Recycling Alone

The environmental movement has not succeeded in protecting the environment. After all the lobbying, all the fundraising, all the laws and corporate partnerships, I would have expected to see more progress. Wouldn’t you?

Instead, it seems that the environmental protection is weakening. Resources are being used more rapidly than ever. I hear more, and more heated, arguments against environmental protection than I used to. It seems that there is more and more intensive pursuit of carbon-based energy sources (hydro-fracking, off-shore oil drilling, etc.). In the court of public opinion and in the court of resource use, it feels like we are losing.

This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Why?

Robert D. Putnam may provide an answer in his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In this book, Putnam argues that social capital – the bonds between people – have a critical role in strengthening our society. As Putnam explains:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. (Bowling Alone, Page 19)

Social networks enable us to help one another, learn from one another, and work together on issues of shared concern. As an Orthodox Jew, I’m familiar with the strength that comes from a community living in the same neighborhood, attending the same set of synagogues and sending their children to the same set of schools. When I see a neighbor in the kosher restaurant, she might invite me for a Shabbat meal. Or if she hears of a friend who is having trouble, that friend might receive a casserole or a phone call.

Putnam demonstrates that our society has experienced a significant decline in social capital since the 1960s, a time in which far more people were involved in clubs, churches (and synagogues), political movements, workplace unions, and informal gatherings. In contrast, Putnam cites one example of a community where social capital and political activity have increased in the recent period: the evangelical Christian community.

In a national sample of religious activities, 60 to 70 percent attended church more than once a week… and they are three to five times more active than the average American in virtually all forms of civic and political life. In the 1996 election evangelicals were more than twice as likely as other Americans to discuss the election in church with a friend and to be contacted by a religious interest group…. And these religious contacts – especially talking politics in church with a friend – had a demonstrable impact on who voted and for whom. (Bowling Alone, Page 162)

To me, this data took all the mystery out of the success of the “Republican base.” Their strength comes from social capital – from connections between people.

What is the situation of social capital in the environmental movement? As Putnam explains, while the numerical membership of the environmental movement has multiplied dramatically (from 125,000 members of major environmental organizations in 1960 to 6.5 million in 1990) (Bowling Alone, page 155) , this increase is based on direct mail fundraising, rather than on any membership activities which bring people together (and thus would build social capital). Most people don’t have any idea whether their neighbors are members of Sierra Club or the Natural Resource Defense Council. The environmental movement has increased in financial strength and professional capacity, but its efforts have not brought people together.

It would seem that environmentalists have not invested in building social capital for meaningful social change. As a result, we don’t know each other, and we don’t come out together to support meaningful causes and work together. We might share the same values, but we have no bonds to draw us together and out of our habits and homes.

This is one place where the faith community – and particularly the Jewish community – has an opportunity to contribute. We can connect with other Jews through synagogues, chavurot, learning and volunteer opportunities. Instead of focusing so much attention on the Jewish individual, we can focus on building Jewish communities. It seems to me that young Jews are drawn to Jewish programs that create this kind of social capital. We can strengthen the Jewish community with a specific focus on building networks and bonds between people – and in so doing, build the essential social capital to bring about environmental change.

Perhaps this is one role of community – and the Jewish community – in addressing the global sustainability challenge we face today.

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