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Dark Age Ahead [Hardcover]

Jane Jacobs
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 2004
A dark age is a culture’s dead end. In North America, for example, we live in a virtual graveyard of lost and destroyed aboriginal cultures. In this powerful and provocative book, renowned author Jane Jacobs argues convincingly that we face the coming of our own dark age.

Throughout history, there have been many more dark ages than the one that occurred between the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Renaissance. Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors went from hunter-gatherers to farmers and, along the way, lost almost all memory of what existed before. Now we stand at another monumental crossroads, as agrarianism gives way to a technology-based future. How do we make this shift without losing the culture we hold dear—and without falling behind other nations that successfully master the transition?

First we must concede that things are awry. Jacobs identifies five central pillars of our society that show serious signs of decay: community and family; higher education; science and technology; governmental representation; and self-regulation of the learned professions. These are the elements we depend on to stand firm—but Jacobs maintains that they are in the process of becoming irrelevant. If that happens, we will no longer recognize ourselves.

The good news is that the downward movement can be reversed. Japan avoided cultural defeat by retaining a strong hold on history and preservation during war, besiegement, and occupation. Ireland nearly lost all native language during the devastations of famine and colonialism, but managed to renew its culture through the steadfast determination of its citizens. Jacobs assures us that the same can happen here—if only we recognize the signs of decline in time.

Dark Age Ahead is not only the crowning achievement of Jane Jacobs’s career, but one of the most important works of our time. It is a warning that, if heeded, could save our very way of life.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400062322
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400062324
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 14.7 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 713,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.0 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Doomsday picture written with surprising appeal 12 July 2006
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
Despite the topic - the threat of culture collapsing into another dark age in the near future - this is a surprisingly charming, readable book. That is due to the way author Jane Jacobs combines a lifetime of research and thought on urban planning and the way societies function with very practical stories based on personal experience. Jacobs moves smoothly from a discussion of medieval tax strategies to accounts of a Sunday drive, and uses both to illustrate her ideas. Her style is friendly, almost casual, and at times she meanders from one topic to another in the style of the pedestrian-friendly cities she so clearly loves. However, while this provides a great deal of the book's charm, it also provides its two weaknesses. Problem one: the book often relies on scattered evidence - albeit by a world-class scholar - to address deeply serious problems. Problem two: Jacobs spends more time discussing society's failings than how one might fix them. The result is a fascinating book that is difficult to apply. As a result, we suggest this book to reflective readers who want an intelligent take on the issues involved in shaping the future of our cities, communities and countries.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and important 8 Jun 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I agree with everything the previous reviewer stated, particularly that the book is surprisingly light and easy to read for such a potentially depressing subject. It is very disturbing that all the indications of a society's imminent collapse are so evident in ours, such as the abandonment of scientific thinking or unfair, dumbed-down taxes. It is appropriate that Jacobs refers to Jared Diamond in the text, because his 'Collapse' is the perfect companion to this book. Together, they form a formidable argument...that we are in deep trouble.

The two weak areas are, yes, the lack of positive advice - but then the book is primarily a wake-up call - and also the lack of references. For example, the case of Ireland's cultural dark age having been thwarted by the power of song and art, is an interesting one; but when she refers to Ireland now surpassing the productivity of England, one questions what the source for that information could be.

This is possibly one of the most important books around right now but should be read in conjunction with others such as 'Collapse' to get a more complete picture.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite What I Expected 4 Jan 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was recommended this book by a bunch of economists and opinionists as a classic of its genre (or maybe even a creator of the genre). The premise is good but I found the style of writing clumsy and laboured.
In my view it could have been a lot punchier.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful 29 Aug 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
Started well and I thought I was in for a good analysis of how our civilization may be declining. then it became a stream of conciousness which basically said, "things aint what they used to be in Toronto, Q.E.D, our civilization is doomed... oh and by the way my local school has closed and where does all this damn traffic come from?" The content bore no relationship to the title or the initial attempt to say what the book was going to be about. Bizarre really and I gave up.
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Amazon.com: 3.1 out of 5 stars  43 reviews
46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The Hazard" is here 6 Dec 2006
By V.H. Amavilah - Published on Amazon.com
The West is living "The Hazard" of an impending "Dark Age", unable to anticipate clearly because of widespread "mass amnesia". The Dark Age is predictable from history, which shows that each major collapse of civilization was followed by a disturbing social transformation. The Dark Age Ahead (the book) agrees in part with Jared Diamond's account that Mesopotamia, for example, fell to ruins because of "environmental ignorance" (p. 15), but that was not the whole story. Part of the story is that there are cultural failings that have signaled the decline of major civilizations in the past, which offer lessons for the present and forecasts for the future.

In that connection the book identifies five factors that jeopardize pillars of the culture of the West, where West = North America + Western Europe. The five factors are: (a) the destruction of the traditional family and community; (b) the replacement of education by credentialization; (c) the dominance of technology over science; (d) the overpowering government and its opaque taxation system; and (e) the loss of self-policing attributes of culture. These factors constitute "The Hazard" society is currently facing, and are the subjects of the chapters of the book.

The superimposition of the household (economic family unit) over the nuclear family (biological family unit) has condemned many a family to failure. So "while politicians, clergy, creators of advertisement, and other worthies assert stoutly that the family is the foundation of society, the nuclear family, as an institution is currently in grave trouble" (p. 29). By blurring the difference between the nuclear family and other household units the automobile industry has done more harm to the family institution than illegal drugs.

The replacement of education with credentialization also threatens the West. Nowadays computer technology and engineering are preferred to computer science. As a result you now have skillful computer operators who do not understand the basic scientific principles behind a computer. Employers fund certification programs because they are presently good for the bottom line. Universities and colleges have bought into the credential subculture. Essentially both employers and educational institutions are destroying the scientific basis of Western culture. Truly educated people get no jobs, and "the worst side effect of unemployment is repeated rejection, with its burden of shame and failure" (p. 53).

Just as it happened in Mesopotamia, and early China, science is increasingly being abandoned for profit. The pursuit of profit is stifling the pursuit of pure science that drove early scientists. At the same time society has also abandoned two principles that are key to cultural vigor: "subsidiarity" and "accountability". The latter refers to a people's government in Abe Lincoln's sense; the latter to a transparent tax collecting system. Local government has become dysfunctional; tax revenues are either down or misused, and the production of public goods and services suffers and innovations decline. People needing public assistance are exposed to the cruelties of the Invisible Hand. Thus, "aid failure promotes instability and terrorism" (p. 124) and the dire consequences are predictable.

The subversion of self-policing professional organizations as exemplified by the Enron financial scandal is another sign of the Dark Age Ahead. It all boils down to the idea that "when efficiency becomes the sole goal of a culture, and the "redundancy of nurturers ... [is] eliminated (sic) as an extravagance, ... the vicious spirals go into action [leading surely to] self-inflicted cultural genocide" (p. 160).

The last chapter summarizes the book by describing the "patterns of the Dark Age". The hunter-gather culture was overtaken by the agricultural society. Losers in that take-over experienced a stressful cultural transformation, but soon people forgot until agriculture was "destroyed" by the industrial culture, and that one is gone too. Now human capital accumulation is the culture, but the poor cannot afford investment in the education required to build human capital, and government is either too broke or unwilling to help them. Even for those who can afford an education, education itself is no longer available, having been replaced by the credential subculture. Thus, the Dark Age is written on the wall, for "[a]ny culture that jettisons the values that have given it competence, adaptability, and identity becomes weak and hollow. A culture can avoid that hazard only by tenaciously retaining the underlying values responsible for [its] nature and success" (p. 176). Poignant!

A gloomier than hopeful book; a little below the stellar standard the author set with her previous book - The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Still the scholarship is high, and the message worth reading.

Amavilah, Author

Modeling Determinants of Income in Embedded Economies

ISBN: 1600210465
102 of 112 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Skeletal 13 May 2004
By Brian Harmon - Published on Amazon.com
Jane Jacobs claims that an argument can be made that we reside on the precipice of a new dark age. She provides a very useful outline upon which such an argument could be structured. But she does not make the argument herself. It seems like Ms. Jacobs is using this book to plant the seeds of an idea that she hopes others will step up to germinate and grow. If you are at all skeptical about its premise, this book probably won't do anything for you. The arguments will seem scattered, and the examples will seem superficial at best and irrelevant at worst. But if you are at all open to the dark age notion, or think it is feasible (as I have for a number of years),then the book may be a nice aid in helping you to organize your reading and thinking to better build a case for this haunting premise. Hopefully, some of the rest of us will pick up Jacobs' notion and give it the full treatment it deserves...
49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What this books is really about 4 Jun 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Jane Jacobs wrote "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" in 1961 stating that neighborhoods would be the pulse and soul of city life. City planners and engineers tried their best to laugh her out of town but lo and behold her wisodm of almost everything she had to say came true.
This book now focuses on the five crucial weak spots in the foundation of contemporary life in the West: taxes; community & family; higher education; science and technology; and the lack of self-policing by learned professions. She then argues that these problems lie behind more conventional trouble spots: the environment, crime, and the discrepancy between rich and poor.
My only problem with this book is that she's rather brusque in regards to shoring up her arguments with examples. The book does offer some nice insights for one to ponder on but as far as looking for examples, try turning to your own life experience.
She isn't a historian nor is this book intended to be a historical review of what one may assume as the Dark Ages of the past.
If you're concerned with America's changing culture and changing climate and can keep an open mind, this book could serve as a stepping stone.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short But Trenchant 17 Oct 2005
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In her customary clear-headed fashion Jane Jacobs has written a brief but brilliant summary of the reasons why Western culture is facing a Dark Age. In short chapters (supplemented by copious notes and further details at the end) she examines the decline of the family structure, the breakdown of community, the discarding of education in favor of "credentialing", and other warning signs of decline.

Jacobs is always clear minded and often witty. She makes the same point again and again: decline is not so much a failure of society or of structure as it is of imagination, our inability or unwillingness to look beyond the immediate problem or to consider unusual but promising alternatives. Sometimes the solution is so obvious as to be overlooked, such as that the reason for a high death toll among the elderly in one Chicago neighborhood during a heat wave was not neglect or failure to provide information, but rather that there was no viable community to give the support and help that was needed.

Jacobs will not please those who have permanently bound themselves to either the Left or Right, but those of us able to look beyond ideology in search of real solutions will find much to ponder here.
26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rambling and unscholarly, but gives food for thought 9 Jun 2005
By Debbie the Book Devourer - Published on Amazon.com
In this book, Jane Jacobs outlines five aspects of society today that, if unchecked, could lead us to a new Dark Age such as the one the Roman Empire experienced. These five aspects are: breakdown of communities, the tendency of universities to credential rather than educate, abandonment of the principles of science, distancing of taxing bodies from the people they serve, and breakdown in self-regulation and self-policing of learned professions.

Ms. Jacobs says that others might have picked five different aspects, and that these are just the ones that seemed important to her. Although she does explain why repairing each aspect is important in preventing a new dark age, much of the book seems to be about things that seem important to her or empirical observations she personally has made. There is little attempt to prove or substantiate any of her claims or to justify extrapolating her little observations to society at large. She seems to ignore the scientific rigor she says is so vital. After a while, she just kind of sounds like the elderly lady on the block who constantly says, "Back when I was a kid..."

Besides a lack of scholarly rigor, this book also seems to have a lack of crisp organization. The book is divided into chapters, but Ms. Jacobs regularly colors outside the lines. Combine that with her oddly punctuated, rambling sentences, and you do not have a recipe for readability.

Nonetheless, she does bring up some good points, particularly about not accepting commonly held notions at face value, about cherishing community, and about remembering where we all came from. For that, she gets a couple stars.
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