In striving for the simple life, how far should we go?

28 Jul 2010

Is outfitting your horse carriage with velvet and battery-powered lights too much luxury? Is even owning a horse too advanced of a technology?

These are the kind of questions that Eric Brende grapples with in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, about “two people, one year, zero watts.” That is, he sets out to see what’s it like to live (with his wife) in a village of Minimites.

The people aren’t really called Minimites; that’s a name Brende made up for them, since they’re similar to the Mennonites (and the Amish) in avoiding modern technology. He vowed not to reveal exactly who they are, or where they live, hence the made-up name.

After living in the Minimite village for months, growing his own food and pitching in on the communal tasks—like adding an extension to a neighbor’s barn—that are normal in these communities, Brende starts to wonder how much technology we really need. They spent a lot of time tending to fields, growing grain to feed to horses, when they could have eaten the grain themselves. Are the horses worth it? That is, are horses themselves a technology that’s gone too far?

He set out to try to live a minimalist lifestyle, so these are a logical questions. Where do you do draw the line? When does minimalism go too far? And when does it not go far enough?

Most people in the U.S., as far as I can tell, think that asking questions like these create a slippery slope. That with this kind of thinking, you risk winding up like Diogenes, the ancient Greek “anti-philosopher” who “thought human abstractions led to anxiety and that animal-like poverty was the key to happiness”—so he lived in a barrel.

A Wall Street Journal article from last year answers the question, “When does minimalism not go far enough?”

“A Bank Run Teaches the ‘Plain People’ About the Risks of Modernity” covers a crisis in an Amish community in Indiana.

Like Amish in other parts of the U.S., the Indiana community strayed from their traditional reliance on farming in recent decades as their numbers grew and land prices rose. Many opened family businesses, often in furniture and other wood crafts. By 2007, more than half of Amish men in these parts were working full time in manufacturing…

“The great increase in discretionary income spawned a ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality,'” said one community member.

Some Amish families had bought second homes on the west coast of Florida and expensive Dutch Harness Horses, with their distinctive, prancing gait. Others lined their carriages in dark velvet and illuminated them with battery-powered LED lighting.

But this was a trap. When the economy went south, these jobs dried up. And without the extra income, people might not make their mortgage payments. The community’s bank was dependent on these payments, so people saw the writing on the wall and started worrying about how secure their money was. And that’s caught the treasurer of the local bank off guard:

[He] was startled when a number of men he has known most of his life tied their horses to the hitching post outside his office and came inside to withdraw their money from the Land Trust.

“We had a run,” Mr. Bontrager says. “I don’t know if you know anything about the Amish grapevine, but word travels fast. Somebody assumed it was going to happen, and it started a panic.”

What’s really fascinating to me is how all this extra work and extra wealth seems to have changed the nature of the community. “Even the tradition of helping each other out began to unravel,” the article says. “Instead of asking neighbors for help, well-to-do Amish began hiring outsiders so they wouldn’t have to reciprocate.”

The other side of it, I’m sure Brende would point out, is how the work feels. After a while, he realized that the hard labor of weeding, tossing bales of hay, digging holes, and so on didn’t feel so hard when he was working alongside a bunch of neighbors. Even if he didn’t know them very well, they had a camaraderie that made the time fly by.

If the Amish ever felt that, I bet when they went to work in the furniture factory, they lost it. After the economic crash, I hope they’ve found it again, even if they can’t afford batteries for their buggies’ LEDs anymore.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »