Dark Age Ahead

Dark Age Ahead

by Jane Jacobs


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In this indispensable book, urban visionary Jane Jacobs argues that as agrarianism gives way to a technology-based future, we’re at risk of cultural collapse. Jacobs—renowned author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities—pinpoints five pillars of our culture that are in serious decay: community and family; higher education; the effective practice of science; taxation, and government; and the self-regulation of the learned professions. The corrosion of these pillars, Jacobs argues, is linked to societal ills such as environmental crisis, racism, and the growing gulf between rich and poor.

But this is a hopeful book as well as a warning. Drawing on a vast frame of reference—from fifteenth-century Chinese shipbuilding to Ireland’s cultural rebirth—Jacobs suggests how the cycles of decay can be arrested and our way of life renewed. Invigorating and accessible, Dark Age Ahead is not only the crowning achievement of Jane Jacobs’ career, but one of the most important works of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400076703
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/17/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 504,592
Product dimensions: 5.24(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

Jane Jacobs was the legendary author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a work that has never gone out of print and that has transformed the disciplines of urban planning and city architecture. Her other major works include The Economy of CitiesSystems of Survival, and The Nature of Economies. She died in 2006.

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The Hazard

This is both a gloomy and a hopeful book.

The subject itself is gloomy. A Dark Age is a culture's dead end. We in North America and Western Europe, enjoying the many benefits of the culture conventionally known as the West, customarily think of a Dark Age as happening once, long ago, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. But in North America we live in a graveyard of lost aboriginal cultures, many of which were decisively finished off by mass amnesia in which even the memory of what was lost was also lost. Throughout the world Dark Ages have scrawled finis to successions of cultures receding far into the past. Whatever happened to the culture whose people produced the splendid Lascaux cave paintings some seventeen thousand years ago, in what is now southwestern France? Or the culture of the builders of ambitious stone and wood henges in Western Europe before the Celts arrived with their Iron Age technology and intricately knotted art?

Mass amnesia, striking as it is and seemingly weird, is the least mysterious of Dark Age phenomena. We all understand the harsh principle Use it or lose it. A failing or conquered culture can spiral down into a long decline, as has happened in most empires after their relatively short heydays of astonishing success. But in extreme cases, failing or conquered cultures can be genuinely lost, never to emerge again as living ways of being. The salient mystery of Dark Ages sets the stage for mass amnesia. People living in vigorous cultures typically treasure those cultures and resist any threat to them. How and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?

This is a question that has practical importance for us here in North America, and possibly in Western Europe as well. Dark Ages are instructive, precisely because they are extreme examples of cultural collapse and thus more clear-cut and vivid than gradual decay. The purpose of this book is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end, by understanding how such a tragedy comes about, and thereby what can be done to ward it off and thus retain and further develop our living, functioning culture, which contains so much of value, so hard won by our forebears. We need this awareness because, as I plan to explain, we show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age.

Surely, the threat of losing all we have achieved, everything that makes us the vigorous society we are, cannot apply to us! How could it possibly happen to us? We have books, magnificent storehouses of knowledge about our culture; we have pictures, both still and moving, and oceans of other cultural information that every day wash through the Internet, the daily press, scholarly journals, the careful catalogs of museum exhibitions, the reports compiled by government bureaucracies on every subject from judicial decisions to regulations for earthquake-resistant buildings, and, of course, time capsules.

Dark Ages, surely, are pre-printing and pre-World Wide Web phenomena. Even the Roman classical world was skimpily documented in comparison with our times. With all our information, how could our culture be lost? Or even almost lost? Don't we have it as well preserved as last season's peach crop, ready to nourish our descendants if need be?

Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture. Most of the million details of a complex, living culture are transmitted neither in writing nor pictorially. Instead, cultures live through word of mouth and example. That is why we have cooking classes and cooking demonstrations, as well as cookbooks. That is why we have apprenticeships, internships, student tours, and on-the-job training as well as manuals and textbooks. Every culture takes pains to educate its young so that they, in their turn, can practice and transmit it completely. Educators and mentors, whether they are parents, elders, or schoolmasters, use books and videos if they have them, but they also speak, and when they are most effective, as teachers, parents, or mentors, they also serve as examples.

As recipients of culture, as well as its producers, people attend to countless nuances that are assimilated only through experience. Men, women, and children in Holland conduct themselves differently from men, women, and children in England, even though both share the culture of the West, and very differently from their counterparts in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Singapore. Travel writers, novelists, visual artists, and photographers draw attention to subtle, everyday differences in conduct rooted in experience, including the experience of differing cultural histories, but their glosses are unavoidably sketchy, compared with the experience of living a culture, soaking it up by example and word of mouth.

Another thing: a living culture is forever changing, without losing itself as a framework and context of change. The reconstruction of a culture is not the same as its restoration. In the fifteenth century, scholars and antiquarians set about reconstructing the lost classical culture of Greece and Rome from that culture's writing and artifacts. Their work was useful and remains so to this day; Western Europeans relearned their cultural derivations from it. But Europeans also plunged, beginning in the fifteenth century, into the post-Renaissance crises of the Enlightenment. Profoundly disturbing new knowledge entered a fundamentalist and feudal framework so unprepared to receive it that some scientists were excommunicated and their findings rejected by an establishment that had managed to accept reconstructed classicism--and used it to refute newer knowledge. Copernicus's stunning proofs forced educated people to realize that the earth is not the center of the universe, as reconstructed classical culture would have it. This and other discoveries, especially in the basic sciences of chemistry and physics, pitted the creative culture of the Enlightenment against the reconstructed culture of the Renaissance, which soon stood, ironically, as a barrier to cultural development of the West--a barrier formed by canned and preserved knowledge of kinds which we erroneously may imagine can save us from future decline or forgetfulness.

Dark Ages are horrible ordeals, incomparably worse than the temporary amnesia sometimes experienced by stunned survivors of earthquakes, battles, or bombing firestorms who abandon customary routines while they search for other survivors, grieve, and grapple with their own urgent needs, and who may forget the horrors they have witnessed, or try to. But later on, life for survivors continues for the most part as before, after having been suspended for the emergency.

During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed. Henri Pirenne, a great twentieth-century Belgian economic and social historian, says that the famous Dark Age which followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire reached its nadir some six centuries later, about 1000 c.e. Here, sketched by two French historians, is the predicament of French peasantry in that year:

The peasants...are half starved. The effects of chronic malnourishment are conspicuous in the skeletons exhumed....The chafing of the teeth...indicates a grass-eating people, rickets, and an overwhelming preponderance of people who died young....Even for the minority that survived infancy, the average life span did not exceed the age of forty....Periodically the lack of food grows worse. For a year or two there will be a great famine; the chroniclers described the graphic and horrible episodes of this catastrophe, complacently and rather excessively conjuring up people who eat dirt and sell human skin....There is little or no metal; iron is reserved for weapons.

So much had been forgotten in the forgetful centuries: the Romans' use of legumes in crop rotation to restore the soil; how to mine and smelt iron and make and transport picks for miners, and hammers and anvils for smiths; how to harvest honey from hollow-tile hives doubling as garden fences. In districts where even slaves had been well clothed, most people wore filthy rags.

Some three centuries after the Roman collapse, bubonic plague, hitherto unknown in Europe, crept in from North Africa, where it was endemic, and exploded into the first of many European bubonic plague epidemics. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, conventionally depicted as Famine, War, Pestilence, and Death, had already been joined by a fifth demonic horseman, Forgetfulness.

A Dark Age is not merely a collection of subtractions. It is not a blank; much is added to fill the vacuum. But the additions break from the past and themselves reinforce a loss of the past. In Europe, languages that derived from formerly widely understood Latin diverged and became mutually incomprehensible. Everyday customs, rituals, and decorations diverged as old ones were lost; ethnic awarenesses came to the fore, often antagonistically; the embryos of nation-states were forming.

Citizenship gave way to serfdom; old Roman cities and towns were largely deserted and their underpopulated remnants sank into poverty and squalor; their former amenities, such as public baths and theatrical performances, became not even a memory. Gladiatorial battles and hungry wild animals unleashed upon prisoners were forgotten, too, but here and there, in backwaters, the memory of combat between a man on foot and a bull was retained because it was practiced. Diets changed, with gruel displacing bread, and salt fish and wild fowl almost displacing domesticated meat. Rules of inheritance and property holding changed. The composition of households changed drastically with conversion of Rome's traditional family-sized farms to feudal estates. Methods of warfare and ostensible reasons for warfare changed as the state and its laws gave way to exactions and oppressions by warlords.

Writers disappeared, along with readers and literacy, as schooling became rare. Religion changed as Christianity, formerly an obscure cult among hundreds of obscure cults, won enough adherents to become dominant and to be accepted as the state religion by Constantine, emperor of the still intact Eastern Roman Empire, and then, also as the state religion, in territorial remnants of the vanished Western Empire. The very definitions of virtue and the meaning of life changed. In Western Christendom, sexuality became highly suspect.

In sum, during the time of mass amnesia, not only was most classical culture forgotten, and what remained coarsened; but also, Western Europe underwent the most radical and thoroughgoing revolution in its recorded history--a political, economic, social, and ideological revolution that was unexamined and even largely unnoticed, as such, while it was under way. In the last desperate years before Western Rome's collapse, local governments had been expunged by imperial decree and were replaced by a centralized military despotism, not a workable organ for governmental judgments and reflections.

Similar phenomena are to be found in the obscure Dark Ages that bring defeated aboriginal cultures to a close. Many subtractions combine to erase a previous way of life, and everything changes as a richer past converts to a meager present and an alien future. During the conquest of North America by Europeans, an estimated twenty million aboriginals succumbed to imported diseases, warfare, and displacement from lands on which they and their hundreds of different cultures depended.

Their first response to the jolts of European invasion was to try to adapt familiar ways of life to the strange new circumstances. Some groups that had been accustomed to trading with one another, for example, forged seemingly workable trade links with the invaders. But after more conquerors crowded in, remnants of aboriginal survivors were herded into isolated reservations. Adaptations of the old cultures became impossible and thus no longer relevant; so, piece by piece, the old cultures were shed. Some pieces were relinquished voluntarily in emulation of the conquerors, or surrendered for the sake of the invaders' alcohol, guns, and flour; most slipped away from disuse and forgetfulness.

As in Europe after Rome's collapse, everything changed for aboriginal survivors during the forgetful years: education of children; religions and rituals; the composition of households and societies; food; clothing; habitations; recreations; laws and recognized systems of ownership and land use; concepts of justice, dignity, shame, esteem. Languages changed, with many becoming extinct; crafts, skills--everything was gone. In sum, the lives of aboriginals had been revolutionized, mostly by outside forces but also, to a very minor extent, from within.

In the late twentieth century, as some survivors gradually became conscious of how much had been lost, they began behaving much like the scholarly pioneers of the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance who searched for relics of classical Greek and Roman culture. Cree and Cherokee, Navajo and Haida groped for fragments of lost information by searching out old records and artifacts dispersed in their conquerors' museums and private collections. Jeered at by an uncomprehending white public of cultural winners, they began impolitely demanding the return of ancestral articles of clothing and decoration, of musical instruments, of masks, even of the bones of their dead, in attempts to retrieve what their peoples and cultures had been like before their lives were transformed by mass amnesia and unsought revolution.

When the abyss of lost memory by a people becomes too deep and too old, attempts to plumb it are futile. The Ainu, Caucasian aborigines of Japan, have a known modern history similar in some ways to that of North American aboriginals. Centuries before the European invasion of North America, the Ainu lost their foraging territories to invading ancestors of the modern Japanese. Surviving remnants of Ainu were settled in isolated reservations, most on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, where they still live. The Ainu remain a mysterious people, to themselves as well as to others. Physical characteristics proclaim their European ancestry; they may be related to Norse peoples. But where in Europe they came from can only be conjectured. They retain no information about their locations or cultures there, nor by what route they reached Japan, nor why they traveled there.

Cultures that triumphed in unequal contests between conquering invaders and their victims have been meticulously analyzed by a brilliant twenty-first-century historian and scientist, Jared Diamond, who has explained his analyses in a splendidly accessible book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. He writes that he began his exploration with a question put to him by a youth in New Guinea, asking why Europeans and Americans were successful and rich. The advantages that Diamond explored and the patterns he traces illuminate all instances of cultural wipeout.

Diamond argues persuasively that the difference between conquering and victim cultures is not owing to genetic discrepancies in intelligence or other inborn personal abilities among peoples, as racists persist in believing. He holds that, apart from variations in resistance to various diseases, the fates of cultures are not genetically influenced, let alone determined. But, he writes, successful invaders and conquerors have historically possessed certain crucial advantages conferred on them long ago by the luck of what he calls biogeography. The cultural ancestors of winners, he says, got head starts as outstandingly productive farmers and herders, producing ample and varied foods that could support large and dense populations.

Large and dense populations--in a word, cities--were able to support individuals and institutions engaged in activities other than direct food production. For example, such societies could support specialists in tool manufacturing, pottery making, boatbuilding, and barter, could organize and enforce legal codes, and could create priesthoods for celebrating and spreading religions, specialists for keeping accounts, and armed forces for defense and aggression.

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Dark Age Ahead 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
billiecat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Does Jane Jacobs really think that we are facing a breakdown in society like unto that described in her first chapter? People starving on the highways, a breakdown in social cohesion, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria? It is hard to tell from the rest of her book. Ultimately, it seems the coming "dark age" described by Jacobs is in reality more of a "period of rolling blackouts."She identifies five "pillars of society" that she sees as showing signs of cultural decay, but fails to adequately explain why the failure of those five pillars leads to the Dark Ages, or define those five clearly, or present more than anecdotal support for her views of their decay. If she truly sees a breakdown in society profound enough to be called a "Dark Age," she fails to explain the nature of the threat with any clarity (unless poor traffic management is the hitherto unknown Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse). Jacobs further fails, except in very limited fashion, to even address contrary views of society's progression.Ultimately, this is a longish essay masquerading as a profound book, a tract instead of a treatise. It is sloppily organized, poorly expounded, and the supporting notes are underwhelming. Yet I would not have picked up this book if I were not concerned that there is a chance we are on the brink of a collapse, or at least a great change in Western Civilization. If my own fears are any indicator, there is a serious study to be made of the decay of our society, and the potential dangers we face. If this book was supposed to be taken as a serious review of this possibility, it should have been better devised and its arguments better supported. As it is, I am oddly comforted by this book's failure to convince me.
TeeMcp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The beauty of Jane Jacob's writing is her ability to take large ideas and make them practical, manageable, and understandable. If you've ever wondered how our world got the way it is, or why some cities, areas, or societies do better than others, Jane is your go to girl. This book, her last, offers cautionary observations about what we've ignored at our peril, and some thoughts on fixing it up. It's not a big book, but it's important if you want to understand the concept of community and how it shapes society.
jensenmk82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dark Age Ahead is not an impressive performance. Alice Sparbert Alexiou noted that Jacobs's last two books "received mixed reviews" and "do not in any way measure up to her great urban trilogy" (Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary [Rutgers UP, 2006], 198). Dark Age Ahead is little more than a jeremiad filtering her longtime preoccupations through a sort of world history lite. The author, 87 at the time of publication, relied on popular works, articles from the press, observations, experiences, memories, and her own imagination¿but not research. Her insights are shallow ("Life is full of surprises" [25]; "survivors [of a heat wave] differed [from those who died] in having successfully kept cool" [82]; "The enemy of truth is untruth" [70]). Chapters are rambling. The text reads like table talk. The author oversimplifies. Her terms of analysis do not bear close inspection. She calls a community "a complex organism" (34), but this is a logical fallacy known as organicism. She personifies societies ("a society must be self-aware" [176]), and implies that a culture's progress can be rated or measured ("culture's trajectory pivoted upward" [102]). Jacobs is eager to pronounce cultures "winners" or "losers," as though history is some kind of Olympics. She overgeneralizes (the "purpose of life" [55-58]; the "scientific state of mind" [66-68]). She insists on representing abstractions spatially ("Interlocked problems, intractably spiraling downward and joining with other problems into amalgamated declines" [139]; "watch the vicious spirals go into action!" [160]). This book is a sad end to a distinguished oeuvre.
mrtall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The great Jane Jacobs' last book, Dark Age Ahead, will be familiar territory to her many devoted fans. Jacobs ruminates on the potential for it all winding down and falling apart in the West . This downer of a thesis may seem like an inevitable topic for someone in her late 80s, when Jacobs wrote this -- but her pessimism is not without merit and foundation. She identifies a series of structural problems in western societies that are eroding the foundations of our culture: pressure on families/communities; credentialism overwhelming higher education; the slackening pursuit of real science; the unwise levying and use of taxation; and the lack of policing in the professions. Jacobs' thoughts often wander back to her familiar passions -- at times it seems as if proper levels of urban density and some nice clean electric streetcars would solve just about any crisis -- but there's plenty here that's cogent and provocative as well.The weakness of the book is her reliance on trendy but not very trustworthy popular 'scholars' such as Jared Diamond and Karen Armstrong for much of her background on what makes societies come apart. I'd rather have heard more of Jacobs' own ideas.These quibbles aside, Dark Age Ahead is not a bad place to start if you want to get into Jacobs' work. Her blunt, inimitable style is on display; her maddeningly unplaceable political stance is maintained; and at under 200 pages (if you skip the discursive endnotes, which you most certainly can) it's a brief and accessible work, much more so than her bombshell signature book, The Death and Life of American Cities.
worldsedge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have only two things to add to the other reviews, in which most of what is written I agree with.First, is that this work seemed horribly out of focus. Some of the anecdotes were quite good, but the failure to create any sort of coherent theme to the work rendered the entire book a sloppy mish-mash. As in, her discussion of the history of traffic engineering was quite interesting, yet she fails to tie what amounts to the actions of a priesthood into her larger thesis.Second, she seems unwilling or unable to come to terms with the fact that the USA and Canada, as democracies, mean that the government at some level or other is going to reflect majority opinion. The chapter on taxes being one in particular where she goes through the oddest contortions to avoid discussing this. Not sure what that is all about.
TimothyBurke on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Jane Jacobs' work, but someone who understood that cities grow organically and that human life is resilient should have had more interesting things to say about the future than this relatively off-the-shelf warmed-over Neil Postman doomsaying.
Dick_Burkhart More than 1 year ago
From UUJEC.com: Amazingly, this book was written well before the financial crash of 2008 and the 2016 US presidential election. Yet even in 2005 Jane Jacobs’ book became a bestseller, resonating with the many who suffered from, or who could see, the damage and corruption being wrought by an expanding culture of greed. She focuses on 5 points: (1) family, (2) higher education, (3) science and technology, (4) taxes and regulations, (5) self-policing. Her chapter on family is really a lament for increasing domination by the car and the ensuing loss of public transit and social life, and the increasing cost of housing. On higher education, it is all about real education versus credentialing. On science, she describes three cases of scientific stupidity, deriving from unquestioned dogmas, taking examples from traffic engineering, public health, and economic development. On taxes, it is about Toronto’s dysfunctional property tax system and the rapid deterioration of public services due to a corrupt, neo-conservative government. On self-policing it is about failures in business and the professions, from Enron to the Catholic Church. Then Jacobs looks for ways out of this “vicious spiral” of decay, such as revival of street life and affordable housing after the housing bubble; “performance zoning”; and redundancy in mentoring people and promoting economic diversity. Her final warning: Empires have not recognized that “the true power of a successful culture resides in its example”.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Despite the topic - the threat of culture collapsing into another dark age in the near future - this is a surprisingly charming, readable book. That is due to the way author Jane Jacobs combines a lifetime of research and thought on urban planning and the way societies function with very practical stories based on personal experience. Jacobs moves smoothly from a discussion of medieval tax strategies to accounts of a Sunday drive, and uses both to illustrate her ideas. Her style is friendly, almost casual, and at times she meanders from one topic to another in the style of the pedestrian-friendly cities she so clearly loves. However, while this provides a great deal of the book¿s charm, it also provides its two weaknesses. Problem one: the book often relies on scattered evidence - albeit by a world-class scholar - to address deeply serious problems. Problem two: Jacobs spends more time discussing society¿s failings than how one might fix them. The result is a fascinating book that is difficult to apply. As a result, we suggest this book to reflective readers who want an intelligent take on the issues involved in shaping the future of our cities, communities and countries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first picked up this book and read the first chapter I decided that I would buy the book. The only good point that she made in the book was how almost every technologically advance country failed at one point in time but after that she pretty much blames are morals on why our country is failing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is a Dark Age Ahead, indeed, as Jane Jacobs warns, but only if you are THAT pessimistic. This is a woman who longs for the nuclear family of the 50s and the removal of many roads because they ruin the community, leading to isolation rather than socialization, among other things. I have to wonder how she was such a supposedly influential urban planner if Toronto, where she worked for many years, turned out so horridly by her own standards which is ruining the community with its mess of roads. I think Jane's been a bit isolated by those roads in Toronto, sitting alone to formulate up all these things. Also, several 'get back' statements to certain people who opposed her views in the past were also present in the book, statements which nobody cared to listen to she had to write her own book to put them in print. These were NOT classy and paints a picture of a bitter old lady, which, incidentally, is the tone I got from the book. Now, I'm not saying everything Jane says is incorrect. She does rightly point out issues of accreditation instead of education where institutions are giving slips of paper and churning out students rather than educating them well. However, as with all her observations, accurate or not, she tends to draw the wrong, or at least, most pessimistic conclusions. It's so pessimistic that apart from an apocalypse prediction, it rivals doomsday cults in predicting where we're going. It's not so drastic, but more painful if you look at it as us having to live through it in a relatively meaningless life devoid of functionality as a family and as a society, rather than just quickly be wiped out. Thank goodness Jane won't be around for it, but I'd advise her to have some faith in humanity and die in peace rather than fret about the rest of us as a species, all for nothing. I had to read this book for a course and I deliberately finished the final few pages standing in line at the university library, to donate it the moment I was done if only not to pollute the atmosphere with unnecessary by-products of burning a book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jane Jacobs is observant and intense. Well worth reading and a book with ideas that will haunt you.