Energy, Religion and Lifestyle

By Andrew Rudin, September 1991

Several articles in recent magazines have described the “greening of the church”—the increasing interest among congregations in protecting the environment.  Many congregations have recyling programs and some refuse to drink from styrofoam cups, for example.  If your congregation is struggling to improve its relationship with the environment, consider for a few moments the relationship between the religious beliefs and lifestyle of the Amish.

With utmost humility, the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania have been practicing ecologically sound lifestyles, preferring to live happily, closer to the earth than most of their fellow Christians.  Their lifestyles embody “walking lightly on the earth,” “small is beautiful,” and other frequently-cited principles of ecological living.

There are more than 16,000 Amish people in Lancaster County.  They doubled their number in 20 years.  The Amish family includes an average of 6.6 children.  The rules of the church discourage higher education, emphasizing instead on the job training.  They have strong families and communities.

Amish religion prohibits owning automobiles and connecting to the electric utility grid.  Are the Amish an example of how controlling energy use improves one’s relationship with the environment? Does the Amish lifestyle have a message for your congregation?  We think so.


The Amish are not against electricity.  One finds electronic typewriters and cash registers in Amish stores.  They run off 12-volt batteries, however, because the Amish refuse to have their homes and businesses connected to an electric utility.  Tanks for propane, compressed air, and fuel oil are evident everywhere, but the electric wires on power poles bypass each Amish building.

The Amish don’t like what electricity does to their lives.  They don’t want exposure to secular values from the outside.  They prefer a slower, softer, more family-centered lifestyle over the speedy, consumption-oriented lifestyle promoted by the mass media.  Were their buildings connected to the utility grid, modern appliances would be easy to install.

Eliminating the use of off-site electricity eliminates the use of fax machines, compact disks, stereos, VCRs, television, radio hair dryers, electric clothes dryers, toasters, air conditioners and microwave ovens—most modern “conveniences.”

Amish homes and business contain a lot of machinery.  Electric generators, however, can be used to power welding machines and to charge batteries… nothing
else.  Milk is cooled by diesel engines directly powering compressors.  Motors are powered by compressed air or by hydraulics.  Water is pumped by the wind or by the flow of a stream.  The Amish use propane refrigerators and heating systems, along with wood, coal and some passive solar heating.  There is no active solar heating systems for either space heat or domestic water.  A few photovoltaic panels are used to re-charge batteries.

Using electricity would be more convenient, and less expensive.  Lighting, for example, is frequently supplied by gas mantles glowing with burning propane gas.  A pair of mantles in one lamp produces light roughly equivalent to a 100-watt light bulb.  One tank of gas, costing about $6.50, will light the mantles for about 100 hours at full brightness.  This is more expensive than electricity from the local power company.  Propane light would have a value of about $0.65 per kilowatthour, about six times the cost from the utility.


The Amish are not against automobiles, but they refuse to own them.  They will ride on mass transit, rent vans, or ride with outsiders, but they will not own cars.  They feel that car ownership destroys their families and communities. “You would expect the speed and convenience of cars to allow more time for home life,” one Amish man said, “but just the opposite is true.”

It takes about 10 minutes from start to finish to get a horse and carriage ready for the road.  They travel about 10 to 12 miles per hour.  “If we had cars, we would not have to plan ahead as much,” an Amish man said.  “We can’t afford to forget details.  We must combine errands, travel alone or shop spontaneously.  Our travel is deliberate.”

Some Amish have tried bicycles, but they seemed to lead toward the justification for owning automobiles.   Bicycles are now shunned.  Similarly, tractors may be
used around the barn, but not in the fields.  One Amish settlement began using them in the fields, but found, once again, that such use seemed to justify owning cars.

We asked “What if everyone used a horse and carriage?”  An elder Amish replied that horse manure would get too deep too quick.  There would have to be a massive increase in mass transit, which the Amish would like to see.

Electricity, cars and values

While modern society is plagued with drugs, divorce, and environmental contamination, Amish society has none of those problems.  Could it be that their limitations on energy use are in part responsible?
The Amish believe that not owning cars and not using off-site electricity limits consumerism and strengthens family and community vitality.  Divorce and drug addiction are symptoms of broken social structures. Electricity and automobiles certainly are major contributors to environmental pollution.

Using energy changes our lives.  People can’t explain the benefits of ridding their lives of energy they don’t use.  The Amish cannot easily explain to outsiders the benefits of not having electric meters or cars.

Research has been done in at least two universities about the relationship of society to the energy it uses.  Earl Cook was a Professor of Geology and Geography at Texas A&M University.  He was the executive secretary of the National Academy of Sciences from 1963-66.  Chapter 7 of his book Man, Energy, Society discusses the differences between societies based on the amount of energy they use.  

Although Professor Cook did not mention the Amish, we see remarkable coincidences in his writing with what we found in Lancaster County:

  •  “In a low energy society, family and community are of great importance.  Not only are many goods and services produced within the family, but also the family is a major instrument of social control.  

Social efficiency is given strong preference over individual choice….

  • “Life in a high energy society is in sharp contrast to life in a low energy society.  Family and community are subordinated to the state because most goods and services are produced outside the family and because the means of social control do not depend upon the family’s and community’s allocating status and inculcating behavior.  Services are performed by specialists.”

Fred Cottrell is Professor of Government and Sociology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  Here is a statement from his book Energy and Society:

  •  “The changes which low-energy societies must undergo in the process of adopting high-energy technology affect everything from the functions of the family and the nature of personality to the rate of population growth, the ratio of land to population, and the character of groups in political control.”
  • “Almost nothing that gives life meaning in low-energy society is left undisturbed by the transition to high energy converters.”

We asked an Amish elder what he thought would happen if outsiders were to follow the Amish example by giving up automobiles and connection to the electric utility grid.  “They couldn’t cope; they just couldn’t cope,” was the answer.



Earl Cook, Man,Energy, Society, San Francisco: Freeman, 1976

Fred Cottrell, Energyand Society Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

John A. Hostetler, AmishSociety, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, Third edition, 1980

Stephen Scott and Kenneth Pellman, LivingWithout Electricity, Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990

Edward S. Klimuska, “Old Order Lancaster County”, Lancaster, PA:Lancaster New Era newspaper series,1990.

Donald B. Kraybill, ThePuzzles of Amish Life Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990µ


­Quotes from Earl Cook:

  • Time in a low energy society tends to be cyclical instead of linear. Reasoning about the world tend to be highly inductive, based on interpretations of what can be seen, felt, tasted and smelled.

  • In a low energy agricultural society the moneylender is a symbol of disaster.µ

  • The energy of low energy societies comes mainly from plants and animals: food and wood, vegetable wastes and dung, animal and human power. These sources of energy are all renewable. The diet in a low energy agricultural society tends to be low in animal products and rich in starches.

  • It is doubtful that industrial society could have arisen in a society that did not practice slavery or serfdom, in which the primary energy flow was controlled so that a surplus was assured for the managers.

  • Timetables and clocks are vital. Life may be inconvenienced by the seasons and made less productive by the inefficiencies of infancy and old age.

  • The values of a high-energy society are oriented toward goods. Merit is a function of productivity and is given prime weight in choosing person for positions in economic and political structures.

  • The communications media, needed to carry out the affairs of a high-energy society, provide the means for stimulating consumption by influencing belief in the potential rewards of specified products.

  • People in low energy societies try to keep warm by wearing more clothes and to keep cool by shedding them. People in high-energy societies keep warm or cool by heating or cooling their buildings and conveyances.

  • What advances in public health practices and medical engineering should have gained for the adult of the high energy society seems to have been nullified by the

  • citizen’s own eating habits and increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

  • High energy society is urban society. The high energy society is vulnerable to sabotage by small groups. Whoever controls the energy systems can dominate the society.


From the “Ordnug” or rules of the church from a group of Amish in Ohio as quoted in John Hostetler’s book Amish Society:

  • Tractors are to be used only for such things that can hardly be done with horses. Only either stationary energy or tractors with steel tires are allowed. No airfilled rubber tires.

  • Farming and related occupations are encouraged. Working in cities or factories is not permissible.

  • Boys and girls working away from home for worldly people forbidden except in emergencies.

  • Worldly amusements as radios, card playing, movies, fairs, etc. are forbidden.

  • Usury is forbidden in most instances. No government benefit payments or partnership in harmful associations. No insurance. No photographs.


A list of human activities that, in themselves, require no expenditure electricity or fuel:

  • Making love

  • Walking and swimming

  • Talking

  • Meditation and prayer

  • Teaching and understanding

  • Singing

  • Thinking and imagination

  • Using the five senses

  • Art and creativity

  • Peace


List of human activities that require an expenditure of electricity and/or fuel:

  • Travel and transportation

  • Most manufacturing

  • Cooking

  • Television and movies

  • Medicine

  • War

  • Constructing and operating buildings

  • Mass media

  • Money and banking


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