The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Book Review of “Dark Age Ahead,” by Jane Jacobs

This isn’t the best book by Jacobs, the famous theorist of city planning, economies, and morals, but on re-reading it for the first time since it was published, I thought it made points worth sharing.

Jacobs defines a “Dark Age” primarily as a great forgetting: Society loses the skills and culture known to one’s forbears in a widespread way.

She follows Henri Pirenne in naming the key point where Europe’s decline turns into a Dark Age as being when Mediterranean trade ended with the Muslim conquests–but the forgetting had been going on for years. Roman craftsmen in the 3rd century could not make items that their forebears could make in 0 AD, and by the fifth century, cities and culture were in noticeable decline under an autocratic state which allowed very little economic freedom. This state, with its remains of a much higher Roman and Greek culture, impressed the barbarians on its borders greatly, but it was a shell of what it had once been.

Once the Dark Ages descended in full, well, things got ugly. There was the loss of the three-field system, the loss of a skill as simple as bread-making (so much so that the staple food around Paris in 1000 AD was gruel), and the loss of most iron-making abilities, so that people were plowing with wooden plows. Archaeologists say the bones of French peasants show that they ate grass–which even showed up in their teeth, so they must have eaten rather a lot.

That’s a Dark Age.

Jacobs had recently read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which is about why some areas do well, and others don’t. The answer basically comes down to: “Those that start with the most just keep winning.” Jacobs noted that Diamond didn’t explain why such regions sometimes stop winning, such as the Fertile Crescent (the core of civilization for almost 8,000 years) and sets out to provide her own answer.  (Diamond later wrote his answer, which came down to (and I agree, in part, nor is he the first to make the point): “Advanced regions stop winning when elites are insulated from the effects of their actions.”)

I think that Jacobs’ answer, which she is not the first to give, is somewhat more interesting, however, if perhaps less fundamental.

Jacobs, as the book title suggests, saw signs that we in the West were moving towards a Dark Age. This was due to forgetting–not being able to do what we had done in the past. In this case, it is not about losing technical skills (yet), but in losing certain scientific skills and in not understanding how it is that our economies actually produced the civilization in which we live and thus being unable to do what our predecessors had done.

Jacobs hits five points as examples, starting with families. She notes that the median family can no longer afford the median house in most of North America; that the decline of community and extended family means that child-rearing has fallen far more on fathers and mothers than in the past; while median wage stagnation combined with fixed costs rising has meant people need to work more. These are all conditions that push the family towards failure, and indeed, that can be seen in the very high divorce rates.

As anyone who has read her knows, Jacobs thinks suburbs are very unhealthy: They don’t create community (no walking, no street life), and they don’t foster real economic growth due to zoning regulations. The large is often the child of the small, and we have deliberately pushed people into neighbourhoods which, by design, cannot be communities. There are other causes of the decline of community and family, and many are deliberate policy choices, like making housing prices rise faster than wages (this is policy, and has been since, at the latest, 1983).

Because society is made up of families, and families are the most responsible for the important work of raising the next generation, the failure of families indicates a deep malaise in society. Note that at the same time as families are under stress, alternatives like schools and community groups and libraries are also in decline; as parents need more help, less help is available.

Jacobs second point is that education at the post-secondary level is no longer education, it is credentialing. I shan’t go into that at great length, but it’s worth reading, because Jacobs was alive during the Great Depression, and personally remembered the GI boom, and so on. She was there when universities became credentialing institutions and not educational facilities, that is, places where you get a piece of paper that lets you apply for a job rather than an actual education. On a personal note, I have never found that in any social science, except perhaps political science (which I do not find useful), that I do not know more than almost any person with a B.A. in the subject. They’ve had four years of specialized instruction, and they know less than an autodidact.

Jacobs’ third point is about science. She starts with a review of the basic theory of science (testing hypotheses), and the work of Thomas Kuhn on how paradigms guide science and are overthrown. She then eviscerates traffic engineers (this is an old Jeremiad of hers, starting with The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961). Their fluid dynamics model of how traffic should operate (constrict it one place, it goes somewhere else) is not supported by the data, which shows that if you constrict traffic in one place, it often just disappears. She goes on into much technical detail about proper street use, but her point is simple: What traffic engineers say works, doesn’t work if you actually look at the data. That they don’t recognize this indicates bad science.

She then looks at the Chicago heat wave of 1995. 739 people more died that week than during an ordinary week, mostly old people. The Center for Disease Control sent in a team of 80 researchers, and they did a huge study which came to the conclusion that they had died because they ran out of water, didn’t have air conditioning, didn’t go somewhere that did, and weren’t checked in on.

As Jacobs points out, that’s what everyone already knew. Not useful.

Meanwhile, a single sociology student noticed something interesting. Death rates in certain parts of the city were much higher than others. Turns out that people who lived in low-density, low-income neighbourhoods were less likely to have air conditioning, more likely to lose water pressure because of kids opening hydrants, had fewer stores with air conditioning nearby, and fewer friends–especially local friends. They didn’t answer the door when checked on, and didn’t want to leave their homes, because they were scared of crime.

The CDC had not looked for what tied the people together as a group. Instead of looking individual characteristics, the CDC should have been noting where they lived, and to a large extent, their socioeconomic status.

Since the goal of the study was to figure out what to do next time, the second set of data was far more useful than the first.

The last part of this chapter is taken up with noting that economists don’t really understand what causes growth (creation of new work in cities and import replacement splurges in cities) and, as such, were mystified by periods of large growth in Canada which did not accomodate their models (in Vancouver in the early 90s, and Toronto in the 2000s), but I’ll leave that be. (See my review of The Economy of Cities to learn more.) The fact that economists don’t understand economies will surprise no one who remembers that most economists said there was no housing bubble.

Jacobs’ fourth point is about taxation, in particular, that the parts of government which have the ability to tax the most are the farthest removed from the people they serve and the least responsive to people. Our taxation system lacks subsidiarity and fiscal accountability.

Subsidiarity is the principle that government works best–most responsibly and responsively–when it is closest to the people it serves and needs it addresses. Fiscal accountability is the principle that institutions collecting taxes and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing the money.

In other words, the more local the authority, the better it spends its taxes. This is one (only one) of the reasons why city states tend to be successful. People who spew over Singapore make me laugh: Of all the forms of government in the world, running a city state is the easiest as long as one can solve the violence problem (i.e., not getting taken over by someone larger).

Jacobs believes that these issues have been getting worse: More and more spending decisions are made further and further away from local government and those decisions are more and more opaque. She targets property taxes as the basis of city government in particular.

I am in broad agreement with her, actually, and would put primary responsibility for taxes on the local level, with mandated transfers up and out to rural areas, rather than our current system of federal governments doing most of the taxing and then deciding how much money they want to give local areas.

It’s not clear to me how much of this is new, but Jacobs is probably right that it’s getting worse and worse as populations increase. Cities can’t keep up with the taxes they have; federal and state/provincial governments would rather spend the money on items that don’t help the cities, and the next thing you know BART is 40 years old and dying, or Toronto’s subway and transit system can’t keep up with the population either.

Jacobs’ final example is about professional self-policing. She uses the decline of the accounting profession (right after their failure to notice Enron’s problems before it collapsed) as her case example, but arguments could be made for many professions, certainly including the clergy, medicine, and American psychologists. It’s very hard for government to regulate professionals properly, because they don’t understand the profession, so it is ideal for professionals to do it themselves. If they can’t, then the government must, and something important is lost. (Alert readers will notice the relationship to subsidiarity.)

Having tackled these five areas in much more depth than I can cover, Jacobs turns to the question of how to fix these self-reinforcing downward spirals, using as her example housing, which was her first point when dealing with how families are being set up to fail. She runs through the history of how we got into this mess and suggests that with appropriate changes to zoning laws, suburbs can be turned into high-density, productive neighborhoods with solid communities, reducing both the cost of housing and bringing back community.

Jacobs concludes the books with thoughts on the patterns of Dark Ages; how agrarian societies were gutted and lost their culture due to industrialization, how successful societies are in the most danger, because they cling to the ways of their success, and how some societies, like Japan, managed the transition from agrarianism to industrialization, under armed threat, and still maintained their culture and did not fall into a memory hole dark age. I’m not sure she has much in the way of prescription, other than, “Add to what you had,” but perhaps that’s appropriate: Jacobs’ prescription was given in her section on how to turn suburbs into communities and reduce housing prices at the same time, thus aiding the family.

To Jacobs, the small details matter as much as the big, and while every problem is related, each problem needs its own solution. If you want to fix X, you need to really understand the problem. Having spent her life studying cities, housing, and urban economics, Jacobs tackled the problem she knows how to handle and hopes that we can see, in her solution (take the old and turn it into something new, build off what is there) a pattern to use to fix problems in the areas of our own expertise.

As I said at the start, I don’t think this is Jacobs strongest book, and if you’ve read her other works, perhaps a third of it will have you thinking, “Oh, that topic again, my she loves to grind this axe,” but it may be her most timely book, given the times which lay ahead of us. The rest of her work covers principles which should still be useful a thousand years from now, assuming we haven’t become post-human or scavengers in a glowing post-apocalyptic wasteland.

And thinking of a “Dark Ages” as a loss of culture, a loss of learning, technology, and science, focuses our eyes on what we are losing as we move forward and what we might not be able to regain (for example, through offshoring manufacturing, we lose culture and know-how that will be extremely difficult to restore).

Worth your time if the topic interests you.

(I will review one more of Jacobs books, Cities and the Wealth of Nations.)

Note on the book review series. During last year’s fundraiser, I promised 20 book reviews. Clearly, not all will be done this year, but all will be done. The “Construction of Reality” e-book is two-thirds complete (of the text that will not be substantially revised) and that will be released as well.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.




Merry Christmas


On Trump’s Reaction to Putin Not Expelling US Diplomats


  1. Michael Berger

    With the caveat that I’m basing this on your review Ian, and a more than two decade-long space between this comment and reading the second author I refer to…

    I get the sense Jacobs is detailing the micro, to Toynbee’s macro, causes of decline in civilizations. Definitely, at some point, I’m going to have reread the latter; and get a hold of some of the former’s work.

  2. V. Arnold

    And thinking of dark ages as a loss of culture; a loss of learning and technology and science, focuses our eyes on what we are losing as we move forward and what we might not be able to regain (for example, in offshoring manufacturing, we lose culture and know-how that will be extremely difficult to restore.)

    Yes, and us old farts who have the skills in our memories are aging and with each death is a valuable loss forever.
    Oh sure, there will always be smart people who can figure things out; but what a waste of time re-inventing the wheel.
    You say moving forward; I say no, not forward, just a different direction.
    In that way, I see “us” stuck, moving in circles. I may also agree there is a certain truth to the adage; if one isn’t moving forward, that one is losing ground…

  3. V. Arnold

    Further musings from the Hermitage;
    I do not agree that moving forward is a linear concept; but rather improvements to an existing environment, home, or even an economic system; as long as it’s beneficial and not predatory or exploitative.
    We have long lost the concept of abiding and therein lies our demise…

  4. Tom

    Well Erdogan and Putin just agreed to essentially partition Syria. Their ceasefire excludes IS, JFS, and SDF terrorists and already the Idlib FSA is fracturing between those who want JFS gone and those who want JFS to remain.

    The deal is simple, both sides keep their gains, FSA comes under full Turkish Control so JFS can be ejected and the various FSA Groups merged.

    Putin in turn will bitchslap Iran and Assad in line, provided air support to Euphrates Shield against both IS and SDF (already being done), SDF will be evicted from Aleppo City (their deadline to leave expires on the 1st of January and Hezbollah is preparing to storm their positions if they don’t vacate the city), and operations will commence to remove IS and SDF from Syria alongside JFS while a unity government is negotiated. All Starvation Sieges will end.

    Trump is welcome to come to Astana and negotiate as well once he takes Office.

    Deal goes into effect in several hours.

    Lets see if it holds.

  5. V. Arnold


    Off topic 100%
    Take your bullshit elsewhere.
    You are a genuine jerk!!!

  6. Bibi

    Seriously? All of this hullabaloo about the U.N. resolution and this is your next blog post? How can you ignore the issue? Perhaps, because it reveals your contradictions related to Trump? Those who try to normalize & rationalize Trump are burying themselves in one contradiction after another. It’s like a slow-motion stoning — the real kind of stoning where your accusers place one stone after another upon you until you suffocate beneath the weight of it, except in this case, your suffocation means you simply have no remaining credibility.

  7. permaculture
    Non-OECD economies are finally ready to pick up speed and that cheap energy, from all sources, stands ready to fund better global growth Michigan Urban Farming Initiative
    Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) exists to promote a food sovereign city where the majority of fruits and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city’s limits.

    Tom – Pepe Escobar and elsewhere – a good source

  8. Synoia

    She runs thru the history of how we got into this mess and suggests that with appropriate changes to zoning laws, suburbs can be turned into high density productive housing with good communities, reducing both the cost of housing and bringing community back.

    Has she tried this? The current owners of the suburban dream like their dream, and will not sell at enough discount to replace all the housing with anything close to affordable.

    Santa Ana, C (Orange County) where I live did some of this downtown. Downtown is now very expensive.

  9. dude

    Thank you Ian for the Jane Jacobs review. Looking forward to your review of “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, one I have not yet read.

    Her books do repeat her critique (of city planners, of traffic engineers, and all the Radiant City dreaming embedded in public policy), but for a nation of forgetters this is entirely appropriate. I seriously doubt if the average reader reads more than one of her works, so each book is well-served by reasserting her premises.

  10. Josh


    In defense of Jacobs…All of orange county is very expensive, but much of the housing surrounding downtown Santa Ana (with a few exceptions) is still one or two story ranch style homes, not the 5 story apartment buildings Jacobs promoted.

    If you only follow her prescriptions in a few areas, those areas tend to become very popular, and consequently more expensive (see also downtown Fullerton). Trying to create these sorts of neighborhoods throughout the entire city might do something to alleviate the housing crunch.

    (It’s also probably worth noting that DTSA is one of the more popular spots in orange county now – people want to be there. The city should be making a lot of money off that, if they did their jobs right.)

  11. brian

    I would be interested in you reviewing the `Debt: The First 5,000 Years` by David Graeber. Pretty good economics book.

  12. Rd

    “Jacobs defines a dark age primarily as a great forgetting: losing skills and culture known to one’s forbears in such a widespread way.”

    When the last man who saw the horrors of the last war dies, the next war begins. The islamic civilization too fell sleep behind the wheel some 1300 years ago same as others. And they have been paying for it. Now they are finally waking up in the of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


    Your “observation” is a reflection of some alternate reality promoted by fox and corp media. Iran has been the one and only sane voice from the very beginning promoting the notion that the ONLY solution to the Syrian crises is a political settlement between the SAR and the opposition. Recognizing the outsiders (west along with their saudi royal disease) is the main promoter and beneficiary of ME conflicts. Russia’s involvement (and Turkey’s too) is due to Iran’s lobby to identify all regional players have a stake in stabilizing the region and cutting the hand of the outsiders who have been creating chaos in order to keep the region under domination. This wasn’t meant to replace one over lord with another. Only in the west they see things in black and white. Hence one of the reason for continued decline and defeat.

  13. V. Arnold — as always, great comments.

    There’s a great conversation on “progress” between Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Tompkins near the end of the film “180° South.” In it Tompkins notes:

    “What happens if you get to the cliff, and you take one step forward? Or you do a 180-degree turn, and take one step forward? Which is progress?”

    Thank you, Douglas Tompkins (1943 – 2015)

  14. Peter


    I’m glad someone else noticed this Jacob’s Stalinists manifesto is uninformed rubbish. It seems to be based on the fable created by the ‘single sociology student’ who believes that low density housing areas are the centers of crime, low water pressure and elder neglect which is more rubbish. I’m still trying to understand why any sane person would believe that high density rental housing, already proven to be a generator of crime, would somehow magically become ‘productive housing’ whatever that means.

    The idea that suburbs with low crime, green lawns and trees, low traffic, low pollution and an ownership community are somehow unhealthy is Dark Age thinking. The idea that turning them into a high density rental warehouse culture will improve their health is just nuts.

    Suburban culture has its own problems such as the commuter culture but it offered a rapidly growing and more affluent population an escape from the downward spiral of the inner-cities at least until recently.

  15. gnokgnoh

    You’re vision of crime in dense, urban rental housing is a description from more than fifty years ago. It is incredibly dated and reflects Corbusian high-rise rental units in segregated zoning, especially for low-income tenants, without access to the places and spaces that Jacobs is advocating.

    What you are advocating is sprawl, which does not work for many reasons, all of which are empirical. If your only measure of whether suburban sprawl works is economic, more power to you, but ultimately it is not a sustainable model for economic reasons, too. Jacobs is making an argument against a purely economic model.

    Further, there are many models of density that are not just densely urban, but a five-story version embraces American models of town planning across a wide spectrum. Calling Jacobs arguments Stalinist is ridiculous. This is not a binary argument.

  16. Pelham

    Related to the remoteness of the most powerful taxing authorities from the people they tax, how about the remoteness of pricing authorities from the people who produce?

    If you think of red states as the places that primarily produce added value from mining, agriculture and manufacturing, where does the pricing of these products occur? In the blue states, where corporate headquarters, the financial industry and various markets are located. And in their own interest (as in the splurge in offshoring jobs and importing cheaper goods), the urban-dominated blue areas tend to price red-state products below their real value.

    Thus, for instance, we have the puzzling phenomenon of the red states being net recipients of federal spending but voting against more federal spending. But this arises from a misdirected hostility generated by the underlying fact that red state products are underpriced by blue-state decision-makers, making life and survival in the red regions precarious and miserable (hence the necessity of family farmers having to hold down jobs in town while also farming just to make a bare-bones living).

  17. XFR

    It always seemed strange to me that the common wisdom attributes the Dark Ages to the fall of the Roman Empire. Especially considering Rome’s Empire didn’t actually fall until the eve of the Renaissance–in other words, the Dark Ages ended with the fall of the Roman Empire. The Western half fell in the 5th century, the half that consisted of Italy, Phonecia, a handful of Greek colonies, and a bunch of hairy knuckle-dragging Bronze Age hicks that the Legions had steamrollered over.

    The Eastern half held essentially all of the cultural legacy of Antiquity, not to mention the bulk of the Empire’s tax base, didn’t fall, and yet strangely somehow there still managed to be Dark Ages. Why does anyone think the Western half continuing on would have made any difference? Did Italy and Phoenicia really have that much more going for them than Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, and a nice chunk of Mesopotamia?

    The Dark Ages seem more like an extended hangover from Roman misrule–though I suppose that characterization would lack appeal for those who would aspire to duplicate Rome’s “achievement”.

  18. Peter


    My view of crime rates is based on the most accurate indicator today and it is still population density. Jakobs is advocating pushing people off their owned homesteads to build this high density Stalin like collective and it would have to be forced. If you build enough five story apartment buildings in a restricted area it’s not much different from one huge warehousing structure unless Jacobs thinks she can build a new race of hive dwellers conditioned for her utopian vision.

    Most of the people who live in these suburbs certainly wouldn’t want this and many of the people who live in the congested inner-cities would probably prefer to stay closer to their support systems, friends and work not join in this culture building pipe-dream. More affluent young people are moving to select urban areas because of the existing culture and are driving gentrification.

    This isn’t a binary argument it is a dead argument because the growth and prosperity that made suburbia possible and necessary has or will soon meet the End of Growth. No new large suburban growth will be necessary and the movement of populations has already begun. Millions of people have left the decaying inner-cities for the nearby suburbs which have suffered declining property values but still offer a better low density lifestyle.

  19. gnokgnoh


    You’re wandering, but let’s take your points, one-by-one.

    I hate to break it to you, but cities (metropolitan areas) have a total 2015 violent and property crime rate in the United States of 2,967 per 100,000 population; and suburbs (cities outside metropolitan areas) have a total crime rate of 3,495 per 100,000 population. Rural areas (non-metropolitan counties) have a crime rate of 1,343 per 100,000. See FBI UCR stats. As important, the crime rate in the United States has been dramatically falling for several decades. Current crime rates in the largest cities are substantially below what they were across the entire country in the 1980’s.

    You wrote, “people who live in the congested inner-cities would probably prefer to stay closer to their support systems, friends and work not join in this culture building pipe-dream.” This is exactly what Jacobs is talking about – building community. You call it “culture building.” It’s not a pipe dream. It is living near support systems, friends, and work. I’m not sure whose argument you are actually making here, or why you think that getting in your car to go anywhere, including driving an hour to work is living close to work or support systems. That’s what you do in the suburbs. In the cities, people like to bicycle or walk to work and the store and other support systems.

    Finally, you made a set of incoherent statements about dead arguments, the End of Growth, the movement of populations, and the end of a need for new suburban growth. It’s hard to respond to the last paragraph, because I’m not sure what you are trying to say.

  20. mudduck

    Peter imagines life in apartment buildings, and he imagines wrong. We live in a six-story apartment block in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens, NYC, with its own identity, like Corona and Woodside on either side. We don’t have to go up and down the street to meet neighbors — we meet them in the elevator and in the laundry room. We take packages for one another. You can live an insulated life in an apartment block, but you don’t have to.

    We have a bus that stops by our front door going and our back door coming. It connects to the subway that takes us anywhere in NYC in about an hour. No need for an automobile and its expenses.

    I lived in a town of about 40,000 in the 1940s — I walked to school and downtown whenever I wanted. Bankers had big houses, but located among ordinary homes. That town torn down main street and built malls on its way to 100,000 population — booming economy but good-bye community.

    I lived in a small Arkansas town where everyone knew one another; an Indiana university town with lots of culture (don’t go outside city limits); an isolated apartment complex in the well-nicknamed Indiananoplace; and individual houses in Jersey City. Our six-story apt block in Jackson Heights is the most sociable place we’ve lived, and offers connections to neighborhood-wide clubs and organizations.

  21. Tom

    @V, Arnold

    We all go a bit off topic. Besides: The English Website of the Russian Military has confirmed it.

    That said:

    I’m reminded of how till Diocletian took over, the Roman Empire was less an Empire and more a Confederacy. The Emperor would set a General Policy and then send it to the Governors who then sent it to the Cities who then chose the best way to implement it. The Government Leaders also fought on the Front Lines, you couldn’t get into the Senate or run for an Office till you did some military service and blooded your sword. Late Roman Administrations did away with that and increasingly more stupid people started getting into the administrations of government without getting Darwinned on the battlefields and then Iron Law of Bureaucracy followed.

  22. tsisageya

    Sure, let’s be obscure and irrevelant. Great idea. Who cares?

    I don’t like you guys anymore. What, is this supposed to mean something?

    I guess I’m just not very intellectual.

  23. Ian Welsh

    Well, a lot of missing the point, someone screaming “why aren’t you writing about my topic!!!”, and a couple people grinding their axes. Gnokgnoh, thanks for dealing with the basic incorrectness and misapprehension.

    Suburbs, as essentially pure consumption, are luxury goods. Like a lot of luxury goods they are not healthy, and they also aren’t going to turn out to be sustainable. They are a result of deliberate government policy and subsidies, as well. All of that, however, is largely irrelevant to the post and book in question, given it’s only one of Jacobs points. However, clearly it triggered someone, which is to be expected, suburbs are a deeply emotional issue, as well, because suburbs are how a chunk of Americans define “the good life”. (Also, notice no dealing with Jacobs point that housing prices are too high.)

    The larger points of the book and essay were dealt with by almost no one.

    I actually agree that Roman misrule was a huge problem, but, again, the actual collapse doesn’t seem to occur till the Mediterranean trade is cut off AND the tribes who invaded Europe seem to have lost a lot of their culture and tech as well, in their huge migrations. They invaded to get the “superior” Roman culture, found it hollow, lost what was left when the trade got cut off, and lost their own culture, and the people who stayed home did pretty badly too.

  24. Elliott

    so dham true, Ian:
    “Jacobs second point is that education at the post-secondary level is no longer education, it is credentialing. I shan’t go into that at great length, but it’s worth reading, because Jacobs was alive in the Great Depression, and personally remembered the GI boom and so on.”

  25. MojaveWolf

    Still haven’t read Jacobs but as always the review makes me want to. Happy to see the Jared Diamond reference–if I did my own “nonfiction books everyone would do well to read” list, “Guns, Germs & Steel” and “Collapse” would both be on it.

    I apologize for not discussing the points of the book itself in depth; doesn’t mean I’m not appreciative of or thinking on it–it’s a fascinating review–but some of this my thoughts would take a bit to sort themselves out and some of it would just be me talking out of my ass (I’m not qualified to argue traffic design or urban planning off the top of my head, for example, all I can do is make note of what you & she said to file away for future reference)

    I certainly agree we put waaaaay too much value in credentials as opposed to qualifications and confuse the two–this is not a new thing; I thought this myself growing up and can think of examples. But . . . at least when I was in school, (and I think I’m about your age?) while the credential was important and the educational system was flawed in many ways, you could get an excellent education and it would have actually been hard to pass without learning *something* worthwhile. Also, the whole “liberal arts is as much about teaching you to *think* as much as accumulating knowledge” bit was valued and important back then, and you could take a liberal arts degree and turn it into pretty much whatever you wanted. The fact that this is seemingly impossible nowadays has more to do w/employer requirements than whether the education is any good (I obviously haven’t been in school for a while and can’t speak to post-2000 academia, tho from what I can see I would not want to send my kid to most schools nowadays, and I’m thankful we don’t have any). I have literally seen want ads requiring experience for cotton candy machine operators. I remember retweeting an ad the other day for a job requiring a master’s degree and years of experience for a job that paid 9.25 an hour, part time iirc, that sounded like basic clerical work. Am not sure how that relates to the topics of the book but I’m pretty sure it relates to the decline of our society.

    Okay, actually, I *can* see how that relates to “not understanding how it is that our economies actually produced the civilization we live in and thus being unable to do what our predecessors had done.” People apparently don’t value actual thought, or the ability to think on your feet and learn, very much any more. They want pre-programmed automatons. Sort of like the new (and wonderful!) Westworld series in reverse–instead of beings w/limited sentience striving toward full autonomy and freedom, we’re trying to force people into preset loops. Which is also not exactly what it sounds like she or you were getting at, (but does mirror conversations I used to have with a long deceased best friend way back in the 90’s–very bright guy, very talented drummer, much more resistant to social pressures than me growing up, but also had real trouble w/the modern workplace–we both thought people wanted automatons in the workplace; both hated making the effort to fit in; I was able to do this better than him; he either died of heart failure (official cause) or accidental overdose (the rumor) or intentional overdose (something I wondered about; I had long since moved away and not exactly something I could ask his parents about) in his early 30’s; I missed seeing him the last time I visited home before he died and still feel guilty about this; had forgotten those conversations, it’s a good memory).

    Re: a coming dark age in general: if it happens, I think one of the things modern society tends to do–not a liberal or conservative issue, tho each do this more problematically–is try to force facts to conform to what they think they should be, rather than go, “here are the facts, what do we do about them?” I’m not a be-like-water, path-of-least-resistance person, and I’m all for trying to create a better reality, and impose justice on a world lacking in it, and all that, but even if you want to tilt at windmills it helps to know where and what the windmills are, and whether your lance is really a lance and not piece of string, and so forth.

  26. Peter


    People who are somewhat affluent live very good lives in big cities but you can still get mugged by those who don’t live as well as you. That is not the point of my reply to Synoia I was addressing the plan for a new high density environment transplanted onto the suburbs by Jackobs.

    This was a three part sales pitch starting with a fable about the dangerous even deadly plight of old folks living in low density housing inside the city. That was followed with the judgmental proclamation that the suburbs were Unhealthy, please call the CDC.

    The final solution to this danger and disease is to bulldoze the single family homes in the suburbs to make way for the healthy and safe high density housing.

    I suppose this scheme could work if those who are allowed to densely populate these environs are carefully chosen from affluent stock possibly with a few token lower class examples for diversity. This could be accomplished without breaking laws by keeping the rents high.

    I wonder if you would want to move from your great sounding location to somewhere miles from your favorite restaurants and entertainment to help make this strange vision a reality. Perhaps they could start with Levittown.

  27. gnokgnoh

    I enjoyed most of Kunstler’s early works, including the Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. They closely aligned with New Urbanism and the philosophies of Duany and Plater-Zyberg. Their book, Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, is directly related to Jacob’s idea that cultures have strong central themes. Her thesis is that the American Dream, post WWII is based on the primacy of jobs. That is different from the New Urbanists, but overlaps.

    Jacob’s book seems, so far, to be much broader, but still very much rooted in physical place and their meaning, even when talking about economics. This shows up in her analysis of families and the loss of community, in addition to the high cost of housing and transportation (destroying the tram systems); less so in education as credentialing; but very much, again, in her examples about the degradation of science. I’m only halfway through it. Your article compelled me to download and read it this evening…

    Her loathing of traffic engineers is well-shared by most urban planners. Up until about 15 years ago, few outdoor cafes were permitted in Philadelphia, because traffic engineers feared that pedestrians would wander into the streets to get around the tables and chaos would ensue. It was a zoning law. Since they rescinded the law, cafes have turned up everywhere, with huge success.

    I lived in Jackson Heights for four years…in a six story apartment building. Loved it. Took the 7 train into Grand Central and the IRT eastside (4,5,6) to 14th Street every day.

  28. gnokgnoh

    Whoops, forgot the forward slash close the italics. Sorry.

  29. V. Arnold

    December 29, 2016
    “What happens if you get to the cliff, and you take one step forward? Or you do a 180-degree turn, and take one step forward? Which is progress?”
    Thank you, Douglas Tompkins (1943 – 2015)

    Thanks for your kind words.
    While not familiar with Tomkins; great quote…

  30. Carl

    I think the commentariat needs to become more familiar with the works of Tainter, Greer and Toynbee. Nothing is less interesting than a bunch of folks trying to grasp how collapse happens without having read the seminal works. In my view, Jacobs’ work is chronicling the process of collapse of the US on a community level.

  31. gnokgnoh


    Greer and Jacobs are eerily similar in their descriptions of a coming dark age. Jacobs is describing a culture that is already forgetting. A corollary to this, in Greer’s view, is complexity, and I think Jacob’s would agree. Her description of the highway access to downtown Toronto is an illustration of this phenomenon.

    Complexity distances us from the source and means of production. It’s a very good analogy to Ian’s views on governance and taxation. Keep it close and accountable. Complexity is fragile, and few have any grasp about how to put the pieces back together, when it fails. The Internet is incredibly complex, so much so, that it cannot any longer be mapped. But, conversely, that complexity is actually what makes it resilient…it’s redundancy and network. Stated another way, it does not have as much central control. Of course, China and Iran and Abu Dhabi understand how to control the Internet…somewhat effectively. In Abu Dhabi, everyone, including all the GCC Arabs, used VPNs to get around the censors. Still, if the government wanted to shut it down, it would have been very simple.

    Back to forgetting. I really like Jacob’s, “we don’t even know what it is we have forgotten.” It’s quite ominous.

  32. Yes, she capturing the community level – but the is where we live.

  33. Ann Thomsen

    I’m tired of tiptoeing in bunny slippers around demographic differences in IQ. The author laments open fire hydrants and the elderly confined to their homes in low intelligence, high crime neighborhoods.

    A population with a mean IQ below 90 is incapable of self governance – yet we continue to foster the belief that if white families were just forced to live among blacks and hispanics, there is some net gain for society.

    Horse puckey. Black, Latino and increasing Muslim populations with IQ’s below 100 will remain violent, resentful and problematic because there isn’t an honest discussion of the limits to their ability to defer gratification, suppress harmful urges, resolve conflict without violence and limit their breeding to numbers they can support.

    If this is institutional racism – so be it. The facts are the facts and there is no way for this country to advance when we are in denial over the demographic changes that make a Dark Age inevitable.

    SAVE THE CHILDREN? — destroy the planet for everybody and every thing.

  34. gnokgnoh


    You are an awful human being. Go away.

  35. XFR


    At the time, 2001-2003 seemed like a huge watershed in moving from competitive capitalism to a startlingly more closed corporatist/crony capitalist model–the change was palpable then, even on a timeframe of months. The concurrent shift to “managed democracy” across the entire West was part-and-parcel of that.

    It’s an interlocking system, by necessity–the credentialing mafias couldn’t operate if the corporations didn’t play along with them, they in turn wouldn’t be able to get away with that without out-of-control IP laws, the end of antitrust enforcement, consolidation of ownership, dissolution of controls on capital movement and the annexation of competing local capitalisms, etc.

    I recently looked through the selection on offer at a university bookstore–ugh. Much of what was being passed as reference material was dumbed-down below the level I’d have expected of a high-school text 30 years ago. The thought that millions of people are being effectively forced to put themselves into debt peonage simply for the privilege of being subjected to that tripe is just plain horrible.

    (Hell, the “progressive” free dailies here sporadically run snickering profiles of women who’ve had to resort to prostitution to cover their tuition fees. Where’s a giant meteor when you want one?)

  36. Cripes

    Ann Thomsen:

    25% of US Christians have a bachelors degree or above
    40% of US Muslims
    48% of US Buddhists
    60% of US Jews
    77% of US Hindus

    Kind of blows a hole in your “IQ” theory
    Wonder what your “IQ” is?
    You’re full of shit either way.

  37. different clue

    I haven’t read any Jane Jacobs and I have just barely skimmed a little Lewis Mumford here and there. Based on that thinnest of exposures, my intuition suggests to me that Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs may have overlapped some in their awareness and writing. People who know more can laugh at me if they feel I need it.

  38. all_about_asset_stripping

    «She notes that the median family can no longer afford the media house in most of North America; that the decline of community and extended family means that child-rearing has fallen far more on fathers and mothers than in the past; while median wage stagnation combined with fixed costs rising has meant they need to work more. These are all conditions that push the family towards failure,» «As anyone who has read her knows, Jacobs thinks suburbs are very unhealthy: they don’t create community (no walking, no street life) and they don’t foster real economic growth due to zoning regulations. The large is often the child of the small, and we have deliberately pushed people into neighbourhoods which, by design, cannot be communities. There are other causes of the decline of community and family, and many are deliberate policy choices,»

    The deliberate policy goal is to turn middle and lower class people into pure consumer units on one side and labor units on the other… Anti-union and anti-strike consultants have discovered long ago that isolated consumption and production units don’t do setup unions and strike, as to do strikes you need families able to support striking members, for example a wife or parents able to help with their pensions or temporary work.

    Also “neighbourhoods” have been designed for decades as products, targeted at specific social classes, with zoning restrictions and other rules to ensure that different classes don’t mix in the same neighbourhood. A policy of extreme class-based “apartheid” enthusiastically supported by middle class residents who don’t want “those people” moving in and depressing house valuations, and who don’t realize that upper class people have the same attitude to them.

    «and indeed, that can be seen in the very high divorce rates.»

    The high divorce rates a consequence of “second wave” feminism which was designed by corporate interests to run women into isolated consumption and labor units instead of investors in their husbands and sons. Also facilitated by very high and increasing property prices.

    «like making housing prices rise faster than wages (this is policy, and has been since at the latest, 83.)»

    The older affluent middle and upper-middle classes, for example divorced women, have discovered that they can redistribute a lot of wealth from the lower classes thanks to rising property prices, and they can cash in that wealth easily with home-equity extraction via debt.

    «Since society is made up of families, and families are most responsible for the important work of raising the next generation,»

    Families from a neoliberal point of view are grit in the machine of profit maximization, and women don’t need to invest in «the important work of raising the next generation» if they get big property capital gains and pensions instead of husbands and sons. This will backfire spectacularly, because neoliberalism and related “ism”s is from an overall point of view a disease that makes affected women (voluntarily…) sterile, and women who are immune to it are outbreeding the neoliberal ones.

    In the end it is all about asset stripping by the upper classes, with the upper-middle and middle classes complicit. My guess is that the upper classes have started applyiong the Bain CG matrix to countries and regions of countries, and some USA regions hav been classified as “cash cow” and most as in the “dog” category.

  39. nihil obstet


    Gee, you mean the most notable component of the problem is women having access to adequate resources? They were all just so happy when they “invested” in the work of serving men and children and lived in poverty after divorce. Patriarchy lives!

  40. Hvd


    I would agree with asset stripping’s analysis of the problem but would not take it as prescriptive. In other words although women’s entry into the wage slave workforce has left us without a suitable way to raise our families it doesn’t mean that we should return to a world where women don’t have that (being a wage slave) option. It simply means we have to find other, suitable solutions. Saying that women have traded one master for the same master their husbands served doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t be free to do so. The problem is that every solution causes new problems. Refusing to see the new problems leaves us as stuck as we were with the old ones.

  41. nihil obstet


    The issue of how to get done the social and emotional work that is not profitable to employers in a wage society is as old as the wage society itself. Marx addresses it. Certainly the feminists made it a major issue. Even more ancient is the issue of the immiseration of women and children who do not serve the interests of a man — the Bible talks about helping the widow and the orphan, and it preceded the wage society.

    To say that either of these issues is a consequence of feminism is indeed prescriptive about what matters. And thinking that income inequality significantly stems from rich divorcees is just looney.

    As long as issues inherent in any social structure are seen as new problems coming from a change in a previous structure that didn’t have those problems, we really are stuck in the old limitations.

  42. Peter


    Perhaps you can explain what is meant by asset stripping, the who, what and how. Living in a high density city there is little if any opportunity to acquire assets for most people. The returning soldiers from WW2 with their GI Bill education and growing families are who led the migration to the suburbs and produced the demand, see Levittown. It was a rental housing project initially but demand for access to assets, home ownership, quickly changed it and all other suburban projects into ownership opportunities.

    Jakob’s drivel about people packed into high density vertical environments with little opportunity to be anything but renters sans assets can somehow create a healthier community than free range asset rich suburbanites is prejudiced at best.

  43. bruce wilder

    I am reading the Jacobs book reviewed now.

    I find myself more and more interested in decline and collapse. I thought Tainter’s critique of Toynbee was on point, but Tainter seemed to make much the same analytical mistake by imbuing “complexity” with too much incoherent meaning.

    Jacobs is better and at least recognizes that there is a methodological problem of sorts in trying to order an explanation for a phenomenon that is occurring on many different and incommensurable levels of the natural as well as political world.

    Ultimately, the problem of decline and collapse will be traceable to drivers that elites do not understand, cannot control or will not take responsibility for managing. Since there is a great deal that societies take no responsibility for or control of in the best of times, this easily becomes an open field for the projection of prejudice.

    The ancient Greeks came out of their Dark Age circa 800 BCE with a remarkably productive agrarian/artisan skill set. They could produce a big agricultural surplus, big enough to support the organization of trading city states. Their population exploded. The Romans of the Punic Wars were a big healthy lot. The surplus must have declined with soil erosion, loss of fertility and so on. That might have been disguised by expansion, during Magna Gracia and the conquests of Alexander and the Romans. Continued extraction of surplus from an agriculture in decline must have strained the health of the population at its peak of numbers and called forth the harsh oppression of the latifundia.

    I have always taken the Plague of Justinian as the marker for the beginning of the Dark Age. That kind of devastating epidemic can only occur in the context of endemic famine. Things must have been almost unimaginably bad at that point on the farm, at the base, with depopulation and marginal productivity yielding no surplus at all.

    A decline in farm surplus is going to drive a decline in trade and urban population. Maybe the Romans could have organized an agricultural revolution if they had thought about it at an elite level.

    The Chinese had insanely productive agriculture. The organizing of large-scale flood control, irrigation and canal projects during an early period when there was plenty to feed the vast armies of workers just magnified the surplus and the discovery of methods of rice cultivation with tremendous yields drove a later wave of urban civilisation. But, China had no enclosure movement. The increase of population on the farm eventually choked off the surplus for the cities. The growing conservatism of the Ming must have had something to do with the disappearing surplus and the constraints imposed.

    Jacobs talks about technical surprise providing an unexpected out, and favors local government, but I suspect that people only reluctantly organize the larger scale management of affairs and the imposition of constraints from on high. She mentions the Newfoundland fisheries in passing. The fishermen are lousy governors of themselves; it is tricky thing to manage an ecology: how do we invent a politics for that, let alone a science?

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén