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The Nature of Economies Paperback – March 13, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Over the past 40 years, Jane Jacobs has produced an acclaimed series of analytical essays that examine the development of complex human systems and environments in a manner that's as literary as it is visionary. Her latest, The Nature of Economies, continues this artistic and provocative tradition by dissecting relationships between economics and ecology through a multilayered discourse around the fundamental premise that "human beings exist wholly within nature as part of a natural order." In a style reminiscent of the cinematic My Dinner with Andre, Jacobs gives us a captivating ongoing conversation between five contemporary New Yorkers who sip coffee and voice accepted, fact-based theories along with subjective but solid opinions regarding the way our society's fractal-like development is actually dependent upon "the same universal principles that the rest of nature uses." Digressing onto various and sundry paths as such dialogues always do--albeit, this time, on a very specific and methodical route as prescribed by Jacobs--the characters mull over business cycles, animal husbandry, habitat destruction, the implications of standardization and monopoly, competition in nature, the obsolescence of computers, and much, much more. This book is recommended for the eclectically curious who welcome the opportunity to eavesdrop on such stimulating table talk, even while lamenting the fact they can't join in. --Howard Rothman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Jacobs's 1961 classic, Death and Life of Great American Cities, broke new ground in its insistence that humane urban planning could result from looking intently at people's everyday lives as a microcosm of the needs of city, economic and national life. The book also showcased Jacobs's superb ability to weave her own and her neighbors' personal stories into her theories of urban planning and development. In this important, essentially philosophical new work on patterns of social and economic growth, Jacobs immerses herself in the role of storyteller, building her arguments through a series of conversations between a group of environmentally aware, countercultural friends talking about what it means for humans to interact, understand one another and dwell safely and without causing harm in the world. Jacobs's choice to explore this material within a Socratic dialogue might seem pretentious or simplistic in less skilled hands. Yet her tone and style are so assured that it is hard to imagine a straightforward, expository examination of the same ideas that conveys as much nuance. The approach also amplifies Jacobs's theme of exploring the myriad ways in which humans exist "wholly within nature" and not, as some environmentalists claim, as "interlopers." Drawing upon examples from nature, the physical sciences, evolutionary theory, mathematics and quantum physics, Jacobs cogently illustrates how human beings and the civilizations they create can be in harmony with the world around them. Sounding the same themes she has been investigating for the past 40 years, this witty, beautifully expressed book represents the culmination of Jacobs's previous thinking, and a step forward that deftly invokes a broader philosophical, even metaphysical, context.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375702431
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375702433
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #762,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 51 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a truly unique book--a serious book on a critical topic written with much insight, originality, and an unbelievable amount of imagination. I've heard much talk of the author before--especially her seminal book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"--but "Nature of Economies" is the first book by Jacobs I've ever read. I'm glad to report that all the positive things I've heard about the author is true: she is as sharp and thoughtful a thinker as they come. What's even more endearing (for me anyway) is that she eschews the jargons and pompous prose of academy and writes with simplicity and grace so that anyone and everyone can understand her points. (I can't remember the last time that I've read a book on economics or sociology and not been put off by the awful language.)
Another special thing about this book, as most of you've probably heard by now, is that Jacobs has cast her thoughts in the dialogue form: conversations between 5 intimate friends. I must say it's quite strange to come upon a serious treatise on economics and nature, written and published in the first year of the 21st century, that uses what seems (to me) an 18th- or 19th-century format (I'm thinking in particular of those philosophical dialogues on religion, morality, etc., written by the likes of David Hume and Giacomo Leopardi, not to mention all those "philosophes" of the Enlightenment), which was in turn an imatation of the Platonic dialogues. Well, why not? After all, Jacobs has the brilliance of mind and sharpness of wit to get away with it. (Though it does mean getting some used to for an average reader like me.)
As for what the book is trying to say, I'm still trying to figure it out.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Theodore A. Rushton on July 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is no accident that Toronto is often rated as one of the most livable cities in North America -- Jane Jacobs lives there, and she takes an active role in helping shape her adopted city.
She also does something original; she actively examines the topics she writes about, instead of relying upon the mere observations of others. When you use a chunk of granite, a bar of steel or the speed of light, it's worth knowing that inanimate objects don't change much. But, Jacobs and all other social scientists deal with people; and people are continually changing. One of her central themes is that since Adam Smith in 1776, economists have tended to ignore the real world.
"Smith himself was partly responsible for that blind spot," Jacobs writes. "He led himself and others astray by declaring that economic specialization of regions and nations was more efficient than economic diversification.
"The theorists after Smith retreated into their own heads instead of engaging ever more deeply with the real world," Jacobs writes. "Plenty of observable, germane facts were lying around in plain sight, ready and waiting to lead Smith's insights, straight as directional arrows, into the subjects of development and bifurcations."
Adam Smith overturned centuries of thinking when he wrote, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest." Until then, there was a general feeling that God, or Nature, or other supernatural force provided our sustenance; Smith said personal interest is the key to economic life.
Smith takes that idea the next step: Yes, natural products exist, but we can wipe them out by overuse.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Thomas J. Brucia on March 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
To my amazement - especially after reading all the other reviews -I was stunned to find that this book is NOT * primarily * about either economics or ecology! It blew me away to discover "The Nature of Economies" is above all about systems theory! ---- Both the economic and ecological issues (compared, contrasted, etc) are subsets of ideas that I first came upon in my meanderings through fractal geometry, non-linear systems, chaos theory, and related areas! [For those who have never read Benoit B. Mandelbrot, get hold of his opus "The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Updated and Augmented"! And for a less technical introduction, read James Gleick's "Chaos'.] ------ What Jacobs has done is apply the richness of contemporary non-linear math and systems theory to the two areas of economic development and ecological systems! This is her contribution! Her method is what one might call `cross-pollination': to use examples from each of these spheres to elucidate matters in the other. It has been used from time immemorial because it works! ---- I would caution readers that this work is - like those of Eric Hoffer, the Tofflers, Charles Darwin, and other creative people - merely an introduction to a new way of looking at things. It is certainly NOT a textbook, nor are the ideas developed exhaustively. But it gets one's thought out of the ruts and back on the prairie. I am glad I read it! ---- Incidentally, I expected the `pentalogue' stylistic approach to be annoying; I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was NOT in the least either distracting or irritating. (Maybe I was so entranced by Jacobs' ideas that I wasn't noticing)...
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