Years ago, when the crisis du jour was starvation in Ethiopia, I got a bug up my butt to go there. I didn’t know what I could do to help but I felt that I couldn’t be so indifferent as to stay home.

“What are you going to do when you get there?” a friend pressed.

“I don’t know,” I said, restless at the question. “Just–see it.”

“Ah,” said my friend. “So what you mean is, you want to consume the sight of other people starving to death.”

That brought me up short, and I never did go. But now I wonder about having been so chastened. Let’s assume he was right. If thinking about other people’s misery was an amenity I was consuming, isn’t that a more useful consumer good than the latest electronic toy or SUV? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we all wanted to consume the sight of other people starving to death?

Well, no. We’d all be better off if we all wanted to consume the sight of other people being fed, but it often seems you can’t persuade people to feed each other unless you show them the starving. There was a piece in these pages some months ago about how bad poverty made the writer feel, which only made me think: well, guess what, honey? Poverty is supposed to make you feel bad. If it doesn’t, you don’t do anything about it.

Robert D. Putnam remembers a time when Americans pitched in to do things without being made to feel bad–when it was just a part of their day-to-day lives. In his new book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, he documents the decline in what he calls “social capital”–the engagement of citizens with one another toward some common end–and then addresses a number of questions about that decline: why it occurred, why it matters, and how to fix it.

Putnam begins with what seems to be a trivial example: people used to bowl in leagues and now they bowl alone. Engagement with groups of any kind, from card parties to political parties, has declined steadily since the end of World War II. Putnam summarizes, “Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.”

Putnam originally reported his findings in 1995, in an article in the Journal of Democracy. He became something of a surprise celebrity in the process–the sound bite nature of “bowling alone” meant that the popular press embraced him and people who’d probably never thought much about public policy heard his ideas. But he who sticks up shall be mowed down, and Putnam was soon attacked as vigorously as he’d been lionized.

Some critics claimed his research was sloppy and exaggerated the problem, others that he’d defined “community” too narrowly, discounting newer organizational models such as Internet news groups and chat rooms. Still others dismissed his work as reactionary, a plea for a return to some sunny midcentury America, where women didn’t work and men had extra time for civic activities because they weren’t expected to take out the trash.

The book is his thoroughly documented response, and it’s no nostalgia exercise. Putnam is very clear about what wasn’t good about the good old days, including the exploitation of women. But rigorously, with polling data and dusty membership records, with anecdote and interview, Putnam makes his case: political participation is down, civic participation is down, religious participation is down, charitable participation is down. People don’t even go to parties much anymore.

Of course, people don’t vote. But they don’t talk politics either, and they don’t go to meetings where other people talk politics. In fact, it’s these communal forms of participation that have declined most precipitously. Says Putnam, “One politically important consequence is that ‘cooperative’ forms of behavior, like serving on committees, have declined more rapidly than ‘expressive’ forms of behavior, like writing letters….Collaborative forms of political involvement engage broader public interests, whereas expressive forms are more individualistic and correspond to more narrowly defined interests. Any political system needs to counterpoise moments for articulating grievances and moments for resolving differences.” Perhaps that’s why politics seems to be dominated by the extremes: because we never get together to find, or create, middle ground.

This distinction between cooperative and expressive forms of behavior animates Putnam’s analysis of the Internet: “Millions more of us can express our views with the click of a mouse, but is anyone listening?” He adds that the Internet’s lack of context–nonverbal conversational clues, for instance–produces something less than full interaction. “Because of the paucity of social cues and social communication,” he says, “participants in computer-based groups find it harder to reach consensus and feel solidarity with one another….Computer-based groups are quicker to reach an intellectual understanding of their shared problems–probably because they are less distracted by ‘extraneous’ social communication–but they are much worse at generating the trust and reciprocity necessary to implement that understanding.”

Churches are shrinking, too, something to be borne in mind when politicians say that religious organizations and their auxiliaries should carry the burden of solving social problems. Individual “spirituality” may be all the rage among upper-middle-class boomers, but collective worship is in decline. Though Hispanics, particularly recent immigrants, remain involved in the Catholic Church, every other denomination is shrinking, even among African-Americans, for whom the church has historically served as the glue that held an embattled community together.

Most painful is Putnam’s account of the decline in voluntarism and philanthropy. Despite the drumbeat of news stories about new-economy millionaires giving away their money, only a small proportion of them does so. That’s why it’s news. A survey earlier this year showed that fewer than half of young entrepreneurs even agree that charities address issues they care about. The Greater Chicago Food Depository has ads on the el saying, “Prove you’ve arrived: Give some money away,” because most recent arrivals haven’t. Meanwhile, as boomers prepare to inherit their parents’ hard-saved billions, charity officials greedily eye the “largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history,” but there’s no evidence that the heirs to this fortune will actually give any of it away. Why? Because, Putnam says, “As fund-raisers and volunteer organizers know well, simply being asked to give is a powerful stimulus to volunteering and philanthropy….[T]he more involved I am in social and community networks, both formal and informal, the more likely I am to be asked. And I’m more likely to agree if the recruiter is part of my network of friends.” Likewise, the less involved, the less generous–and Putnam documents the across-the-board decline in individual giving as a percentage of national income.

Certainly there are countertrends. Involvement in community projects may be down, but one-on-one volunteering is up, as is grassroots involvement in sociopolitical movements (though largely among religious conservatives). There are many individuals who join Teach for America or become involved in antisweatshop campaigns within the ready-made community of college campuses. There are also those 40,000 hardy souls who went to Seattle to protest the WTO, though the pivotal role of organized labor in that effort confirms rather than counters Putnam’s view that traditional collective organizations are still important.

What’s happened, he argues, is that the “long civic generation,” which came of age during World War II, is being replaced by the uncivic, or at least postcivic, boomers and “Xers.” In the process the ties that bind have become dangerously unraveled. Putnam tackles the reasons for this growing disconnect in the second section of his book.

It’s a depressing exercise. After a serious effort to quantify contributions to the decline in connectedness, Putnam loops back to attribute fully half the problem to a cause that can’t be cured, namely the replacement of that long civic generation by the rest of us. He makes interesting stops along the way, though, doling out blame to the usual suspects: one-quarter to television, as something that privatizes our leisure time and makes us less likely to go out anywhere and be with anyone, and a relatively modest 10 percent each to two-paycheck households and suburban sprawl. Rather than blame working women, who are sometimes said to account for all the missing volunteers, Putnam offers a subgroup of them as a model, pointing out that “the greatest [civic] involvement is found among part-time workers, especially those for whom work is a choice, not a necessity….[Thus] one practical way to increase community engagement in America would be to make it easier for women (and men too) to work part-time if they wished” (emphasis in original). He describes the role of the two-earner family in the decline of civic engagement as “visible but quite modest.”

Putnam goes on to consider why the decline matters, using examples of the benefits of social capital. He cites a study that explains the consistently higher test scores of students at Catholic schools as the result of a beneficial “network of social relations characterized by trust.” Local School Councils, in other words, matter not because amateurs can govern schools more effectively than professionals, but because amateurs who bother with collective governance also bother to keep kids–and not just their own–at the books. Putnam also argues that social capital is essential for safe neighborhoods: “Young people rob and steal not only because they are poor, but also because adult networks and institutions have broken down.”

People connected to their communities are healthier and happier, he says, adding, “Statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for the health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon general’s report.”

So what is to be done, if we need social capital and the people who create it are dying? Putnam resists the easy tendency, followed by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Tom Brokaw, to glorify World War II and its veterans. “Certainly not all the social changes fostered by World War II were good for American social capital,” he says. But he seems to be at a loss for something to replace it as social glue, as a result of which the least satisfactory part of the book is its effort at providing solutions.

(I wonder, in fact, whether it wasn’t the war itself that destroyed connection. Maybe we all hung together for the moment; but then, as in Europe after World War I, a crisis of meaning seized everyone and we felt horrified and adrift. Certainly the history of postwar American literature suggests this as it makes its way from the passion and engagement of James Jones and Nelson Algren to the irony and distance of Saul Bellow. Likewise, perhaps it was the “family values” rhetoric prevalent after the war that first made people think their offspring mattered but their brethren didn’t.)

“Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 the level of civic engagement among Americans then coming of age in all parts of our society will match that of their grandparents,” Putnam says. Fine, but how? His “agenda for social capitalists” is like a party platform: it tells us what to want without telling us how to get it. There are actually current school-based programs in mandatory volunteerism (that splendid oxymoron) that seek to answer this question, but he doesn’t mention them, much less evaluate their efficacy. Similarly, he proposes a more family- and community-friendly workplace without noting all the ways in which globalization makes that less rather than more likely, the veriest pie in the sky. He argues for another religious “Great Awakening,” an idea that–despite the very good evidence connecting religiosity with social engagement–makes me think of Elmer Gantry and Sun Myung Moon rather than liberation theology. And he exhorts his readers to “find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens.” But my friends who live in front of glowing screens–and there are more and more of them–don’t want to be in direct personal active connection with a diverse collection of their fellow citizens; that’s why they went to their screens in the first place.

But if Putnam hasn’t solved the problem, he’s done something amazing by documenting it so thoroughly. Though reading is generally the most solitary of activities, I want to share this book with everyone I meet. So maybe that’s a start.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, Simon & Schuster, $26.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.