REVIEW: Dark Age Ahead
Confronting a post-agrarian world
A great chronicler of city life considers the country beyond

Reviewed by Jake Vail


Dark Age Ahead

Jane Jacobs, Random House, 2004;
ISBN 1-400062-32-2; 176 pp.; $23.95

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February 7, 2005: You gotta love Jane Jacobs. Nearly ninety and still kicking the box she’s always thought outside of, she is a self-styled and well-respected cultural critic. Forty-four years ago, a magazine editor with no college degree, she wrote her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She went on to explore urban economics, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and ecological economics, in The Nature of Economies. She enjoys the occasional beer, doesn’t own a car, and gets arrested for impeding progress. In a new book, her seventh, she shines her considerable intellect into what she fears may be a Dark Age Ahead.

Dark Age Ahead starts brightly, in part thanks to a ten-page rehashing of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. But before long, mirroring her theme, Jacobs loses her way and her book bumps towards darkness.

You’re thinking, “What does this have to do with sustainable farming?” Just this: the Dark Age ahead is the hubris-laden and technology-based future that comes (or some would argue, has already arrived) after agrarianism. Tragically, Dark Age Ahead spends too much time revisiting old arguments, mostly about urban transportation issues, and when real insight comes it’s not easily recognized. Jacobs’s fascination with the city causes her to miss the countryside that supports it, where the real action awaits – for good or ill.

Jacobs’s big idea is simple: Our age has much in common with other times that have preceded Dark Ages. Her hope is to clarify some dire societal trends in the hope of averting certain doom.

There are several puzzling things about Dark Age Ahead. In a New Yorker piece published last year, Jacobs said, “I get awfully sick when I hear comparisons to the Roman Empire,” and she echoes this sentiment in the book. But although she doesn’t indulge in easy comparisons of, say, Washington to Rome, her whole thesis pivots on Empire-era parallels. “Rules of inheritance and property holding changed. The composition of households changed drastically with conversion of . . . traditional family-sized farms to feudal estates.” Then or now?

The introduction and conclusion (and notes) are engaging and thought-provoking. The middle, however, doesn’t mesh with them or contribute much to applying the lessons of the Dark Ages. In it, Jacobs examines five aspects of modern society.

These “five societal pillars,” crucial to culture and insidiously decaying, are: Community and Family; Higher Education; Science and Technology; Governmental Representation; and Self-Regulation of Learned Professions. True to form, Jacobs’s elaborate matrix includes all manner of things: the war on terror, Christopher Alexander, several manifestations of the car culture she has been a critic of for decades, Thomas Kuhn, taxes. But, as the good guys fretted in the movie, there’s a sense of déjà vu – a glitch in the matrix. Call them what you will, the pillars seem awfully familiar. Bonus Zen lesson in classical architecture: the spaces between are as important as the pillars. In the architecture of Dark Age Ahead, the gaps are too large and irregular, and the resulting structure is unwieldy.

Worse, to follow the metaphor back to Jacobs’s argument, industry and technology have undermined the foundation.

Like many – well, some – before her, Jacobs says that agrarianism is dead. “Our predicament -- the shift to postagrarianism – is so jolting that if our culture and our contemporaries’ pull through more or less intact, we will all deserve posterity’s gratitude.” Now we’re getting somewhere. “Radical change, comparable in its import to the introduction of agriculture, has been accruing… Now it is the turn of agrarianism to become a cultural loser… The need to eat no longer dictates that most people, or even a high proportion in the West, must live on the land or otherwise work directly with plant and animal production.” This is a striking statement, and surely correct.

Agrarianism is all we have known for 11,000 years. Everything – organized religion, politics, economics, science -- came out of the conquest of farming over foraging. (Here I feel compelled to direct the reader to Richard Manning’s book Against the Grain.) Jacobs considers this, bringing familiar writers like Wendell Berry and Brian Donahue into her discussion, but only briefly and not until the notes at the very end. Too bad, for under the lenses of a cultural Argus such as Jacobs this alone could make for a fascinating and important book.

She concludes by urging us to hang tenaciously on to those values responsible for our success. But aren’t these agrarian values, and therefore now defunct? In the final paragraph she borrows from Abraham Lincoln, dedicating a cemetery in the midst of a brutal civil war. While one can hardly argue with the hope that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth, it’s an odd finale to a largely apolitical book. Perhaps there’s a larger lesson here, when even Jane Jacobs has a hard time navigating what she calls the conundrums of our times.

© Jake Vail 2004. Jake Vail is a reference librarian, arborist, and member of The Land Institute’s Prairie Writer’s Circle. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.