In popular imagination, the Dark Ages are a historical pothole, albeit a big one, along Western civilization’s ascending road. The era is the stuff of History Channel episodes and Monty Python skits. (“How do you know he’s a king?” “He doesn’t have shit all over him!”) For author Jane Jacobs, Dark Ages are times when surviving generations don’t even have the opportunity to wonder how their culture could have disappeared so utterly - because the very memory of it has disappeared too.

Jacobs’s 1961 book,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, helped redefine urban planning in Canada and the US. In her latest work, the respected urban theorist and polymath rails against what she sees as signs of serious decline in our culture. The author suggests a Dark Age isn’t a one-shot deal for any given place and time, but rather a strange attractor in the chaos of history. Museums around the world are littered with the fragmentary shards of once-vibrant cultures that for all intents and purposes disappeared off the face of the Earth. Jacobs cites the culture “whose people produced the splendid Lascaux cave paintings some 17,000 years ago, in what is now southwestern France” and the “culture of the builders of ambitious stone and wood henges in western Europe before the Celts arrived with their Iron Age technology and intricately knotted art.”

There are many other examples. For 8,000 years, Mesopotamia led the world in mathematics, medicine and language, but by the birth of Christ, it was just about all over for the cradle of civilization. Chinese commerce and technology dominated half the globe in the 15th century. In less than 100 years, China began its slide into darkness. Anthropologists still debate the reasons for the massive and sudden collapse of the Mayan civilization in the Yucatan peninsula. Closer to home, we have the example of the aboriginal cultures of the Pacific Northwest, many of which were generationally crippled through residential schools, which broke the link between children and elders through elimination of the native tongue.

Jacobs anticipates the reader’s doubt that a culture as massively documented as ours could simply cave and disappear. “We have books, magnificent storehouses of knowledge about our culture; we have pictures, both still and moving, and oceans of other cultural information that every day wash through the Internet, the daily press, scholarly journals, the careful catalogues of museum exhibitions, the reports compiled by government bureaucracies on every subject from judicial decisions to regulations for earthquake-resistant buildings, and, of course, time capsules.”

“Don’t we have it all as well preserved as last season’s peaches which are ready to nourish your descendants if need be?”

Paper burns (Library of Alexandria, anyone?) and electronic records not only require working knowledge of the software, but operating systems to recognize the software, running on hardware the software is compatible with, hooked up to a functioning electrical supply. Even CDs will decay over time. Given a large enough collapse and a few generations, back-engineering our civilization may be a tall order.

Working from the historical record, Jacobs insists that decline can come from many factors acting in tandem, in a negative feedback loop, with human recollection of a civilization swirling down the memory hole, along with mathematical and accounting systems, civil laws, artistic and literary norms, manners, and all the rest, including ephemera in PowerPoint and Excel. “During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.”

In spite of the book’s provocative title, Jacobs does not believe a Dark Age is inevitable for Western civilization. But she feels this can only be accomplished if “five pillars of culture” remain standing. These pillars are increasingly in jeopardy in North America and elsewhere, according to Jacobs:

One: Community and family, levels of culture that are so tightly interconnected they cannot be teased apart without doing damage to both. One of many possible civic responses to the decline of family income, Jacobs says, is greater public transit, freeing up low-income earners from the massive costs associated with owning motor vehicles.

Two: Higher education. The author excoriates modern educational institutions as “credentialing bodies.” These are little more than degree mills, discouraging independent thinking while rewarding students who parrot the received wisdom in any given field. The risks to democracy are obvious.

Three: Science and technology. Jacobs cites a number of cases in which critical thinking has gone missing from empirical research. One is Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, in which hundreds of elderly lost their lives to heat stroke and other temperature-related health problems. A league of government researchers concluded there weren’t enough air conditioners. One sociologist dug deeper, and discovered that the deaths were significantly lower in a neighbouring area with just as many elderly. The difference: in the neighbourhood with less crime, the residents felt safer leaving their apartments, and didn’t cook inside.

Four: Governmental representation. Here she argues for a decentralization of economic decision-making to municipal levels, so urban problems, which differ from city to city, are addressed less by template, and more by efficient allocation to needs. Jacobs dimly regards wholesale privatization as the cannibalization of the public sphere by profit-seeking systems, which she believes, will only erode this pillar further.

Five: Self-policing by the learned professions. The author sees a decline of standards across a broad range of professions, from urban planning to architecture. She cites a three-day seminar at the University of Chicago in the summer of 2002. Three of the most pretentious universities in the US invited executives drawn from the country’s largest multinational corporations, for guidance on accounting malpractice. Those in attendance were told that if they were forced to give a legal deposition in the aftermath of a scandal, they should not volunteer any information. This high-level, officially sanctioned retreat from ethical or professional standards, Jacobs insists, is undermining this essential pillar of community.

Jacobs leaves the reader with the uneasy sense that when one bolt after another shears from the social mainframe, the results may be as shockingly counterintuitive as the implosion of New York’s Twin Towers. “The collapse of one sustaining cultural institution enfeebles others, making it more likely that others will give way. With each collapse, still further ruin becomes more likely, until finally the whole enfeebled, intractable contraption crashes.”

Dark Age Ahead is a sobering read, but not necessarily a fatalistic one. We still have time to reverse these trends, the author says. Still, we have to factor in the resistance from special interests. That is, not the poor, the elderly, the sick, students or labourers, but rather balding guys with bucks. From where this reviewers sits, it looks like the Empire is burning, yet barbarians with briefcases are still partying like it’s 1999.

Geoff Olson