The main crux of the argument that Ms. Jacobs puts forward is that North American society is heading for a Dark Age, because of the decline of certain pillars of our civilization. And she points out that a Dark Age occurs when a civilization no longer even knows what it's lost. The people assume that they live at the pinnacle of their nation's glory while it's crumbling underneath them.
So what are these pillars? She outlines five, the crumbling of each which has led to a whole host of other problems we regard as the normal state of affairs.
- Community and Family
- Higher education
- The effective practice of science and since-based technology
- Taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
- Self-policing by the learned professions
So what IS going wrong with Community and Family? Well, basically our society is set up currently to make sure they are very difficult to keep together. Jacobs cites two main ways our communities are rigged to fail, and the first is the fantastic cost of shelter.
The family, after all, is the smallest unit of a community, and to keep that community housed we almost have to never be in the house. When a family spends over 30% of their income on shelter costs, it is regarded as unaffordable. Contrast that with the common budgeting advice that 50% of your income goes to housing.
So to keep the house over the family's head, wage earners within the house are told they must work more hours at a high paying job. (We also have a cultural belief that the only real reason someone wouldn't work outside the house is because they're lazy, but that's another topic.) This both means that people don't have the energy for activities in the larger community-- which is bad for the continued existence of the larger community as a functioning thing-- and puts a great deal of strain on the family as a unit. If you're only home long enough to watch tv, sleep and possibly entertain, what is that going to do to your relationship? According to the 2001 Canadian Census, 23% of people ever married had that marriage end in divorce at the time of the census. And of the people married within the ten years before the report, that number jumped to almost a 40% fail rate.
Related facts? Possibly.
So to deal with the cost of renting (never mind buying a house) people can either work more hours, with all the risks that entails, or push their expenses off into debt. We do live in a consumerist society, where to not-purchase is to be anti-social or a failure, after all. Debt isn't something she specifically touched on in the book, but I think it's something that is also setting up our culture to be in deep, deep trouble.
Jacobs does points out that we are also dissolving our communities with the way our transportation is set up. Our suburbs encourage long commutes to work, because a.) god forbid you should live near where you work, and b.) all those green lawns take up a lot of space. This could be partly avoided if people used public transit instead of travelling along super-congested super-freeways, but using public transportation is both an admission of failure to consume-- (Translation: you are anti-social and/or a failure, see above)-- and just not seen as a viable choice.
Jacobs points out that public transit-- as competition for major automobile companies-- has been the target of systematic attacks by those companies. General Motors spent the 1920s though the 1950s buying up electric trolley lines and replacing them with expensive and inefficient bus lines. And then once that had been completed, the car manufacturers had to move to vilifying busses in the public consciousness so that every family would need a car. (Then they moved to promoting the essential right of every person to own a car, so that a family will have two to four vehicles. Perhaps next we'll be sold multiple cars, one for work and one for off-roading? Oh wait, that's already happening.)
So where are we now? North Americans now spend so much time on their long commutes, after working more hours per year than the Japanese, (and that's saying something), that driving fatigued is running neck and neck with drunk driving as the source of traffic fatalities. Enrolment in community activities (including voting, which has FAR-REACHING repercussions) is falling like a stone, and average household debt (Which at the time of the Great Depression was at 30% or so of household income), exceeds 100% of yearly income.
And we all think this is perfectly normal.
Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs.
Vintage Canada 2005