I’ve seen the subject of bartering come up in prepping circles from time to time. In the event of any major collapse, the assumption is that money as we know it will be worthless. That’s not surprising actually, considering that what modern money is based more on the shared belief that it has value, rather than the money itself truly being valuable.
In ancient times, money was made from gold, silver and other metals which were understood to have value. That gave it a universal value, which easily crossed national boundaries. After all, an ounce of gold is still an ounce of gold, regardless of whether it has Nero’s head on it or Genghis Khan’s head on it. Considering the rarity of gold and silver, it could always be melted down to make something else, if one didn’t want to use it as money.
But today’s money is made of paper and low-value metals, rather than something of true value. In fact, most of it isn’t even made of paper. Worldwide, the total amount of money is estimated at 600 trillion US dollars. Of that, only about 5 trillion dollars exists in cash and coin. Over ninety percent of it is nothing more than electronic ones and zeroes on some computer somewhere.
What this means is that money is actually an expression of people’s confidence in the country that issued it. More than anything, since all currencies in the world are pegged to the US Dollar, the value of money is pegged to confidence in the United States economy and government.
Considering that the money itself has very little value, especially if something happens to the computers that keep track of it all, it’s no wonder that any sort of financial or societal collapse would take our monetary system down as well. As soon as confidence in our government were to fail, so would the money which is so dependent on that confidence.
We don’t have to look very far to understand what that means. When Argentina had their financial collapse in 1998-2002, their money became virtually worthless. Citizens of that country didn’t want to accept cash for merchandise, knowing that it could devalue before they could spend it. They preferred to exchange their money for something that had real value; something that was useful to meet their needs, not just money.
This is not an isolated incident either. We can see the same thing happening over and over throughout the last century, every time a country has had an economic collapse. Probably the worst such example was Germany’s Weimar Republic, which ultimately gave rise to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Reich.
But a financial collapse is not the only time when money would become worthless, although it is the most common example in history. Any nationwide disaster would be accompanied by a financial disaster as well. Wall Street is thoroughly tied to Main Street and even more firmly tied to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.
The solution in these cases is that many people go back to the old system of barter, rather than using currency for their purchases. In Argentina, many barter co-ops formed, where members would list items they had for trade and items they wished to trade. Some of these even used a point system, a local form of currency, to make trading easier.
Were the United States to experience an EMP attack or any other form of attack that took down the grid, we could expect our money to become worthless. With 91 percent of all dollars only existing in electronic form, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had in the bank, it would suddenly disappear. With that being the case, few people will be interested in the few greenbacks that remain in circulation. They will become a curiosity, rather than the common means of exchange.
Why Bartering Works
Long before anyone invented the idea of money, in about 5,000 BC, people had need of exchanging goods with each other. While ancient people had fewer things they considered needs than we do today, they still had needs. As people developed different trades and skills, mankind became more specialized, with each focusing on making or growing that which they could do well and trading what they had with others.
This meant constant negotiations with other people. People had to haggle, seeking a middle ground where both felt that what they were receiving was worth that which they were giving. That’s where the success of the barter system was based. Each party left the table feeling that what they had received was worth more to them, than what they had given.
Ultimately, money was developed as a common means of exchange, but it was based on the same assumption. That is, each person was going to walk away from the table, feeling as if what they had received, was worth more than the money they had given. Otherwise, they would walk away from the negotiations.
Considering that the only way someone could get money was to trade something that they had of value for it, everyone maintained the same understanding of value. Essentially, money is a symbol of the time and effort we invest in what we are doing. Others pay us for that time and effort.
This works whether we use a symbol like money or not. The big advantage of money is that it makes the negotiations easier. Since money is the common method of exchange, everyone needs it. So as long as it continues to have value, people will willingly trade their time and effort for it. But once it loses that value, they will naturally fall back on the idea of trading their time and effort for something else of value. What that is either depends on a standard that the community sets, or upon the individual’s perception of that item’s value.
Since this is all based upon the time and effort that people put into what they do, it’s easy to substitute labor for products, and barter services, rather than products. In this way, people who can offer important services have the same possibility of bartering their time, skills and effort, that everyone else has. If anything, they have an advantage over others, in that there is nothing for others to steal.
Even better than this, some people can become virtually untouchable, because of their skills and the value of those skills to the community. In the Old West, doctors fell into this category, because they would treat people on both sides of the law. This caused even the worst of outlaws to treat doctors with respect and protect their lives, knowing that they might need their services some day.
So, What Skills Will Be Valuable?
Modern society requires thousands of specialists, each of which provide a small part of what we all need and use every day. But in reality, many of the things which we use regularly aren’t so much necessities, as they are desires. A lot more effort is put into meeting those desires, then there is put into the basic necessities of life.
But in the wake of a major disaster, that would all change. There would no longer be any need for marketing specialists and public relations departments. Even some professions which existed in the Old West would go by the wayside, like lawyers and assayers. People would be looking for the basic necessities of life, and those who could provide for those needs would be considered to be of value to the community.
Those are also the people who will be most likely to be able to barter their skills in a post-disaster world, as people would have need of them. For the most part, these would be skills that few would have, which is what would make them so valuable. Of course, over time there would probably be more and more people who would learn some of these skills, reducing their value.
Medical of All Types
Probably the most important skill which people will be looking for in a post-disaster world is medical personnel. There is a shortage of doctors in the country today, and that will only be increased in a time of crisis. Without modern technology to back them up, doctors will have to work harder to treat the same number of patients. Not only that, but transportation problems will mean that local communities will need their own doctors, it won’t be enough to have them centralized in medical centers and hospitals.
With the probable shortage of doctors, many other medical specialties will probably find themselves called upon to perform medical services that are beyond their level of training. To one who knows nothing at all about medicine, the ability to clean a wound and apply a bandage makes someone else a doctor. This happens in third-world countries today and it is just as likely to happen here in a post-disaster world.
While midwives can be counted amongst the medical professionals, they are an important specialty in and of themselves. Throughout history, midwives have attended to women in the moment of birth. It’s only in recent times where this has been largely replaced by the medical specialty of obstetrics.
But midwives are different for other reasons as well. In the past, they were trained by apprenticeship, rather than in medical schools. This is one of the few medical professions that carries on that tradition. While medical law requires actual training for midwives today, that could revert back to apprenticeships easily after a major disaster.
While teachers are not actually necessary for survival, they are necessary for society to advance. So we might not see a call for teachers the week after a disaster, and we will most likely see schools shut down for a while. There will come a time when those schools open again and teachers are needed.
Rebuilding society will rest in the hands of practical engineers, more than anyone else. Ways of making things work and of rebuilding technology will be critical to restoring any semblance of modern society. That will require taking what we have that no longer works and turning it into something useful.
Not all engineers are capable of being useful in this endeavor. The knowledge taught to engineers in universities is often highly esoteric and theoretical. There will be no place for that in a post-disaster world. What there will be a place for is using engineering skills to try and put society back together. This will include things like finding ways of producing electrical power locally, using hydro-power to manufacture locally manufactured goods, and finding ways of manufacturing essential tools and equipment.
Cars may not be an absolute necessity for survival, but the internal combustion engine has been an important part of society for over a century. More than anything, it has replaced draft animals for providing the motive power used in manufacturing, agriculture and transportation.
While gasoline will be in short supply in the wake of a disaster, there will be some gasoline available. Smart communities that pull together will instantly start rationing gasoline use, saving it for the most important needs, especially emergency services and agriculture. Getting the most efficiency out of every vehicle on the road will become critical.
If the disaster we are talking about is an EMP, it will take skilled mechanics to find ways of modifying modern cars to work without their myriad of electronic sensors and computers. It will also be mechanics, rather than engineers, who experiment with engines, finding ways of burning alternate fuels in them. If the internal combustion engine is to be used beyond the life expectancy of fuel stocks, it will be because bright mechanics find ways of making them burn other fuels.
Electricians and Electronic Repair
As a society, we are largely dependent upon electricity and the many devices which use it. While many of these are not necessary to sustain life, many others make our lives more comfortable and increase our workplace efficiency. The use of electricity for motors makes much manufacturing possible, which would only be possible with hydro or animal power otherwise.
In the case of an EMP, there will be a huge amount of electrical and electronic equipment that will be destroyed, including the electric transmission lines and transformers that make up the grid. These will have to be totally rebuilt, and may very well have to be rebuilt on a local level.
In addition to the abovementioned areas of repair, there will be a need for people who can repair just about anything you can imagine, from small engines to homes. But this will all have to be done with hand tools, rather than how we do it today, with power tools.
The survival skills that you and I learn as a matter of course will be highly valuable in the wake of a crisis. While they may seem almost mundane to us today, the rest of the population doesn’t have those skills. There will be a flurry of interest in learning them right after the disaster hits and people accept the idea that FEMA isn’t going to rush in with government aid.
Of course, many will expect you and I to give away those skills for nothing, just like they will expect us to give away our food and other supplies. But we need to stand our ground. While they probably won’t have much that will be of value to us, we must receive something in exchange. If we don’t do this, then they will keep coming back for more and more, expecting us to keep giving to them.
Farming and Gardening
We have long ago left behind being an agrarian or agricultural society, where the majority of people worked in agriculture. Today’s farms are massive and industrialized, owned by large corporations which plant millions of acres of the same thing. This leaves only a small portion of the population as knowing anything about farming.
Yet if we and those around us are to survive longer than local food stocks last, it will be because we return to our agrarian roots. This means that one of the most valuable skills, in the first year after the disaster, will be that of growing vegetables on a large scale, in other words, farming.
This may not seem much like a skill to those who have a green thumb. But as a person whose thumb is anything but green, I can guarantee you that it is a skill; an amazing one. If I ever have to depend on what I can grow myself to survive, I’m going to get awfully skinny. So those of you who can grow things had better plan on teaching a lot of people what you know.
Like farming, the ability to raise animals for food is something that will make the difference between life and death. While raising animals might not seem like something that’s all that complicated, knowing what to do to maintain their health and ensure that they grow to their maximum potential is something that few have any idea about.
Not only will animals be needed for food, but there will also be a need of draft animals for transportation and agriculture. The number of horses in the country today is extremely low, when you think about how many were in use before the advent of the automobile. Unless we want to be pulling a plow with manpower, we’re going to need horses from somewhere.
People are going to have a hard time dealing with the post-disaster world. As a culture, we are fat and lazy, accustomed to having things our way and having our comforts. When those are taken away, we’ll see a high incidence of depression and other mental disorder, some of it quite severe.
Pastors and counselors will have their hands full, dealing with these people and helping them to become useful members of society. This will not be counseling of the “I hate my husband” variety, but rather essential to save lives. People who are not willing to do the hard things to survive will be some of the first to die, if they don’t get help to overcome those hang-ups.
In addition clergy will be needed for baptisms, weddings and especially funerals. The trend we’ve seen, of Americans turning away from God will be instantly reversed. People will turn to God in droves, just as they did after 9-11. It will become a very busy time for those in the clergy.
This is probably one that most people wouldn’t think of, but there will be a need for those who have a strong understanding of chemistry, especially medicine. With transportation networks out and factories closed, the only medicines which will exist will be those in local stock and those that can be produced locally. The need for pain killers and antibiotics will be enormous, and will be of high priority to anyone with the knowledge to work on them.
Old-Time Professions Which will Need to Reappear
In addition to these existing skills, some of the old time skills which have disappeared over the years or have been relegated to a few artisans will need to become commonplace once again. In some cases, it will be these old skills, which will allow us to rebuild our modern technology. Blacksmiths and tinsmiths especially will play an important part in making tools and even building steam engines.
The blacksmith was trained to make literally anything out of metal. In his later life, my dad learned this trade and taught me a little. The man he apprenticed under was truly amazing, able to make anything from the most delicate all the way up to massive works. I specifically remember a handrail that he made for a restaurant, which was shaped to be a rattlesnake, down to the snake’s mount being open and the curved fangs exposed.
Of all the lost skills that will be needed in the wake of a disaster, I would have to say that the blacksmith is the most important.
The basic difference between the blacksmith and the tinsmith is that the tinsmith worked with sheet metal, cutting, shaping and soldering it together. This will be very useful in making things that can’t be easily made by the techniques used by the blacksmith.
Before electric motors, what factories existed were powered by animal power, water wheels and fire. Mills of various types, such as grain mills and sawmills were often built alongside streams, utilizing hydroelectric power to run the machinery.
The first challenge for those who choose to try milling will be in figuring out how to build a mill. They will literally be starting from scratch, as the parts they will need are no longer in existence. But once they succeed, they will become an important center of industry for their community.
We don’t use rope that much in modern society and when we need it, we just run down to the local hardware store to buy it. But an agricultural society, especially one which uses animal power, will need a lot of rope. Once local supplies run out, the only rope that will exist is what people learn how to make.
Tanning and Harness Making
Leather was an important part of the agricultural society, as harnesses and saddles were made of it. Large-scale commercial tanneries will no longer exist, nor will the factories that turn leather into usable goods. All that will need to be done on a local basis.
Bartering Your Services
This list is by no way complete, especially the part about old-time skills which will be needed. There will be a host of other skills that we will find a need for, especially as time moves on and we work to rebuild society. How well we do that on a local basis will depend a lot on the skills of the people in our communities.
This will essentially be a return to cottage industry. In times past, many of these were run out of people’s homes. I suspect the same will happen again. The doctor will turn a room of his home into a clinic, the mechanic will work out of his garage and the blacksmith will set up his forge and anvil in his back yard. Each will work where they live, whenever possible, because of the difficulty of transportation.
The hardest part of this will be determining the fair market value of your services. While “whatever the market can bear” would be extremely tempting, it would not generate good will. You’ll have to find a balance between that and just giving your services to the community for free. So will everyone else who has a skill or service to offer.
This will often involve negotiating a rate for your services, as there will be no fixed rate of exchange. Just like the Medieval marketplace, you’ll need to find some common ground with each customer, with them giving you something of value for you providing them with a service that is of value.In the beginning, what they provide to you may be nothing more than labor. If you’re the only prepper in your neighborhood, and you’re providing essential services to your neighbors, there’s a good chance that they won’t have anything to barter that is of value to you. But they do have the ability to work. If you are helping them dig up their yard and plant a garden, it only makes sense for them to help you in the same way. That way, they will value what you are doing for them all the more.