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Declining Social Capital: Is Environmentalism A Way Out?

Written by Jesse Richardson on August 08, 2011 with 17 Comments

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Urban EnvironmentalismBack in 1995, Robert Putnam raised some interesting concerns of declining social capital in the United States. Based off Tocqueville’s impression of the United States in the 1830s, one best characterized by an amazement at unusually high civic participation, Putnam traces how the fervor once observed may be in decline – his key example being of the increasing “single” bowlers. I ask the question, is ‘green’ community engagement a way out? Does environmentalism propose itself to be a mechanism for bonding communities in the way once seen in our past?

Understanding Social Capital

It’s important to understand what exactly we mean by social capital.

No, it’s not the combined monetary worth of all the people’s monies in a society, nor is it the worth of the society at large. Instead, social capital speaks to the fabric of a community. It is the trust, the civic engagement, and the structure of a society. As Putnam puts it, social capital refers to the “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 67).

Based off this definition, we find a series of reasons why we might want to take “stock”, if you will, in social capital. High social capital helps facilitate social trust. High social capital, because of this trust, helps promote collaboration between and among people of a society. Because of this collaboration, people see collective benefits.

Out of this, we can identify three criteria: social trust, social collaboration, and collective benefit.

With social capital, we turn the “I” into the “We”. People are the society, and that means a healthy society must have a healthy base of people – people that work together. This, of course, does not mean a society is homogenous, but simply supportive and proactive for mutual benefit.

Declining Social Capital

Truly unfortunately, Putnam see’s a decline in social capital. We are turning out to elections at lower rates. We are becoming less directly engaged with our society. We don’t know our neighbors (generally), and many find it odd to say hello to people on the street, especially in major cities. Moreover, we would rather write a check than attend a rally.

More modernly, I would argue we would rather click “Like” on a cause than actually take the time to understand the problem – than to actually become involved in the program.

The presumption here, then, is that this decline in social capital is breeding an unhealthy society. Putnam has also argued that in one generation, if current trends continue, we might see a drop down to the levels of social capital measured in South Korea – not bad, but not the United States we were founded on. In two generations, we might find ourselves in a society that trusts itself as much as Portugal – far from the society Tocqueville experienced.

What can remedy this decrease in civic engagement, this breaking of social connectedness?

I want to express one thing before my “solution” section. I’m a practical person (at least I try to be), and I don’t want my use of the environmental movement to be appear as some sort of over-enthused panacea to social problems. We need a comprehensive solution to systemic problems, which is what this truly is. I’m merely offering an avenue to pursue – one that should be supplemented and partnered by numerous others.

The Merits of the Environmental Movement

With disclaimers out of the way for my theory, I propose the following hypothesis:

The environmental movement is built on a number of foundations: first, a respect for the world; second, a respect for holistic thinking, which is directly tied to the first foundation; third, the environmental movement, specifically because of the two aforementioned reasons, is inherently communal in nature; finally, this communal nature of the environment provides policy makers with a unique approach to recapitalizing society.

I agree with Putnam’s fundamental argument that social capital has indeed decreased. I also agree with many of the reasons he points to, some of which include a significant increase in working hours, a simultaneous increase in re-potting (mobility) of Americans, and how technology has transformed us into more leisurely creatures.

While these reasons are unlikely to fade away, I believe the above hypothesis may help alleviate t he consequence of declining social capital.

The environmental movement does a number of things for us socially:

  • With environmentalism comes an emphasis on social responsibility of individual citizens and business. (Social trust)
  • With environmentalism comes a communal approach to problem solving; to better the world we live in environmentally, we must work together. (Collaboration)
  • When we come together on this platform, we often pool our resources in an effort for a better outcome for us all. (Collective Benefit)

After discussing this with some peers, one mentioned concern over regarding environmental movement as the ‘theoretical panacea’ to the problem of social capital. Because I understand the concern, I’d like to reiterate that this is just a piece of the puzzle. We can’t – even us environmentalists – expect that “our” movement is the only one, or that it’s completely flawless.

We’ll need the continued effort from the already tirelessly working churches, in my opinion. We’ll also need energy from the massive business sector that has sprung up since Tocqueville’s experience. We’ll also need to recognize that the utopia of sorts we see will never be fully realized. It’s hard to gulp down, sure, but to increase social capital, we need to increase trust, collaboration, collective benefit, and, by extension, compromise.

This is just a piece of working theory. Above all, I’d like to know what you think.

So, how can we increase social capital?


There are currently 17 Comments on Declining Social Capital: Is Environmentalism A Way Out?. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. I totally agree…social capital is declining and it is not only sad, but dangerous….it allows us to unintentionally limit our voices but just clicking “like” instead of actually litterally standing up and voicing our opinion. You can like the idea of enviormentalisim all you want, but clicking like says nothing exept that you can click buttons on a computer…donating your time and energy speaks volumes…..

  2. Be the social capital you wan to see. Start with the ‘Man in the Mirror’ so to speak.

  3. Being wasteful, buying crap you don’t need, overpopulation, pollution, extinction, wars = OUT
    Environmentalism + collaboration + stewardship = collective benefit = Social trust = IN

    • yes!! so true c:

  4. Increase social capital at the roots – teach our children! In order to sustain a solid sense of social capital we need to bring back the concepts of social and civic duty to our schools and in the way we raise our children. I raised a socially conscious child who is now 20 and starting out in the world. I know his friends are like-minded. Let’s hope they pass the social contract on to their children someday.

    • I totally agree Patty. I think we need to start educating people when they are most open to the ideas – when they’re young! A good environmental program in pre-school would do every child good!

  5. Our self-reliance, our productivity, or minds and our souls, we have sacrificed to the state. They have planned this homogenized life for us from cradle to grave by controlling our resources (through taxes & inflation) & threatening us with coercion if we stray from the path. You seem to me to just be saying, let’s change that homogenized life by force to match a lifestyle you feel worthy. I reject that approach.

    We need to rediscover the empowerment of the individual, not the state. When we give power back to the individual, the individual will strive to reach his or her utility. People will be happier. When they are happier, they will connect with others. You’re not going to accomplish that by mandate.

    • I really like your comment, Michael. I’m a strong believer in the idea that the greatest pathway or “dao” to empowerment is first through the individual. However, I’m cautious to make the case that the government is as negative as it seems you paint it to be. Collective action, which is at the core of social capital, can be an extremely powerful tool in the world, and the coordinating of that action is essential.

      What’s more, I don’t think either Putnam or I am making the case that we achieve higher social capital by mandate. Instead, I meant to write in the sense that these efforts by citizens, business, and other organizations are something we voluntarily engage in as an expression of our commitment toward society. Society may indeed come with problems, but so does solitude. Working as an individual is exactly what we want in a society; however, working with only selfish purposes or without regard to the effects of actions is unacceptable.

      To me, social responsibility is something we all must engage in as members of a society. I also believe that if we all did, our society would be healthier and we as individuals would benefit.

  6. Jesse – I don’t see how to retract my previous post. Would you please delete it and post the following one? I see that a paragraph I started – and abandoned – was inadvertently left at the bottom of my post.

    Thank you! Vena

    • Hey Vena,

      It looks like it’s been removed! Feel free to post your new thoughts ina fresh comment box!

  7. There are many people who are embracing environmentalism and making eco-friendly choices that define how they live, work and play. Pattie and Tracie – environmental responsibility is a critical element in a quality early childhood care and education program – whether it is home- or center-based. It starts with teaching children how to love and care for nature because those are the building blocks of a lifetime of environmental responsibility. (National Association for the Education of Young Children –

    What is lacking today is leadership that helps us frame our world, understand the critical nature of living in harmony with nature and what we need to do to make our society better.

    We need strong leaders that can articulate the issues and help us envision a future such as you describe in your thought-provoking post, Jesse. There is a collective consciousness that embraces the principles of inter-connectedness, living in harmony with nature and defining yourself on your own terms. (Example: Tom Shadyac’s “I AM” documentary, recently profiled on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

    Individual action is the foundation of society. We are social creatures; we cannot survive without each other. It is the integration of individual action into the goals, the objectives and the vision of society that creates the essence and structure of that society.

    We are the consciousness of creation. We see, we know, we understand. We have an instictual brain and a higher-thinking brain. When we use all of our faculties to deternine how we contribute to our society, we are truly present and engaged. We need to look to nature itself to help us forge ahead. Nature will always seek balance – it is up to us to find our place in that balance if we want to be truly content.

    Jesse – thank you for sharing your wisdom and asking pertinent questions.

    Consumerism, disrespect for nature, disconnection from true engagement with one another, monetary greed, war and hatred don’t work for many of us. Neither does the government because so many people do not trust it.

    We – society – need trust-worthy leaders who are able to articulate what needs to be done, how to do it and why. We need ethical journalists and media decisionmakers who will communicate our leader’s direction faithfully. We need funders to invest, educators to teach, businesses to provide the products and means, and people who will open their minds to new ways of living, working and recreating. We need every single person to take personal action, support and encourage each other, and dialog about making positive changes that improve our social capital. Perhaps happiness comes from the day to day practice of living well with each other, ourselves and nature.

    Jesse – I applaud your critical thinking and your courage for putting this out there. Let’s all take Jesse’s invitation and keep the conversation going. You’ll be glad you did.

    Kind regards,
    Vena Jensen

    • Vena
      Wow what a great way to sum it all up and also explain that others opinions and advice really has a valid place to be heard and understood. Your vision of where we need to start and what to do is very inspiring and spot on! I couldnt agree more. We all need to look at ourselves, what we individually have the power to do. We also need to keep an open, understanding relationship to others, wether it be our family members, our community and neighbors, as well as “strangers” on the internet. Respecting ourselves and others and Nature is where we start. Like you said, “Nature will always seek balance – it is up to us to find our place in that balance if we want to be truly content.” Beautiful!!!! I just wanted to share this quote that I read that for me reminds me to be intentional in life. “There are three important Sanskrit words: SIMRAN- Remember who you are, SATSANG- Hang out with the right people, and SEVA- Lets start doing things without selfish motivation.” – Deepak Chopra. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Much love and peace to all! Where there is a will, there is a Way :)

  8. [...] and nutrition, and the use of natural classrooms. These help facilitate a connection with nature, a sense of responsibility for environment, and a holistic, purposeful relationship with the [...]

  9. I think this idea makes more since than wars. I would love to see it placed into action.

    I am guilty of being a, neighborless, neighbor. I have never attended a rally and too often clicked the “like” button on FB for a cause but nothing more. I do think we as citizens need to be more proactive before we speak on the countless issues that plague our nation. There was a time much of what we see and hear today was almost unheard of. Make it a bit scary to think of what lies ahead.

    I am a huge proponent of the simple things in life. I will get off my backside and take more steps to contributing to what was once a neighbor-friendly society.

  10. I totally agree with everything said here. If things keep going the way they are going, I can see us all being like the cavemen, competing against one another just to survive, rather than working together to thrive. In my opinion, barter systems were a great way for people to get what they needed as well as to maintain relationships with others. Nowadays, we run in the store, grab what we need, and maybe some things we don’t really need but just “have” to have (even though we probably will never use them), and leave, without much more than “hi, how are you?” So my basic idea to help gain back society’s sense of community, is that maybe going over and talking to your neighbors isn’t such a bad idea. Let them know that if they need anything, you’re there. Even if it’s just to borrow a cup of sugar to make a batch of cookies. That’s the way it used to be, right? Naturally (I’d hope) they’d offer the same in return. You have what I need, I have what you need, let’s trade.

  11. You bring up important points here. My wife was just speaking with a friend in Scotland. She mentioned how the community has just become so dismembered, selfish and rude. This is the case in most countries we have been to or have lived, but in the UK it is the most notable. My wife’s family is from Cambridge, and she noticed every year how members in the community were becoming more distant, and would barely look at eachother in the eye. Environmentalism as well as religious and philosophical communities, education activists ( such as homeschoolers and reformers), and other groups/movements can have a uniting affect.

  12. Have you ever considered the effects of ever growing govenrment on societal interaction?

    In times past, many problems were handled within communities, church congregations, neighborhood friends because there wasn’t an overwhelming sense that someone from the government will take care of it because we pay our taxes.

    Creating another group to try and browbeat the government into enforcing more regulations on the daily lives of citizens is not going to instill a sense of community, even amongst the environmentalists as the degree of their “soultions” will vary quite a bit.

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