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.