Collapse could happen, literally, overnight

debit card

If all our debit cards stopped working suddenly, it could crash the economy. Photo: justDONQUE.images via Flickr.

In the granddaddy of all collapse books, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire18th-century historian Edward Gibbon gave ancient Rome a full 500 years to deflate.

Half a millennium for any society to collapse always seemed a bit too generous to me. Heck, American civilization has only been around for about 300 years. So I never assumed that we’d have a few centuries more to glide down a leisurely slope from techno-empire back to whatever kind of low-tech regional or village society that will finally come when the gig is up.

But I didn’t imagine either that the most powerful and complex civilization in world history could collapse in 24-72 hours. That is, until I read Shut Down: A Story of Economic Collapse and Hope, which paints a pretty convincing picture of how an ill-planned government housecleaning of insolvent banks started on Monday morning could set in motion a chain of events that would bring down the whole of American and world civilization by Wednesday night.

Shut Down cover

Shut Down: A Story of Economic Collapse and Hope by WR Flynn, Create Space, 307pp, $15.95.

First-time author WR Flynn, a retired law enforcement officer living near Portland, Oregon who traveled in Eastern Europe and the USSR, and in 1985, spent a month in Cuba working on a communal farm, has written a didactic novel clearly to make a point. Namely, that our powerful and seemingly solid society is actually frighteningly brittle and vulnerable to the slightest financial shock.

So, despite a nearly complete absence of characterization, a compelling theme or a love story that’s messy enough to identify with (what romance the book offers is thin and unsatisfying), Shut Down works because its relentless focus on plot alone creates enough tension and suspense to keep the pages turning.

First they came for the banks

Yes, you already know from the title that the whole American experiment will be murdered. But that doesn’t stop you from wanting to see the weapon, learn the effect on the survivors and most of all, find out who dunnit. Shut Down lets you get up close and see the bloodstains on the pavement. And it also shows how a maddeningly complex financial system makes global industrial civilization more immediately vulnerable than such threats as climate change, terrorism, or even peak oil and peak everything.

Here’s the simple, yet fiendish, plot that gave me nightmares for a week:  On Monday morning the FDIC closes more than 600 insolvent banks nationwide. But under pressure from a deficit-hawkish, Tea Party Congress, the agency forgoes its customary caution and closes more banks at the same time than prudence would suggest. This shocks the financial system enough to shut down both debit cards and Food Stamp cards, sending the US public into panic when they can’t get cash and sending hungry people first into the streets, and then into grocery stores for looting. Electronic panic spreads throughout the world’s interconnected financial system. From there, with payments stopped, oil supplies are disrupted, depriving law enforcement of fuel for patrol cars. That leaves the streets to urban street gangs who start a massive LA Riot in every major city in the US, soon followed by civil unrest around the world.

Focused around the author’s hometown in and around Portland, Flynn seems unimpressed by the world-leading sustainability efforts and peak oil prep that the city has done over the last few years. Instead, just like any other doomed urban area, by Wednesday in Portland, survivors who can have cleared out of the city and are now evacuating the suburbs. Not far behind are the inner-city gangs who have quickly formed themselves into vandal armies to pillage the suburbs and the countryside.

Guns, gangs and growth

The “hope” part of the story centers around a small town outside the city called Corbett. Quickly after the chaos starts, the town closes itself off to the outside, establishes an armed perimeter and prepares to defend itself against marauders. The latter come quickly enough and lead to an extended battle scene where the story’s heroes (and strong, gun-toting Asian-American heroines) get to prove their mettle.

I do wish that Flynn had been more careful to avoid racial stereotypes in portraying urban street gang members and had shown the same flexibility with the baddies as he did in portraying the heroic Starbucks barista Kelly and her whole Chinese immigrant family as preppers and firearms experts, an image not usually associated with the “good minority” stereotype of Asian-Americans.

But overall, Flynn’s apocalypse works. After about a week and a half, it seems that half the US population must be dead, cities are smoldering and the only hope lies in the few rural places like Corbett that were smart enough to lay in guns and quickly muster a self-defense militia. With the power off, gas tanks never to be filled again and nearby grocery stores looted, town leadership drafts able bodies into plowing and planting. The future of the town and of America as a whole appears to be what Sharon Astyk has called A Nation of Farmers.

You too might get nightmares after reading Shut Down. But, if they inspire you to start prepping your family for an emergency of any kind or to start working with your neighbors to start making your community resilient enough to deal with a more uncertain future along the lines of the Transition Movement, or both, then the bad dreams will be for a very good cause.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    A number of the books that write about a possible collapse seem to dance around the reality of the darker side of the problem. They either airbrush the problems, or frequently end the books before the real problems get started -Kobb’s Prelude, and Widgen’s But Not For Long as examples. This tends to leave either highly speculative sci fi, or militia style books portraying the dark side. As a consequnce they lack a broad enough appeal get many peoples attention. The popularity of the “flue books” stand out as an exception, but influenza is a bit of a different beast.

    So it will be interesting to see something written with potentially a wider audience appeal.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    William Fortchen’s “One Second After” outlines the collapse scenario very well, I think. He admits to modeling it on “Alas, Babylon” and “On the Beach”: and I agree with the similarities.
    The key to these types of stories is how they handle the relationships of people under extreme pressure. It is my experience that people under pressure become better persons (if they don’t panic), as life’s daily noise gets filtered down to basics of need and resources. We are seeing some of this filtering as the economy is beginning to fail under its own weight (I call it “overhead”, Chris Martenson calls it “friction”). We are a nation driving to the gas station to fill up our cars in order to have a full gas tank when the gas runs out. Nobody really has a good plan for what to do with that full gas tank, or how to just live without one. The Occupiers are demanding a General Strike of the system which feeds them. Until a majority can “occupy a garden”, they cannot be taken seriously about being antiestablishmentarians. The best quote I can think of for this is from Star Trek’s “Insurrection”: “We believe that when you make a machine to do the work of a man, you take away something of the man.” We have spent the last 100 years and more taking usefulness away from human beings and replacing it with petroleum and automation. Now that people are truly feeling unimportant in their own societies, they are lashing out in suicidal fashion. Whether collapse happens overnight or over a decade or a century, anyone looking at the actual resources available and the human usefulness required to replace our System of systems can see that the collapse WILL happen. Predicting when is actually irrelevant to species/community sustainability and survival. Living as though it has already happened will be the key to preparedness. Choosing how to live without money, grids, globalism, and civil stability is up to the individual.

    • says

      I like the analogy of the cable unraveling from your piece. Yes, groupthink might tell us that our society can’t collapse quickly, but individually we can see plenty of signs that it could. So we should take inspiration from the Nietzsche quote you use too: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

      • Auntiegrav says

        Once you abandon ownership of yourself (the “Let go, Let God” idea), there is a certain relief in not having responsibility for everything in your future. To be an individual is a life of total insecurity, which, in a Buddhist monk sense, is total security (nothing to lose).
        The middle ground is to have enough control of your own skills and place to know where your next meals are coming from, but have trustworthy representatives to handle the societal needs so that you only have to work part-time at being part of society, leaving ample time to perform individual actions.
        If we lived as though Collapse already happened, we might find it doesn’t have to. Fat chance of getting 7 billion to go along with the idea until they have to, though.
        The alternative to the System is to create a way to live without that particular system. For humans, there will always be a system of some kind because we live in the fantasy, not the reality of sense-response. We always need a system to build a model of our future. How sensible that model is will depend on whether we understand the principles of thermodynamics and proportions between what we desire and what we can produce, as well as the long term concept that in order to be sustainable, we first have to be generous, not consumptive (source of energy, not an energy sink). Collapse, whether fast or slow, seems inevitable now, as there aren’t resources available to support the overhead costs, let alone the dreams of growth economics and the Invisible Hand.
        How many choose to go out with a bang or a whimper is yet to be seen.

    • William Flynn says

      Guy McPherson says:

      “No matter how many times I point out the acceleration of this ongoing slow decline, people take issue. I suspect it’s the primary reason Energy Bulletin and similar websites do not carry my essays. It can’t happen here. This time is different. There’ll be plenty of warning. And so on. In response to the insanity of the herd’s groupthink, I turn to Nietzsche for solace: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

      Guy McPherson, among a few selected and important websites bookmarked on the screen of my HTC Evo is your website, Nature bats Last. The reason it’s there is that you offer me hope that I’m not alone in my belief that we’re well past overshoot. Do we, you and I and a few others, often find ourselves wondering why nearly everyone can be so mistaken on such a monumental issue as the utter fragility of our human constructs and existence? Of course we do.

      Although I choose to turn to the dharma for inner peace, the writings of Nietzsche will hopefully be cherished and retained, too, as we proceed into the next epoch. Thank you for the timely reminder.

      Shut Down is, of course, intended to serve as a warning. However, as Erik kindly pointed out, it should also serve to motivate people to prepare. If so, it will have generated some good and that, my dear friends, is the ultimate objective of my novel.

  3. Rosemary Gould says

    I know a woman who was on the bridge trying to escape from New Orleans after Katrina when the refugees were stopped by sheriffs with guns. She had been a public school teacher in New Orleans (grew up here in Va). We always assume the collapse will mean evil people coming to take everything and kill us. What if it means desperate refugees hoping for help? People with skills and willingness to join in the work? Of course, after the collapse the rich will surround their compounds with private armies. Maybe the rest of us could look at it differently.

  4. Laurentz Lewis says

    You had nightmares for nothing. In the first place the police will not be without fuel. However even if you for argument sakes assume they will be without fuel, they will still be present in force at checkpoints throughout the cities. Thus no LA style riots widespread. In addition, the folks who live in the cities won’t abandon them and flee to the countryside. These people will not succumb to armed “gangs” either. In other words this scenario is highly unlikely. Will there be increased crime, yep!

  5. Grace Caughey says

    I have just read the book: The Mystery of 2012. Predictions, Prophecies and Possibilities.
    About 243 authors put their own views on what is going to happen on 21st December 2012.
    Based on the Mayan Calendar, Krishna, stone circles and sacred maths among others, these are a very credible stories.

    Those who are resilient, grow their own, live simple lives, recycle everything– Transition Towners will survive. Those who depend on buying everything will probably founder. Remember there will be little oil and what will be available will cost the earth literally.

    So start growing, collecting seeds, planting food tress of all kinds on any piece of unused public land– along railway lines, neighbours’ back yards. Grow climbing food plants. Go vegetarian or vegan.

    Good luck

  6. says

    The problem with the theory of collapse is it is happening from many different perspectives, far more than there was with ancient societies. Whether its a failed economy, water shortages, environmental damage, cooperate greed, peak oil, monopoly of energy or the growth of energy wars or war economies the collapse is happening on many different fronts, which all have a different estimate on when they take affect. However, like so many empires before we maybe already be in the collapse, but like normal we are to blind to wake up to the reality of what we see in front of us. Nonetheless, every year gets worse and will carry on getting worse. This year alone we have Greece economy getting worse, the financial crises spreading to Spain and some parts of Eastern Europe and about to spread to France. Some of the worst storms in years have hit the Asia Pacific and the hottest summer in Spain resulting in mass floods. China and America remain in an ongoing conflict to gain the remainder of energy resources without resulting to war and America keeps making reserns to go to war with Iran, the last remaining none pro American middle eastern country who still prefers to draw up oil contract with Russia and China rather that America. Plus their is the element of the Caspian and Central Asian pipe lines which would need a open Iran to insure they do not cross or can be obtained by other regional powers of Indian Pakistan, Russia and China. Personally the collapse has already started, but maybe in the next 10-20 years we will hit the middle where people will notice the rapid speed we are sliding towards global disaster.

    • says

      I couldn’t have said it better myself, Matt. You’ve efficiently listed many of the major things that could do us in and also gotten to the maddening complexity of the intertwining crises that industrial society faces, from the breakup of the Euro to weird weather. It does seem that history shows us that the Romans or Maya or other civilizations were done in by much less. So for us, it’s not a question of IF, but WHEN and HOW. I just hope that as many of us can be as prepared as possible for a variety of scary scenarios — and that hopefully we can find some silver lining of personal liberation in all these storm clouds.

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