“Dark Age Ahead” by Jane Jacobs

The last significant work from the late Jane Jacobs, written just a few years before her death, Dark Age Ahead seems like an odd anomaly in the fossil record.

I recall it being critically panned, as indeed was the general reception, to the extent it was really noticed. Perhaps some critics who felt awkward, about being too harsh on an elderly figure whose earlier work they considered important, found politely ignoring Dark Age Ahead easier.

More recently I have noticed one or two reappraisals, though I don’t recall the details offhand. They got me thinking about the book, though, and curious to check it out now that I have a bit of time available.

It is, I think, an interesting and odd historic artifact.

I think a lot of the early criticism was justified in the sense that, by many measures, Dark Age Ahead is kind of a mess. It does not seem like the author developed a clear message or coherent set of messages.

There are nuggets scattered about. For example, I quite appreciate Jacobs’s discussion of cultural mission, and suggestion that American culture has basically made the job into society’s center and life’s meaning—and the corresponding implication that this is a choice not just the only possible way things can be.

Yet the most interesting feature of Dark Age Ahead itself is, to my mind, the mere fact that this intelligent social critic who had lived through and seen much chose to write a book-length warning that cultures lose their way and can fail, basically, for extended periods, and that she perceived this process underway in multiple critical pillars of American culture.

The most interesting thing about the book, meanwhile, is probably that it was published in 2004.

So Jacobs wrote this warning, which in general outline at least seems more relevant every week, about sixteen years ago. That’s particularly poignant, juxtaposed with my own retrospective determination of that moment as the time when we really needed the various projects for sociopolitical renewal which sprang up since 2016.

Examining Dark Age Ahead now is mostly a deeper, wistful “what should have been,” more than any “what could have been” revelation. In detail, Dark Age Ahead still seems like a mess. It had basically nothing to say about policymaking systems which I would list among the primary features in our present corrosion.

Jacobs’s brief chapter on suggested responses feels like a random dive through urban policy oddments. I don’t dismiss urban design as a meaningful component of our society’s corrosion—having canvassed exurban nightmares in which each household is like its own micro-fiefdom, rather than part of a community, I suspect that this kind of landscape has a real and detrimental impact—but even I think Jacobs was casting around. She admitted that Dark Age Ahead was intended more to further a conversation than to be a last word on anything, but in practice I don’t think it even amounted to that much.

I’m not sure anything would have done, either. I believe that history is determined by more than broad forces, but I doubt that any warning text, no matter its source or its content, would by itself have diverted people and resources and institutions toward a far greater urgency for fundamental reform and renewal.

It’s interesting to think about why, because things certainly seemed dire around 2004 from the perspective of “the reality based community.” Yet why did nothing seem to touch off the kind of activist movement which began, sadly very late in the day, in 2017? I can make guesses. Ongoing shell shock from terrorism and war? The fact that consolidation of power by Republicans did not take place at the same time as Bush’s election? Generation X just isn’t suited to the task so it had to wait another dozen years? Perhaps there is no real answer.

But, as I look around me at systemic corrosion which seems advanced beyond any probability of repair, I have to hand it to Jacobs for at least glimpsing this outcome and trying to warn others 16 precious years ago. What would we not give to have those years back, and what might people wish to trade for their recovering in the years ahead.

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