Dark Age Ahead – how we lived through the dark ages past Thursday, Jun 22 2006 

Jane Jacobs' last published book, Dark Age Ahead, is not her best book. It shows the signs of having been written to get the ideas captured before the end. She died not long after it was published. So the rigorous editing which was part of her work never quite happened, and she didn't have the time to make her ideas bullet proof. Too many of her underlying premises are open to question, so they undermine the value of her arguments. For example, her more critical self would not have referred to the European Dark Ages, without acknowledging that current thinking suggests that the period so described by post-Renaissance historians was in fact lively, innovative and interesting. The Datini lived in those so-called Dark Ages, and it's true they had to face wars and pandemics (nothing new for us there, then). It is because the ways they chose to deal with these issues, and because their states of mind of mind are recognisable that they can still say something interesting to us.

It is sad that the book is not quite finished, because her argument, as usual, is stimulating and important. She issues a warning to those who take complacent comfort in the immutability of the benefits of "the culture conventionally known as the West." We can not only lose the benefits; we can also forget what they were and never recover them again. It is not a case of nostalgia for some good old days. Just as we know that our bodies and minds will carry us through longer and with less pain if, in addition to good genes, we moderate the damage with more vegetables, exercise and meditation, she argues that we need to be alert to the things that we must add to the body cultural if it is not to collapse and decay.

She chooses five pillar that support the cultural system that provides these benefits:

  • The family
  • Education
  • Science
  • Taxation to support the public good
  • Accountability among the powerful elites, i.e. law, medicine, etc.

Let us take the family, which she defines as a biological and economic unit – described as a household. The economic unit is often more adaptable than the biological one. Which is a good thing because our culture expects it to provide nearly everything to ensure that there are generations of wealth makers for the future. It is the household that provides shelter, food and basic nurture. It also educates the young, and in North America drives it to swimming classes, remedial French lessons, and school. More than 80% of its income goes on these expenses. No wonder both parents have to work.

If households can't take care of this, we face enormous problems of providing shelter and, in particular, effective education. The result is a generation of damaged individuals not readily available for earning taxable incomes. Getting the households looked after seems pretty important to the well being of a community.

The Datini were heads of a household that took care of more than 40 people "indoors" and innumerable relatives, friends and friends of friends. The whole ethos of the 14th Century Tuscan merchant class was that the family provided the only legitimate reason for creating wealth. If you had a family you needed money to support it, and you needed the family members to help create the wealth. It was in everyone's interests to provide the best support possible.

Over the next few weeks this blog will be describing that household and its members to you.

War – the old fashioned solution – October, 1397 Tuesday, Jun 20 2006 

Fear agentsIn the March of Folly that is our human engagement in fighting wars, we have rather forgotten the importance of climate. While British troops used to say that a place was "hotter than Basra" – and are no doubt saying so again in a week where daytime temperatures reached 60 degrees C – it is still possible to keep fighting. Logistics teams keep air conditioning operational, and machinery functioning. Although apparently sometimes only just.

600 years ago no commander dreamed of trying to keep an army in the field outside the regular fighting season, mostly spring and summer in Italy. Of course this effectively destroyed growing seasons and exerted huge pressure on the citizens of besieged cities. Nevertheless, when the rainy season hit our Datini in October, they at least could get out to the farms to gather chestnuts and repair walls. Money was flowing again, and merchandise. Thus you could maintain enough economic activity for a war to be sustained. And war was in fact a desirable profession, especially for the younger sons of noble families who would not inherit.

Withdrawing from the field at agreed times not only gives the revenue generating civilian population a chance to regroup. It also gives the power brokers a chance to negotiate a peace or a truce. So, war could seem like reasonable way to get an advantage.

But, in our own time, we commit ourselves to continuous battle with no rules for relief or release. War is an old-fashioned way to solve a problem.