Monday, July 14, 2014

Book review: "Dark Age Ahead"

The title of Jane Jacobs's last book (Random House, 2004) might well be punctuated with a question mark, because the articulate ur-urbanist manages to be both prophetic about America's present and hopeful about America's future.

She describes five signs of crisis as our culture enters the post-industrial era, which must be addressed to prevent slipping into a "dark age" like the prehistoric hunter-gatherers, ancient Romans, or modern farm belts. These are "pillars of our culture" which are in serious decay, and of which other widely-acknowledged bads like economic inequality and environmental destruction are mere symptoms (pp. 24-25):

  • community and family (ch. 2): atomized and stressed as incomes haven't kept up with the costs of (in particular) housing
  • higher education (ch. 3): real learning has given way to intellectually and spiritually empty credentialing
  • science and technology (ch. 4) have been misused to validate prejudices or serve powerful interests
  • governmental powers (ch. 5) exercised and taxes collected by distant, national governments instead of those directly in touch with people's needs and possibilities
  • the professions (ch. 6) serve powerful interests and no longer police themselves effectively
Declaring ourselves to be "exceptional" is not a good sign; the future belongs to the self-aware, not the self-deluding. The Romans probably declared themselves exceptional, too, and for all we know so did groups of hunter-gatherers. But history has several examples of successful adaptations, too, and Americans can profit by those examples. "Is suburban sprawl, with its murders of communities and wastes of land, time, and energy, a sign of decay? Or is rising interest in means of overcoming sprawl a sign of vigor and adaptability in North American culture? Arguably, either could turn out to be true" (pp. 169-170).

This is less specifically prescriptive than her major work from the early 1960s, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which focused on city planning. This is political theory, constructing an argument around why some cultures sustain themselves while others disappear. It works to that end, providing descriptions of selected, well-known phenomena by way of illustrating the general argument. I myself am very receptive to this type of argument i.e. moralistic yet inclusive, with prophecy pointed at the powerful. She should at least provoke some interesting discussions. As an older woman she brings the perspective of time to the cultural changes she describes, though I'm not sure that a skeptic would find that determinative. Hasn't power always corrupted? Haven't the poor always suffered? Doesn't American individualism mean we always get the technological fix in time? Maybe so, but in times like these we need all hands on deck and some sense of restraint on our self-regard.

The subsidiarity issue (Jacobs, along with many others, argues that policies ought to be enacted at the level of government as close to the people as possible) is complicated, and probably worth a post in itself.

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