Back 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?