning speed.

Sure, old-school niches can do well, but on a much smaller basis than before. Consider the comeback of vinyl records or that some photographers still prefer film. In this sense, the Amish approach of avoiding rapid adaptation is a lovely, wonderful and enviable niche. But without the protection of the bigger American system, that buggy would get crushed by a self-driving Suburban from Uber.

India, China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and other nations face the same challenge of displaced workforces, but if they choose innovation over stagnation, they can surge forward — using largely American innovations — while America buries its collective head in the economic sands of the past.

For America and Americans, our rising tide can continue to lift many boats both here and abroad. But not if we tie the American economy to a rotting pier. We can hate that fact and hate the science and technology behind it. But we cannot change that it’s a fact.