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Jane Jacobs: Dark Age Ahead
19/05/2004

I've been reading Jane Jacobs' new book, Dark Age Ahead. I'm not done yet, but I'm eager to share what I've covered already.

The premise of the book is that our Western civilization -- particularly in the Americas -- is at risk of falling back into a Dark Age. This isn't prophecy, just a warning about some bad habits we have developed that could get out of hand. Jacobs tells us that Dark Ages come about when we collectively forget how to do the things that once made us great. It is not about written knowledge, but rather the immense amount of wisdom about how to do things that is passed down through teaching and example.

In some ways, this sounds exactly like the sort of book a crusty octogenarian would write. But coming from Jane Jacobs, I have to take it seriously.

She identifies five pillars of our society that are crumbling, and then spends a chapter discussing each problem:

  • the decline of community and family, driven by economic imbalances and by the anti-social shape of our car-dominated suburban environments
  • higher education, and its shift from a focus on teaching to credentializing
  • the decline of thought based on the scientific method, with a reliance on explanations derived from orthodoxy instead -- traffic engineers and economists are singled out, with Torontonian examples
  • the disconnection and dysfunction of our governments due to poor subsidiarity and fiscal accountability -- the ongoing decline of Toronto is prominently featured
  • the decline of self-policing by the learned professions -- accountants' dishonour is a focus of Jacobs' examples

So far, I am enjoying the book. However, it does seem that she has not been able to put quite the same effort into this one. Typically, her arguments feature rich and numerous examples, but also thorough abstractions. This time, the examples are there, but the abstraction is a bit thin. There is a risk that some may simply be unconvinced by her examples, while others may not recognize that her idea goes beyond the specifics.

The result is that if you are already in tune with Jacobs' thinking, this book will resonate for you, and some further contemplation may (or may not) reveal the bigger picture. (I'll need to finish the book and think about it some more before I am sure.) However, this book may not be terribly convincing for those who are of a different mindset.

For the third time: I'm not done reading it yet. So, my opinions aren't based on the full thing, which may yet come together brilliantly.


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