Review of "Dark Age Ahead" by Jane Jacobs

I bought this book in spite of negative reviews in the press because I was intrigued by the list of the topics it covered: communities and families, higher education, abandonment of science, irresponsibility of the professions, and so forth. I feel that our society faces serious problems in all these areas and I was curious about what the author had to say. I was in for a big disappointment. The author seems to reduce all the problems to the effects of automobiles and the businesses that make money from them. In addition she seems to hold some romantic, if not altogether erroneous views of the problems of our society. Because other reviewers have dealt with the overemphasis on the effects of automobiles (John David Ebert and J.E.Robinson at I will skip this topic.

A major fallacy of the book is the assertion that many of the problems that she describes have risen after World War II. It seems that the author looks nostalgically at the days of her youth and I can sympathize with that. (I was also born before World War II.) Unfortunately the good old days were never that good. She attributes the loss of community spirit to the move from cities to the suburbs. But cities can also be very impersonal and a lot has been written about that. I know of the case of a person who died in his apartment in San Francisco and nobody missed him. He was only found because of the smell of the decomposition of his body. Some young city dwellers may find it easy to socialize, but many apartment dwellers do not know their neighbors any better than people in the suburbs. Others have made the case that the population mobility introduced by the industrial revolution is the underlying cause for the loss of community spirit, but Jacobs never discusses that view.

Similarly the emphasis on credentials (as opposed to learning) in education is nothing new. Stories of students who just hang around campus until they can get a diploma go back to the medieval Universities.

Jacobs claims that the practice of an authority issuing orders in an indirect way so that responsibility may be denied later is an invention of the CIA. Well, we know that Hitler never signed orders and his underlings relied on euphemisms to hide their vile deeds. The Russian writer Bulgakov has a beautiful (and chilling) story of the practice in his story "The Master and Margarita" written in the 1930s.

One could go on listing bad practices that have been around long before the times Jacobs claims, as well as long before the invention of the automobile.

Still, I do not consider going through the book a complete waste of time. Now and then Jacobs makes a valid point, but, most important, it made me think about several serious issues.

T.P. - August 2004