Dark Age Ahead

by Jane Jacobs
ISBN: 0679313109

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A Review of: Dark Age Ahead
by Nicholas Maes

The historical landscape is littered with dead civilizations, and this suggests the historian is to some degree a pathologist. Besides describing the character, res gestae and organization of societies, historians must account for the manner of their collapse, and seek for pathogens' common to the demise of them all. Thus Gibbon hypothesises the "triumph of barbarism and religion" as the cause of Rome's doom; Spengler in his Decline of the West equates civilizations with organisms, both being subject to the same inevitable decay; Toynbee argues that societies break down when their ideologies cannot accommodate invasive moral or religious practices; while Kennedy speculates (in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers) that great states expand to a stage where they become financially and militarily overstretched (a historian's version of the Peter Principle).
This attempt to understand the entropy of civilization is by no means a mere academic exercise, according to Jane Jacobs in her recent book, Dark Age Ahead. All societies are susceptible to dissolution, either from within or without. Paraphrasing extensively from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jacobs observes that empires slacken when they fail to respond appropriately to disturbances of the status quo-perhaps their institutions are too inelastic to assimilate change and are therefore abandoned (the Fertile Crescent), or become moribund and irrelevant (15th century China). In both cases, mass amnesia is the result. Viable cultures turn to dust and are forgotten as if they never existed.
Such a fate, in Jacobs's view, lies potentially in wait for North America. Never mind our vast preserves of information. In our transition from agrarianism to a technology-driven economy, Jacobs feels we are losing our capacity to transmit our culture to succeeding generations. The five pillars of our world-family, education, science, taxation practices, and professional integrity-have been seriously eroded in recent years to the point of virtually losing their relevance or seeming so hopelessly out of place that their utility is questionable. This warning sounded, together with the good news that there is time yet to apply correctives, Jacobs analyses the damage that each pillar has sustained.
The nuclear family, Jacobs begins, requires a community to fulfill its complex needs-recreation, security, transportation, houses of worship, to name but a few. Migration to the suburbs over the last few decades, however, has brought an end to meaningful communal life: drive through the typical subdivision, and you will encounter empty streets, a lack of human contact, isolation, discourtesy-the antithesis, in short, of everything communities should offer. Once communication with our neighbours becomes impossible, is it any wonder that divorce is commonplace, or the birth-rate plummets?
Ultimately the car is to blame. Society is no longer an integrated whole, in which populations from a variety of backgrounds, racial, cultural, economic, rub shoulders together; instead, suburbanites endure inhumanly long commutes, only to leave their sterile workplace for the cul-de-sac of the subdivision. Our dependence on the car, moreover, is not a matter of free enterprise; instead, Jacobs insists, corporations have systematically undermined popular confidence in public transit, and precipitated the flight from the city to the suburbs, thereby condemning countless communities to death, and undermining the conditions that make family life more enduring.
Jacobs next considers the essential purpose of a higher education. Instead of genuinely educating students who pass within the ivory tower, the university has assumed a credentialing role and exists primarily to provide corporations with dependable, ambitious team players'. Cultures devise commanding goals for themselves, and their educational systems inculcate these objectives in their graduates-the mission to rule in the case of ancient Rome, to save souls in the case of medieval Europe. In the wake of the Depression, US administrations devoted themselves to job creation, and over time this obsession has spread to the university-hence the drift from education to credentialism. This drastic change of mandate both sabotages our society's ability to innovate in the face of debilitating change, and accelerates the onset of mass cultural amnesia.
Science-the third pillar-is valued to the point of worship in North America, but its influence can be a double-edged sword. If its practitioners ignore true scientific inquiry and propose solutions that are based on preconceptions and not genuine empiricism, the results can be devastating. As examples of such lapses, Jacobs describes in detail the erroneous findings of traffic engineers, of epidemiologists in the wake of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, and of economists who at the start of the millennium predicted serious job decline in the GTA. Just as Marxism and Nazism propagated ideas that were short on science and long on loathsome ideologies, so our society runs the risk of corrupting pure scientific procedure, thereby ending a tradition of breathtaking technological achievement.
Subsidiarity/fiscal accountability and professional integrity are Jacobs's last two pillars. To illustrate the failure of the former, Jacobs points to Toronto, which contributes billions of dollars to federal coffers yet does not receive sufficient funding for essential services-public housing, mass transit, public schools, subsidized daycare etc. If federal and provincial governments do not share their tax yields with municipalities-and these constitute 80% of Canada's population and account for 97% of the GDP-the latter will disintegrate, with untold consequences for the nation as a whole.
Because Jacobs believes corporations are greatly responsible for both the family's decline and the university's swerve to credentialism, professional integrity is crucial to our well-being. Who will keep corporate predation in check if not the professionals-Jacobs dwells on accountants-whose skills alone can determine whether malfeasance has occurred or not? And if these modern-age priests fail to enforce among themselves a high standard of conduct, the weakening of this pillar will loosen its four close neighbours with devastating consequences for the entire edifice.
While Dark Age Ahead discusses issues of extreme gravity, and Jacobs displays an enviable ability to synthesise the big historical picture with microscopic snapshots of modern life, the book is deeply flawed. Occasionally ideas are only loosely knotted together and, what is more serious, a wide array of relevant arguments, ones more obvious and compelling than the ones Jacobs advances, are utterly ignored.
To begin with, exactly what is a Dark Age? Jacobs advances the position that a Dark Age is subjective, and that when a society loses touch with its traditions, to the point of rendering these practices a distant memory at best, it can be said to have experienced a Dark Age. By this reckoning, hunters and gatherers were victims of a Dark Age when farmers and city dwellers gradually supplanted them, as were New World aboriginals when European conquerors encroached upon their territories.
To be sure the irretrievable loss of traditional identity is traumatic, but surely conquest and assimilation, however violent and disturbing their impact, are not to be equated with the effects of a Dark Age. When Mycenaean civilization reached its end, in part because of the Dorian invasion, the Dark Age that ensued brought with it population decline, a loss of urban centres, a low standard of living, the breakdown of specialized labour, and the disappearance of writing- Mumford's urban revolution in reverse. The same erosion appeared when Roman influences in Western Europe diminished: material culture, infrastructure, international trade routes and other effects of Roman imperialism fell by the wayside. In both instances, comparatively backward societies (illiterate, tribally organized, non-urban, etc.) influenced well-organized, sophisticated cultures, reducing them to a primitive state that would endure for many centuries.
In the case of aboriginal populations, on the other hand, advanced states preyed on arrested ones; indeed, it is hard to imagine that aboriginal cultures would have survived the introduction of European technology, even if the white man had proven less rapacious. The gun, the car, the snowmobile, the motorised boat-over time these inventions would have replaced native artefacts and in turn altered drastically the nomadic way of life and its accompanying rituals. To be sure the loss of these traditions has been incalculably grievous for the parties involved, and the injustices committed scandalous, but there was no reversal of technological progress that is conventionally believed to characterize a Dark Age.
But even if one accepts Jacobs's conception of a Dark Age, she still does not appear to hit the mark in her analysis of the Western world's five crumbling pillars. Let us briefly consider three of them: the family, education versus credentialism, and the practice of science.
Surely Jacobs is right when she posits tremendous fissures in Western family life: the high number of divorces, the decline of marriage as a formal institution, and a dwindling birth rate clearly signal that all is not well. But is weakening of the family attributable to a combination of financial hardship and retreat to the suburbs, as Jacobs contends? If the latter does play a significant role, one would expect Jacobs to cite statistics that demonstrate wealthier families tend to be larger than average. And if the suburbs do indeed offer fewer possibilities of communal life, the proof must be more convincing than a dismissive observation about a subdivision's empty streets. In point of fact, public schools have been expanding much more rapidly in the outlying regions of the GTA than they have within Metropolitan Toronto itself.
There are other possible explanations that Jacobs disregards. Perhaps Western family life has deteriorated because it must compete with other highly prized aspects of our culture. The feminist movement in the 1960s believed motherhood was an obstacle to progress in the work force and therefore denigrated this institution as a means of encouraging young women to pursue careers. Sexual self-autonomy was also crucial if women were to gain their independence, and abortion laws were liberalised, often by denying the foetus legal rights or discounting its humanity. Childrearing is time-consuming and inevitably wreaks havoc on a full-time work schedule, unless children are consigned to a nanny or daycare. Divorce has become so ubiquitous that it has altered our expectations of the family unit: it is no longer permanent, with essential obligations restricted to children, siblings and parents, but is liable to breakdown and reconstitution, with loyalties extending to step-parents, step-siblings and beyond. Even the idea of marriage as a heterosexual possession is fast becoming a relic of the past, with recent challenges to the traditional definition appearing in an array of Western countries.
The conventional family is alive and well in the Middle East and developing countries; that is to say, in countries that have not accepted the innovations listed above, further grounds for suspecting that the Western family has indeed had to contend with many liberal advances.
Given the magnitude of these developments, it is at the very least conceivable that the Westerner's requirements of family life are radically different from what they were some forty years ago, and that it is these changes, more than urban sprawl, that have placed undue stress upon the modern Western family. This is not to say that Western society has necessarily taken a wrong turning, or that feminism, abortion and gay rights have precipitated a Dark Age. Complex societies contain a range of opposing needs-the individual versus the collective, the majority versus the minorities, secular versus religious-and just as compromises have been struck between competing factions in the past, so too the factors required for familial stability may well be attained without having to retreat from the advances made in recent years (unless society is a zero-sum system, and one either preserves the traditional family unit, or compromises it beyond all hope of repair by safeguarding the interests of its competing social groups). Whatever the solution may be, an astute commentator must entertain all possibilities, and Jacobs has failed in this regard.
Similar objections come to mind when one considers her chapter on credentialing and education. What were the original universities-Padua, Oxford, Cambridge and the like-but institutes that trained its graduates for careers in law, medicine or the church? While acknowledging that yes, the German universities of the nineteenth century were institutions dedicated to higher thinking, one can still argue that a degree in English some sixty years ago, while not so obvious a manifestation of credentialism at the time, was nonetheless regarded as a ticket to secure financial prospects. As technology has played an expanding role in our economy, and the skill sets required for meaningful employment have become more technically demanding, the veneer of education for its own sake has been stripped away, and the credentialing aspect to our higher institutions has become more and more difficult to disguise.
But let us assume for the sake of argument that Jacobs is right and universities are for the most part in the credentialing business to a degree they never were in the past. A crucial aspect of this phenomenon would be the fading importance of the humanities and the liberal arts tradition, but not exclusively because these fields are unable to provide their graduates with well-paid employment. Another more complicated (and contentious) explanation would be the failing relevance of the liberal arts tradition in a society that has become more multicultural and therefore less interested in a monolithic, classical tradition.
Jacobs often refers to the mass amnesia that a Dark Age engenders. If one considers the number of Westerners who are familiar with the intellectual monuments of their past-the Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, the plays of Shakespeare, in other words the canon the two Blooms (Allen and Harold) have championed-it would seem that mass amnesia has made alarming inroads into our culture. But can commentators realistically expect different results in a context where a plurality of voices compete to be heard, and the values and artistry of a dwindling majority reflect imperialism and highhandedness in the eyes of multiplying minorities? What part of our foundational traditions can be emphasized and cultivated, without occasioning distress among the parties whose own traditions lie leagues apart?
Jacobs has avoided, understandably perhaps, discussion of a subject that poses not only educational difficulties in the West but political ones as well. Canada requires immigrants, yes, and our diversity is in many respects a reflection of our strength. But a multicultural society with only a weak national identity to coordinate its many disparate branches might fail to reach a consensus when confronted with circumstances that push it to the brink. When addressing the problem of how a society can avoid an impending Dark Age, moreover, Jacobs points to Japan's successful absorption of industrial practices in the nineteenth century, and its preservation at the same time of its cultural foundations. This example is a bad one from the Western perspective in that Japan's population is remarkably homogeneous and by no means faced with the cultural and political divisiveness that is symptomatic of most Western countries, Canada before all others. How puzzling, then, that Jacobs decided heterogeneity wasn't worthy of discussion and analysis.
Finally, a few words about science. Dystopian prognostications are often based on the premise that our use of science has rolled out of control: suitcase bombs, biochemical warfare, genetically modified foods, governmental spyware, these and other newly minted inventions will usher in the mother of all Dark Ages. Many, if not all, of these speculations are exaggerations, the sensational theories of sci-fi junkies and apocalyptic doomsayers. On the other hand, to the extent that science does pose a threat to Western norms and nudges us ever nearer to that mass amnesia Jacobs fears, it is not the close-mindedness of traffic engineers that will seal our doom-indeed, her lengthy treatment of them, the CDC and wide-of-the-mark economists is easily the weakest part of her book. Instead, a more obvious line of inquiry would look at the hazards science brings to bear on the practice of our culture.
While there are numerous reasons why the humanities are no longer engaging students as they did in the past-the competition of different cultures would be one such factor, as was argued above-the prevalence of science has unquestionably cut into the reading public's interest in Western literature, history, philosophy and religion (shades of C.P. Snow). At the same time, our traditional values are difficult to reconcile with advances like stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering-fields that are challenging in their infant stages and will only prove more disruptive as they continue to evolve. Etiquette and social norms must adapt themselves to the Internet, wireless technology and the availability of information on demand (from Shakespeare to pornography). If the dreaded mass amnesia of Western norms is to be avoided, the core of our traditional canon must successfully compete with a plethora of distractions and not lose itself in the ever-shinier tinsel of popular culture. As Neil Postman argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the outcome of this competition is far from certain, and Jacobs's silence on this issue is most disappointing.
All in all, Jacobs has broached a subject that is fascinating and of paramount importance. On concluding her volume, however, despite the erudition and lively observations it contains, one cannot help but suspect that her inquiry has been passed through two intrusive filters.
The first is her expertise in urban planning. It goes without saying that an authority on North American cities would occasionally make use of the fruits of her learning, and her specialist insights are sometimes helpful. At the same time they crowd out other more pertinent issues, to the point that her priorities seem debatable and, all too often, off target. The argument that urban sprawl (and the car) have caused the death of communities is eccentric, to say the least, and traffic engineers, however skewed their methodologies, hardly represent the pitfalls of science.
A second filter-this is pure conjecture-is Jacobs's liberal, progressive sympathies. While respectable in their own right, they seem to prevent her from leaving no stone unturned in her investigations. If one is going to inquire into failing Western family life, for example, surely something must be said about the altered definition of marriage, the growing dependence of parents on daycare, and a popular culture that revels in vulgarity and blithely undercuts our civic norms, if only to dispel critics' convictions that such alterations do indeed sound the death knell for the family. The observation, too, that the university has suffered a change of mandate must involve a discussion of multiculturalism and its effects on curriculum and the classical canon. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck, but the potential hazards of multiculturalism cannot be whisked beneath the carpet, on the grounds that such a question betrays latent xenophobia or plain bad manners.
In her concluding remarks, Jacobs reminds us that a society's survival depends on its self-awareness. It is a valuable truth and lies at the heart of Western continuity, but it also one she might personally have put to greater effect.

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