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Dire Predictions


By Jane Jacobs

Random House -- 241pp -- $23.95

In the most famous of humanity's Dark Ages, all of Europe lost contact with its classical past. The Romans' skills in agriculture, mining, and smelting -- in fact, the very civilization they had wrought -- were forgotten. Famine, disease, filth, and ignorance prevailed. Could such a fate overtake North America today?

It might, according to Dark Age Ahead by legendary urbanologist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs sees Americans "rushing headlong" into a period of "mass amnesia" marked by the loss of customs, rituals, and the fabric of culture. Never mind the Internet or even printing -- both provide "a false sense of security" about a culture's permanence. Jacobs insists that values and skills are perpetuated via word of mouth and examples people set -- and that Americans are at risk of failing to transmit civilization to their children.

Jacobs' alarm seems unwarranted by the evidence she sets forth. The U.S.-born but longtime Canada resident focuses on the erosion of five "pillars of culture" in the two countries, foremost among them family and community life. In higher education, she perceives a turning away from learning in favor of credentialism. She bemoans the loss of true scientific inquiry, arguing that scientists fail to ask the right questions and often follow each other's line of research blindly. Out-of-touch governments have stopped funding urban institutions, from mass transit to public health, she says. And professionals, such as accountants, betray the public trust by not policing themselves. But don't despair: Jacobs thinks we can save ourselves if we return to core values.

Jacobs' compendium of societal ills feels either familiar, as in her description of the disintegration of the nuclear family, or heavily overdrawn, as in her discussion of scientific inquiry. Even when you tote up all the problems she cites, it's difficult to see how they could produce a Dark Age. Jacobs, who has written compellingly about cities as engines of innovation and growth, here misses the mark. Her account is quirky and haphazard -- and she rambles self-indulgently. For a thesis so promising, the author offers little that's new or persuasive.

By Karen Pennar

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