In some of my spare time at work, I’ve been reading a book titled "Almost Amish." Left behind by another intern, it sat on the corner of my desk for nearly two months before I finally picked it up. In a little over a week I finished the book and I can say I’m happy to have read it. The content turned out to be about what I expected, but it reminded me of some very important things that often get pushed to the back of my mind. The author, Nancy Sleeth, wrote this book as a celebration of the lifestyle that she, her husband, and her children consciously embraced. No, they did not become Amish. Rather, they adopted some Amish principles in a "quest for a slower, simpler, more sustainable life." Who can argue with that?
Over the course of several years, the Sleeth family got rid of half their possessions, downsized into a smaller house, started a vegetable garden, cleaned out the closets, and even gave away a car. Those changes, along with a long list of other tweaks, helped to reduce their energy consumption by more than two-thirds and their trash production by nine-tenths! It doesn’t take an environmentalist or a mathematician to know that those are some serious results.
In the book, Sleeth talks about reforming different areas of her family’s life, and the chapters are organized as such. There is a section on finances, one on nature, and one on technology. In the end, there are ten total chapters, but because I want you to read "Almost Amish," I won’t explain things chapter by chapter. I will, however, talk about a concept that permeates the entire book: consumerism.
Consumerism is nothing short of an epidemic in the developed Western world and Americans tend to suffer from it worst of all. Everything you buy comes from somewhere. The fibers in your clothes were either grown and harvested or made synthetically. They were woven together in a factory, likely overseas, likely with poor working conditions and low labor standards. The factory inevitably produces waste, and if that factory is located in a country with poor environmental regulation (often the reason U.S. companies relocate abroad), the waste is probably dumped in the nearest river. In the end, this river could be a river where children play and families wash their clothes.
All this just for a pair of jeans? You bet.
This post is not meant to guilt trip you, to shame you, or to scare you into nudity. It is, however, intended to shed a little bit of light on the system in which we as consumers are entrenched.
I first learned about consumerism in my senior year of high school. My ecology teacher (whom I credit to this day with metaphorically ‘waking me up’) gave us a "sustainability" assignment. Maybe I should preface: I’m from the suburbs where most people strive to have more things, not less. So when one of the components of this sustainability project was to refrain from buying anything but gas or food for one month, I thought "huh?" Then it clicked. If NOT buying something is going to get me 30 points toward my goal of 100 (I also dropped meat from my diet and used a BPA-free plastic water bottle), it must be a GOOD thing. How novel.
Then, in my first year of college, I persuaded my best friend to take a special topic English writing course with me called "Ethics of Consumerism." I won’t say that we learned a ton, but I did gain better control of two crucial concepts. The first is purchasing power. One of the glorious things about a free market is that we choose where to put our money. Every dollar we spend acts like a vote. $20 to Whole Foods instead of Kroger? Essentially I just gave Whole Foods 20 votes. If I shop at Goodwill for some new (old) t-shirts, I’m voting for Goodwill instead of Target. And when big groups of people choose to boycott or support certain businesses, it makes an impact.
The second concept can best be summed up by Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff (if you’ve got some extra time, I recommend watching the video). The point, which is one I attempted to illustrate in my paragraph about the jeans, is that everything comes from somewhere and ends up somewhere, with a lot of undesirable things happening along the way. Everything we buy and throw away creates waste, and that waste gets thrown into landfills or rivers or the ocean and it affects people that had nothing to do with our decision to buy a new pair of jeans, even though we may have already had four in our closet.
Aside from the damage this rampant consumerism does the God’s environment and God’s children around the world, our purchases can also get in the way of our personal relationship with God. When technology, clutter, and materialism start to negatively impact the time we spend in communion with others or in silence with our Creator, change is needed. That change, suggests Nancy Sleeth, is to become "Almost Amish."
Sleeth writes, "[Amish] Homes are simple, uncluttered, and clean; the outside reflects the inside." By that, she probably intends to say that the outside of your home should also remain simple, uncluttered, and clean. This means no gaudy McMansions, no clutter in the front yard, no ostentatious water fixtures. But if we go deeper, "the outside reflects the inside" can also mean that your outside surroundings should reflect the inside of your heart: uncluttered, empty of worldly concerns, focused on God and love.
In the end, buying and owning less brings us closer to God in many ways. It saves us money and reduces our financial stress, which is often the source of arguments and tension in the home. When we’re focused on worldly goods we’re not focused on the Word. Some of the money we do save can be better put towards charities we support. Lessening our environmental impact means lessening the unintentional environmental consequences for our brethren around the world. And, most importantly, it reminds us of what we really need – love and support from our community and our God.
So, at my recommendation, I hope you’ll pick up "Almost Amish." I promise it’s a quick read, and if it convinces you to change your lifestyle even in the slightest, I think we can call it a win. Remember that, "We live simply so that others may simply live" (54).
As always, follow Jessica on twitter @missanalytical or contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.