Monday, January 21, 2008

Bowling Alone

My wife tells me not to write a book review if I haven't finished reading the book. Ordinarily, that's good advice. But after reading about a third of Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, I want to tell everyone about the issue that this book discusses. Why do more people bowl alone now, when thirty years ago they would have bowled in leagues? Why has membership in service clubs, like Lions and Rotary, been declining since their heyday in the fifties and sixties? A large part of his book is devoted to describing and understanding this trend of decreasing civic involvement in the last half of the twentieth century.

Americans have lost what Putnam calls "social capital" in the last fifty years, as less and less people volunteer to serve in community organizations, less people get out to vote, and less people run for office. Think of how a community benefits when people pitch in to help. And the more that people get involved in community activities the higher the level of mutual trust there is.

Trust is a product of social capital. Just as we need physical capital - (land and things) - and human capital - (education and experience) - we need social capital in order for society to work, because it is mutual trust that lubricates social life.

A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is a society where people volunteer to help others without the aim of immediate reward. I do something for you today, trusting that eventually you or someone else will return the favour.

Without reciprocity people act strictly in their own self-interest. We trust our neighbours less and less. When people are more distrustful they are less likely to cooperate with others. Society does not work as efficiently and we end up hiring more lawyers, more police, and more private security.

What caused the peak in civic engagement in the mid-sixties, and what caused it's subsequent decline? Putnam examines the usual suspects: broken families, greedy corporations, and decline in church attendance, but finds that they don't account for much of the change. The two factors that really make the difference are TV and the passing of a generation.

It's obvious why TV has contributed to the decline in social capital. People nowadays watch a lot more TV than they used to. Time spent watching TV is time that is not spent volunteering or attending PTA meetings.

It was my parent's generation, the generation that grew up during the depression and fought in the Second World War, that had the highest rates of civic involvement, trust in others, voting, and volunteering. Growing up in the depression, they learned that people could not get by without help from others. Then World War II gave them a chance to work together for a common cause. Those two momentous events made my parent's generation the most involved in civic society in history.

My generation, the baby boomers were much less engaged in civic society. We distrusted authority. Some of us wanted to drop out of society, most of us wanted to "do our own thing". The next generation, the one we call generation X, was even more disconnected and inward looking than the baby boomers. And so it goes. Now my parent's generation is in their seventies and eighties so they have gradually wound down their engagement in social activities and organizations. Hence the continued decline in social capital.

Is there any way that we can reverse this decline? The part of Bowling Alone that covers possible remedies is the part I haven't read yet. But I would venture to say that Global Warming could be this coming generation's Depression and World War II combined. The reality of climate change requires a tremendous outpouring of effort and coordination from all the people of the world.

It took time for the Americans to enter the Second World War. Not everyone realized the danger Adolf Hitler held for humanity. While Americans entered the war late, they still managed to pull together with the Russians and the rest of the Allies and defeat the Nazis. It won't be long before the United States and Canada join the rest of the world and work together to stop runaway global warming.

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