Dark Age Ahead

by Jane Jacobs

Paperback, 2005


Vintage (2005), Edition: Reprint, 256 pages


Publisher's description: Visionary thinker Jane Jacobs uses her authoritative work on urban life and economies to show us how we can protect and strengthen our culture and communities. In Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs identifies five pillars of our culture that we depend on but which are in serious decline: community and family; higher education; the effective practice of science; taxation and government; and self-policing by learned professions. The decay of these pillars, Jacobs contends, is behind such ills as environmental crisis, racism and the growing gulf between rich and poor; their continued degradation could lead us into a new Dark Age, a period of cultural collapse in which all that keeps a society alive and vibrant is forgotten. But this is a hopeful book as well as a warning. Jacobs draws on her vast frame of reference -- from fifteenth-century Chinese shipbuilding to zoning regulations in Brampton, Ontario -- and in highly readable, invigorating prose offers proposals that could arrest the cycles of decay and turn them into beneficent ones. Wise, worldly, full of real-life examples and accessible concepts, this book is an essential read for perilous times.… (more)

Media reviews

Released in 2004 when she was 88 years old, Dark Age Ahead is hardly talked about among urbanists and fans of Jacobs’ earlier works. In fact, it was widely panned as the work of an aging crank whose best days and smartest commentary were behind her. Back in 2004, before the economic crisis,
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urbanists were celebrating the resurgence of the city. We didn’t think much about the rise of conservative populists like Trump or the late Rob Ford. But there was Jane Jacobs, arguing “caution” against a new dark age lurking right around the corner. In Dark Age, Jacobs focused on the erosion of the key pillars of stable, democratic societies—the decline of the family, the rise of consumerism and hyper-materialism, the transformation of education into credentialism, the undermining of scientific norms, and the take-over of politics by powerful special interest groups, among others. Persistent racism, worsening crime and violence, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and increasing divides between the winners and losers of globalization provided growing evidence of the decay of society, she argued. At the very center of Jacobs’ work, I have come to believe, lies a great concern over the darker, more pessimistic forces of standardization, top-down planning, bureaucracy, and globalization that have acted against diversity and human progress. This was the same kind of concern evident in the work of great thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Joseph Schumpeter, who saw capitalism, bureaucracy, and large corporations as draining the humanity out of modern society. She went on to worry about the eventual decline of the United States, noting that “the collapse will come about as a banal thing.” One can only imagine how unsurprised Jacobs would be by the evolution of America’s economy and society in the decade since her death—particularly the hyper-gentrification of great cities, the growing social and economic divides, the continuing erosion of scientific norms, burgeoning celebrity culture, and, most recently, the rise of Donald Trump—in many ways the symbol of it all.
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In the course of ''Dark Age'' Ms. Jacobs raises a lot of interesting questions about the nature of dark ages: why certain cultures fall prey to assaults from outside or to rot from within; how a fortress mentality can lead to isolation and technological retreat; how memories of traditions, values
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and language can fade. She also discusses a lot of troubling recent developments, including corporate corruption, weakening academic standards, the prevalence of imagemaking and spin in politics and business, and the lack of affordable housing in cities like New York. But these discussions are cursory in the extreme, and they are never connected to one another, much less to some larger theory about a coming Dark Age.
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Publisher's Weekly
A lifetime of unwasted experience in a number of fields has gone into this short but pungent book, and to ignore its sober warnings would be foolish indeed.

User reviews

LibraryThing member carterchristian1
I reread this after a year. A quick read. Jacobs has a sour view of the world. She repeats her same complaints about how roads are not useful to people,only cars, how families are not functioning well,and predicts terrible things about the world ahead. She may be right, I don't know but there are
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some hopeful things out there. Online social networks where extended families,old friends from childhood are coming together may make a difference.However as a walker in the city I do agree with her take on roads.
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LibraryThing member jensenmk82
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This is the last book Jane Jacobs wrote. It was written in 2003 and she was born in 1916 so she was 87 at the time. How wonderful to have the mental acuity and wide-ranging curiosity at that age to bring together such divergent fields as city planning, economics, history, politics and education.
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Jacobs takes us through a discussion of various Dark Ages and how they resulted in a cultural amnesia into a dissection of five pillars that show signs of a coming Dark Age and finally into a prescription for forestalling this. The five pillars are:
1. Community and family
2. Higher education
3. Science and technology
4. Governmental representation
5. Self-governing professions
Although I can’t speak authoritatively about any of these pillars I do know a little bit more about science and technology than the others. Jacobs describes the way the scientific process works better than anyone else I have ever read. At page 69 she says “In sum, the scientific state of mind works along two slightly different avenues, one abstract, the other feeling its way more concretely and pragmatically. Both approaches demand integrity, awareness of evidence and respect for it, and attention to new questions that arise as immediate practical problems to be grappled with, or else as more abstract and postponable. Both avenues are valid and effective. They work together so well that they frequently shift back and forth in the course of an investigation or they overlap.” She then goes on to say “If a body of enquiry becomes disconnected from the scientific state of mind, that unfortunate segment of knowledge is no longer scientific.” She cites three examples of supposed scientific thinking that became disconnected from the scientific state of mind. The fact that she saw this as an issue in 2003, long before the Harper Government started to wage its war on science strikes me as remarkably prescient. The federal government has muzzled its own scientists and attacked non-governmental science groups with everything from audits to lies.
If Jacobs was as correct about her other arguments as she was about science and technology then we are probably further down the road to a Dark Age than we were a decade ago. Let us hope we are not too late to unwind the vicious spiral (the title of Chapter Seven).
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LibraryThing member TimothyBurke
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.
LibraryThing member billiecat
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member mrtall
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member worldsedge
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member TeeMcp
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
I'm pretty sure I read it, but nothing stuck in my brain. It might be me...
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
I did not find this book very closely reasoned, she seems to lack a clear vision for the future of the American City, and its inhabitants. But parts are in sync with my vision, so it got the half star.
LibraryThing member bibliosk8er
Jacobs is an interesting writer, and clearly very well-read. Also a fascinating person. This book contains some interesting ideas. She leans heavily on Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Dark Age Ahead, however, is not a very "focused" book. Kind of rambling. Well written rambling.
LibraryThing member snash
The book suggests 5 ways in which our (North American) culture is failing, hurling us toward a Dark Age. It was written 15 years ago and it's clear that these parameters have gotten significantly worse rather than better in that time. None of her suggestions as to how the downward spiral could be
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arrested have been adopted. As such it's a rather depressing book.
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1400076706 / 9781400076703
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