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Sierra Magazine
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let's talk

Why form a Let's Talk group?

In the last few decades, Americans have become spectator citizens. Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community counts the ways: Interest in public affairs has declined by 20 percent, voting by 25 percent, attendance at public meetings by 30 percent, and participation in party politics by 40 percent.

A professor of public policy at Harvard University, Putnam says that Americans are more socially isolated these days, too. Bowling leagues, for example, are much less popular than they used to be, despite the fact that the number of bowlers has increased. Even card-playing—a pastime 40 percent of Americans enjoyed at least once a month 30 years ago—could nearly disappear by 2020 if its current rate of decline continues.

Environmental involvement seems to run counter to these trends. Membership in national groups rose from 125,000 in 1960 to 6.5 million in 1990, more than a 50-fold increase. And we have a larger-than-ever group of activists who educate, organize, and lobby. But how many of us are not only doing good for people, but doing good with people? That's how Putnam measures "social capital," the grease that keeps the machinery of a democracy running, that makes looking out for others and solving problems together a satisfying shared duty. How many of us talk to our neighbors about the issues we care most about? How many encourage friends to vote? How much are we doing to revive America's political process?

Not enough, certainly—but we have good reasons: The task is daunting, we are busy, and we don't know where to start. Well, here's a suggestion: In each issue of Sierra magazine, our "Let's Talk" section recommends an illuminating movie and book. Here on our Web site, we'll provide background reading materials and questions to help spark a good discussion. Choose one (or both!) of the selections, and then get together with your friends and neighbors to discuss the issues raised.

It's a small step, but the payoff is potentially great. Community involvement can make us "smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy," Putnam explains. Rousing ourselves for an engaged conversation with our neighbors just might help build a world we'd be prouder to live in and pass on to our children. So put on the coffee, set out the cookies, and let's talk.

Contact Us What movies and books do you think might spur a spirited discussion? Please send your ideas—and a note about their merits—to Lets.Talk@sierraclub.org.

illustration copyright Debbie Drechsler