Dark Age Ahead

by Jane Jacobs

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-7670-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 224

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I was introduced to Jane Jacobs, as I suspect most people are, by her urban planning classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The content is, of course, exceptional — it's one of the foundational works in its field — but as compelling to me was the tone. Jacobs tackled the subject with detailed observation, a steady preference for facts and evidence over theory, an embrace of complexity and multiple causes, and a readable, conversational style. It felt like a passionate conversation with an expert rather than a bombastic proclamation to the world. Often authors of such famous books only had one really good book in them and their other work is disappointing, but her style was so good that I wanted to try another.

Dark Age Ahead was Jacobs's final book before her death in 2006. It is, as you might expect from the title, a jeremiad, on the familiar theme of the slow collapse of civilizations and the warning signs she sees in North America (and to some extent in Western Europe, although it's not the topic of this book). After an introductory chapter introducing the causes and patterns of a Dark Age, there are five chapters on five major problems: families, education, science, taxation patterns, and professional ethics and self-policing. She concludes with two final chapters on how a Dark Age might be avoided.

Based on that summary, I suspect most widely-read people would tend to avoid this book, since it follows the basic pattern of a sadly large pile of jeremiads full of erroneous assumptions, reactionary doom, and significant misunderstandings of history. The term "Dark Age" is enough to make a lot of people cringe, given that most people who use the term are completely unfamiliar with the flowering of Islamic civilization that happened during the supposed European Dark Age, or with the other positive things that were happening even in Europe. But bear with me, and with the book. I got the feeling from other summaries that I'd be pleasantly surprised, and I was.

First, Jacobs's use of Dark Age is both more general and more targeted. She's talking about the collapse of a specific culture, not the world as a whole, and has multiple examples in mind besides the classic Roman Empire example: Mycenaean Greece, the in-turning and stagnation of the Islamic world starting around the 15th century, and the destruction of native cultures in North America following European colonization, to name a few of her examples. Her specific concern is not difficult economic times or changes of government, and certainly not loss of empires or world political influence, but rather the experience of mass amnesia and cultural loss that she sees accompanying those collapses. The Dark Age is a time when past cultures, skills, and ideas are lost so completely that they have to be reinvented, not so much because they're not recorded but because they're not practiced.

I'm still not sure I buy this, if for no other reason than ubiquitous recording of information at least changes the picture, but it's a lot more interesting than the typical Dark Age presentation. Now, this early part of the book draws heavily on Jared Diamond's work (which may be why the idea sounds familiar), and Diamond is the subject of significant controversy about the quality of his field work. But even if you're skeptical about this specific threat of a Dark Age, Jacobs identifies a different set of problems than the usual text bemoaning the fall of western civilization and does so in a considerably more precise and well-defended way than is typical.

One of the themes throughout this book is that cultures fail because they don't adapt to change, and it's from that direction that Jacobs talks about families and family structures: a bracing shock of originality after so many repetitive screeds about how the nuclear family is the foundation of everything. The primary theme of this chapter is that the nuclear family is simply not large enough to provide both for all of its necessary functions and to be resilient in the face of changing circumstance. It's a version of "it takes a village to raise a child," and as you might expect from the author, it turns to the problem of modern suburbs and the loss of community and social contact in isolated houses connected by automobile routes. Jacobs, like many people who were paying attention in 2004, also points to the threats of the housing bubble and ties homelessness in here.

The book gets better and better as it goes on. Jacobs's analysis of how education has turned into credentialing, a necessary certificate in order to get all but the most menial employment, and the way that's created a hostile tension between teachers and students is striking and memorable. If the goal of education is learning and understanding, cheating makes no inherent sense; if the goal is to acquire a certificate that raises one's income by millions of dollars over one's lifetime, the teacher and the tests become an obstacle in the way of future economic success, and it's easier to internally justify whatever tactic is required to get that certificate. This chapter includes a fascinating analysis of the US obsession with full employment as a reaction to the Great Depression and the distorting effect that it has on both education and political priorities.

I won't go through every chapter in the same amount of detail, but the pattern continues. Jacobs takes a topic, often one that's been covered in what one might think had been depressing and repetitive depth by other books of this type, and finds a fresh angle from which to approach it, including some startling and revealing observations. Another example that will stick with me is her look at taxation patterns: not, as is typical, the standard look at either supposedly horrible tax burdens or at wealth inequality, but at the ridiculous way that tax revenues are routed politically. Her example here is funding for the city of Toronto, and she takes direct aim at Canadian provincial government and the degree to which they take tax revenues from the cities without returning much of benefit. What little money is returned is often earmarked or restricted to particular uses that make no logical sense inside the city. She makes the provocative suggestion that large Canadian cities might be better governed as their own provinces, and ties the pattern of taxation in with loss of local accountability and control over government. The same basic argument could be applied almost without change to US states and cities.

I read a lot of political essays and rants, mostly on the web and newsgroups but also in books, and write my fair share. Discussing politics and the ways in which governance is going wrong seems to be the universal hobby. Given the mountains of material, from every possible angle, it all begins to look the same. That makes it all the more remarkable to find a book on one of the oldest of political topics, the decline of civilization, that's this full of original observation and unique (or at least unusual) angles on problems. Even if one doesn't buy Jacobs's thesis about loss of skills and shared cultural understanding (and I'm not sure that I do), the discussions of education and tax patterns make the book worth reading. And there's more that I've not touched on, including traffic pattern analysis as an example of disrespect for science, and some discussion of the problems of ethics and auditing in the light of the Enron collapse (now even more applicable).

The presentation in Dark Age Ahead is a bit scattershot and frequently degresses away from what seemed to be a core point, but the places to which it digresses are so interesting that I never minded. It's like reading an occasionally rambling conversation. I had the same experience with this book that I had in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: Jacobs packs so many ideas into each page that reading the book is an intellectual delight. Agree or disagree (and there are several places where I didn't agree), it's thoughtful, provocative, and contains specific observed examples.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this book in particular over her longer works on specific topics of personal expertise (of which I've only read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but it fully succeeded in making me excited about reading more of her writing.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-04-20

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