Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- June 5, 2004

Dark Age Ahead

Jane Jacobs
Random House, 241pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

Jane Jacobs is longtime master of the radical yet simple insight. I first read her Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) in high school, and I remember it knocking my socks off. Nations are economic fictions, she wrote, mere lines on a map, and the only tangible economic entities are in fact cities. Radical – yet also, once digested, obvious. Reading Systems of Survival (1992) provided another startlingly simple insight: that commercial and government institutions operate on wholly different ethical systems (“trading vs. raiding” as she summarized it), and that it is hazardous to mix the two by trying to run government like a business. It seems like common sense today, yet it was Jacobs who had the wisdom to point it out back then.

Jacobs’ latest book, Dark Age Ahead, contains several ideas of similarly good sense. She calls, as she did in 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for mixed zoning of residential and commercial districts, which would allow the economic intensification of “inefficient” residential-only suburban sprawl, and which would also help to form communities around the goods and services provided by businesses within walking distance of homes. Side effects from such commercial activity, she writes, could be carefully regulated with “performance codes” that mandate, for example, maximum noise levels.

Jacobs also makes a stimulating, though probably unfeasible, argument for the promotion of Canadian municipalities from their current status as “wards” of provinces to full partners in the collection and disbursement of revenues from income and consumption taxes. The current arrangement, she points out, is a systematic violation of subsidiarity, “the principle that government works best – most responsibly and responsively – when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses.” After all, why should a distant federal government know better than city governments how to improve cities?

But these valuable ideas -- like the few twinkling stars you can see in a night sky washed out by the glaring lights of a city – are overwhelmed by the grander theme of the book. As the title indicates, “we show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age”, in which our civilization will forget its sciences and wisdom, just as western Europe forgot literacy and agriculture and mechanics after the collapse of Rome. Jacobs declares that five key pillars of our society are in jeopardy: community, higher education, science and technology, transparent taxation, and self-policing by professionals. All of these are interlinked: “The collapse of one sustaining cultural institution enfeebles others…With each collapse, still further ruin becomes more likely, until finally the whole enfeebled, intractable contraption crashes.”

Jacobs’ specific complaints are often well-founded. Few people would argue with her observation that the accounting profession failed its trust in the financial scandals of the last five years, or that higher education now tends toward a technocratic “credentialism”, or that financial accountability at the provincial and federal levels has been sorely lacking.

Far too frequently, however, her conclusions are over-dramatic, and skewed towards personal battles. Her grand claim that we are losing the scientific habit of mind is backed up by reflections on the unscientific methods of her bêtes noires, traffic engineers (“[universities] are perpetrating a fraud upon students and upon the public when they award credentials in this supposed expertise”, she sniffs), and of economists and sociologists. Yet none of these disciplines are actually sciences, much as they have sometimes claimed to be. The real sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, etc… -- have gone on delivering discovery after discovery, and show no signs whatsoever of the sloppiness she condemns in the disciplines she’s most familiar with. She has fingered the wrong suspect.

Further, the important ideas Jacobs accuses society of ignoring are too often her own. When her intriguing notion of a city’s “import replacement” activities is passed over by mainstream Canadian economists as an explanation for 2002’s unexpected jobs boom, she interprets this as a failing in the profession: “[The general public] gets about as much enlightenment from all the professors of economics it supports as from the professors of traffic engineering.” And while rightly condemning provincial and federal governments for financial skulduggery, she fails to discuss the skulduggery that has always been rife at the level of municipal governments, from Tammany Hall to Tom Jakobek and Dash Domi. Subsidiarity surely does not cure corruption.

Though the societal wounds she identifies are indeed serious, they are far from mortal. Western civilization, particularly in the last hundred years, has been through far worse scrapes. Professional scandal, dogmatic engineers, disruptive technologies (today the car, yesterday the railway), the glorification of image over substance – all the sins Jacobs decries have been with us for centuries, often millennia. And now they are suddenly going to push us into a new Dark Age?

Even the scale of the disaster we are supposedly risking is unclear. To Jacobs, a “Dark Age” is any loss of community or cultural knowledge that cannot be recovered: thus Zimbabwe, Liberia, and the Congo have entered their own individual Dark Ages, and even the deprived neighbourhood of North Lawndale, Chicago, “is a place and a people who have sunk so deeply into a Dark Age that they have been unable to maintain even rudimentary community life.” So are we facing many little Dark Ages as our urban neighborhoods weaken, or one big Dark Age as Western civilization expires? Having traded simplicity of insight for stridency of tone, Jacobs will unfortunately leave many of her readers bemused and skeptical, rather than, as they have always been before, inspired.