In the granddaddy of all collapse books, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 18th-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.
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.
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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.