Sierra Magazine


I agree with social psychology professor John Drury’s thesis that expressing dissent does protesters good ("Lay of the Land," May/June). "Those who are most deeply committed to the American system are most critical of it," commented former Brown University president Henry Wriston. "They are filled with a divine discontent."
William Dauenhauer
Willowick, Ohio

A great article on Afghanistan ("Perilous Gardens, Persistent Dreams," May/June) refers to the terrible damage done to that country by the Taliban. The author also mentions that the Taliban was overthrown, but fails to mention that the Bush administration got rid of it. One has to wonder why one small effort cannot be made to cease fire on Bush for one moment in your constant barrage.
A. C. Furman
Seal Beach, California

Rob Schultheis points out, rightfully enough, the criminal damage done to Afghanistan by the old Soviet Union. But why single out one country when the United States has also been criminally at fault?

According to the Toronto-based Uranium Medical Research Centre, Afghans living around the most heavily bombed sites have from 5 to 21 times more uranium in their blood and urine than normal. [The radioactive metal is used in some U.S. munitions.] The UMRC states further that people exposed directly to dust and debris at the time of bombing "report[ed] immediate effects within minutes to hours of the attacks." The UMRC’s field team was generally "shocked by the breadth of public-health impacts coincident with the bombing. Without exception, at every bomb site investigated, people are ill."
Jim Glover
Carbondale, Illinois

Thanks for your timely report from Afghanistan, which highlights a little-understood tragedy in this beleaguered country ("Perilous Gardens, Persistent Dreams," May/June). Largely a rural people, four in five Afghans traditionally worked the land for a livelihood. Now refugees are returning to find entire villages, homes, farms, and orchards destroyed.

Shortly after September 11, four New Yorkers with deep ties to the country founded the Global Partnership for Afghanistan ( to help Afghans defeat poverty and make the country green again. Currently, we are planting trees in the fertile Shomali Valley and assisting farm families to restore traditional juie and karez irrigation systems. We welcome the participation of others as we extend this effort throughout Afghanistan, inspired by similar, successful programs in Armenia and Israel.
Pamela Bayless
Global Partnership for Afghanistan
New York, New York

Usually when my Sierra comes, I can find one article to copy and send to my representative and senators. Not this time! I wanted to copy the whole thing. I have never been so disgusted with our federal government in my entire 76 years. Why must they be so shortsighted and greedy? Don’t they realize that they are doing irreparable harm?
Carolyn Chernak
Trumbull, Connecticut

An editorial error in "Winners and Losers" (May/June) mistakenly linked the nation’s dirtiest power plants, which are mostly in the East, to states with increased sulfur dioxide levels, which are mostly in the West. The text should have read, "31 of the 41 plants actually increased their emissions, as have 16 states."

Contact Us We welcome letters in response to recent articles. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. Write to us at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; fax (415) 977-5794; e-mail


Let’s Talk (and change the world)

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 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 antisocial 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 ailing 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 our November/December issue, a new section called "Let’s Talk" will encourage you to get together regularly with a few friends and neighbors. You decide when and where. We’ll suggest an illuminating movie or book to talk about. On our Web site, we’ll provide background reading materials and questions to help spark a good discussion.

If you’re an active Sierra Club member, "Let’s Talk" will offer ideas for meetings. Or you can gather informally–in your home, or in a local park or pub or coffee shop. 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.
—Joan Hamilton

Contact Us  We’re launching "Let’s Talk" in our November/December issue. But you can help us now by suggesting books or movies that you think might spur a spirited discussion. It could be anything from Putnam’s Bowling Alone, to Unprecedented (a documentary about what went wrong in Florida in the last presidential election), to a classic environmental film like Silkwood. Please send your ideas–and a note about their merits–to or Let’s Talk, Sierra Magazine, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441.

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