This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
When Jane Jacobs published Dark Age Ahead in 2004, some hostile reviewers called her a Cassandra. They had forgotten the crucial element of Cassandra’s curse: No one believed her, but her prophecies were always true.
Jacobs’ last book is a stark warning not only that civilizations die, but that their hard-earned knowledge can die with them: “Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture.” Think she’s wrong? Read the comments section of your online news or the pronouncements of the aspiring U.S. Republican candidates.
Jacobs isolated five rather surprising “jeopardized” pillars of our culture: community and family; higher education; science and science-based technology; “taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities”; “self-policing by the learned professions.”
You could quibble with some of those choices. She acknowledged even then that the environment, racism and income disparity seemed more urgent. But—in a book dismissed as “extremely sloppy” by the New York Times—Jacobs appears to have had second sight. She predicted the U.S. housing collapse. The world—including urban planners and health-care professionals—has now caught up with her revolt against the automobile. The ever-growing number of childless singles living alone bolsters her worries about the family. Above all, today it seems astonishing that her chapter “Science Abandoned” pre-dated the Harper government.
This may not be Jacobs’ most influential book, but it serves as a timely reminder that even a robust civilization can, without vigilance, vanish into ruins as hauntingly empty as Palmyra and Petra.
Suanne Kelman is professor emerita of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. She is the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life (1998).