Dark Age Ahead, by the late Jane Jacobs, contains some important insights about the state of North American society. For me, however, the book is more notable for what it doesn't contain.
Picking up where Jared Diamond left off in Guns, Germs, and Steel (which Jacobs references several times in her introduction) and Collapse, Jacobs identifies five pillars of society that she believes are in decay: community and family, higher education, the effective practice of science and science-based technology, taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities, and self-policing by the learned professions.
To readers who are puzzled by her choices for the list itself, Jacobs writes:
It may seem surprising that I do not single out such failings as racism, profligate environmental destruction, crime, voters' distrust of politicians and thus low turnouts for elections, and the enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with the attrition of the middle class. Why not those five, rather than the five I have selected to concentrate on? . . . Perhaps my judgment is wrong, but I think these second five are symptoms of breakdown in the five I have chosen to discuss. Furthermore, many North Americans are already aware of them as dangerous and are trying to focus on intelligent corrections.I disagree with this judgment – racism, for example, is not a symptom of any of Jacobs' five pillars, but a core issue of its own – but this is the list with which Dark Age Ahead grapples.
The book itself reads like an extended essay - unfocused and discursive. Whereas Diamond based his conclusions on facts and statistics, Jacobs draws on anecdotal evidence (often her own firsthand observations), plus some secondary sources (a few books). The claims are monumental, but the evidence often feels very flimsy.
In a chapter called "Dumbed-Down Taxes," Jacobs bemoans a lack of local control over tax distribution and expenditures. She mentions the public's increasing agitation over rising taxes, and the increasing distrust of federal and provincial governments. She mentions the de-funding and slashing of public services. However, Jacobs never mentions the sea change that stripped public coffers of funds, burdened the average taxpayer, and led to the decimating of so many public services: the decline in the corporate tax rate. Most corporations in the US pay zero taxes, and Canadian corporate tax rates – slashed by 50% by the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – are among the lowest in the world. On this subject, Jacobs is silent.
Similarly, in a chapter about a lack of self-policing by industry, Jacobs never mentions that government agencies originally formed as watchdogs are now largely headed by former industry lobbyists. If we want to know why policing and regulating doesn't work, it's odd to not even put this in the mix.
It should be difficult, too, to compare the society of the United States, and to a lesser but still very real extent, Canada, to the collapse of the Roman Empire and not reference the enormous tax burden of military expenditures.
To discuss redlining – the denial of investment to certain geographic areas – and never mention racism, when redlining is primarily a racist tool, is not just strange. It's incorrect.
There were highlights, too. When Jacobs discusses the decline of family and community, she's not talking about what some think of as morality - acceptance of LGBT families, or abortion, or a decline in church-going. The segment on the family is titled "Families Rigged to Fail," and it focuses on the brutal and unjust economic conditions faced by most working people, and the lack of social supports available. I appreciated this.
In another good segment, Jacobs decries universities that, to her mind, have become institutions to dole out credentials, rather than places where people learn to think critically and expand their worldview.
To readers familiar with Jacobs' work, especially her 1961 masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Dark Age Ahead includes much familiar ground: Jacobs' hatred of all things auto-related, her critique of the suburbs as hollow and soulless, and her leadership in community opposition to destruction by highway. All good stuff, all worth contemplating.
Jacobs' assessment of what ails our society contains much worth reading. But it might be best approached as a jumping-off point, rather than a definitive work in itself. (A version of this review was originally published here, on wmtc.)