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.
Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities forever transformed the discipline of urban planning by concentrating on what actually helped cities work. Unencumbered by generations of fatuous theorizing, Jacobs proposed a model of action that has left a positive mark in neighborhoods all over the world. Her latest salvo, Dark Age Ahead, is, despite the pessimism of many of its conclusions, also positive, less a jeremiad than a firm but helpful reminder of just how much is at stake. Jacobs sees "ominous signs of decay" in five "pillars" of our culture: family, community, higher education, science and "self policing by the learned professions." Each is given a detailed treatment, with sympathetic but hard-headed real-world assessments that are often surprising and always provocative and well-expressed. Her chapter on the decline of the nuclear family completely avoids the moral hand-wringing of the kindergarten Cassandras to place the blame on an economy that has made the affordable home either an unattainable dream or a crippling debt. Her discussion of the havoc wrought by the lack of accountability seems ripped from any number of headlines, but her analysis of the larger effects sets it apart. 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. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 15, 2005
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Excerpt from Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs
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.