Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs

Random House Canada, 241 pp, $29.95, hardcover.

If the moment has come to announce the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, let us be thankful the job has fallen to someone as clear-eyed and compassionate as legendary urban critic Jane Jacobs. Erudite, imaginative, and meticulous, Jacobs marshals convincing arguments to support her assertion that the End Times--well, a version of the End Times; end times with a lowercase "e" and "t"--are upon us.

What Jacobs fears concretely is not a sky raining fire but likely and disastrous consequences to our own actions and self-interests. As with the last days of the Roman empire, our culture (by which Jacobs means principally North America's, and, to a degree, Western Europe's) is on the brink of dissolution. Nor is that Dark Age, which set Europe back for centuries, the only precedent that should alarm us. Jacobs points to the many civilizations around the world that have disappeared so completely that even what has been lost is lost: North America's many indigenous cultures; the preí‚ ­Celt Britons; the Paleolithic artists of Lascaux. The cultural amnesia that has erased their very existence is, Jacobs argues, the Fifth Horseman, whom we can call Forgetfulness.

The bulwark against Forgetfulness, Pestilence, and the rest is a people integrated into its culture; it is here that Jacobs despairs for us. Dark Age Ahead describes five pillars of western civilization--community and family, higher education, science and technology, accountable government, and self-policing professions--whose collapse is leading us to extinction, unless they can be shored up: "A culture is unsalvageable if stabilizing forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant. This is what I fear for our own culture, and why I have written this cautionary book in hopeful expectation that time remains for corrective actions."

Dark Age is a brief book, a heartfelt and urgent distress signal. It is also a lens through which we can perceive our world in a new and sad-hopeful way; it affords us glimpses of a livable future we must struggle toward with all the reason and ingenuity and brimful optimism we can muster.

John Burns is coauthor of The Urban Picnic (Arsenal Pulp Press, $24.95).