Meteors. Zombies. Nuclear War. Contagion. Whatever form it takes, you’ll know it is The Big One when it knocks out our infrastructure and renders all our bank accounts, credit cards, and whatever cold hard cash we are sitting on utterly meaningless. That’s because a fiat currency—paper money, ones and zeroes, or any other medium of exchange that lacks inherent value—requires a robust infrastructure and at least semi-reliable government behind it to make it work. Without that trust and organization (organized, apocalypse-free civilization), trade can’t function using “money” with nothing further to recommend it, whether it is gold or anything else.
Of course, society (or whatever is left of it) doesn’t need money to conduct trade—the collapse of currency still leaves bartering as a way to conduct commerce. Historically, we already know people would rather barter than swap bullion after a crisis–but bartering is much less efficient than having some universal store of value to lubricate exchange, and doesn’t exactly expedite the rebuilding of society.
Gold may have helped the evolution of economics, but there are actually much better stores of value to survive the apocalypse that have something that gold lacks: intrinsic value. That’s why the following alternative currencies will do a better job helping you navigate the apocalypse—so good luck, and start your Doomsday Prepping!
Currencies need portability (you can carry them with you), scalability (different values to facilitate trading in varying quantities or goods), durability (so they can actually change hands) and, once society is thrown into chaos and all sense of order, infrastructure, and governance is reduced from Space Age efficiency to primal tribalism, utility. That is, we won’t be wasting time with portraits of dead royalty or shiny rocks. Money will be something that everyone needs.
So when our ability to generate heat and light with the flip of a switch gets undermined, the demand for candles is going to go up and stay up, making them a solid option for conducting trade. Candles-as-currency will run from your basic wax-and-string candle to the more sophisticated oil-burning lantern. Given humanity’s innate fear of the dark, you can bet that candle-makers will be more popular among the bedraggled survivors of society’s collapse than prospectors and bankers.
Candle-making has long been a favorite hobby of survivalists and DIY off-the-grid preppers for good reason; taking care of the basics in a survival situation means candles—not gold—are the go-to commodity.
When all other currencies collapse, you can bet quality shoes will hold their value. Shoes have a bit more robust utility even than candles, as they perform not just a variety of basic functions, but can carry some amount of status, too. Nothing says “I survived The Big One” better than wearing your valuables around like it is still Ancient Rome. Conspicuous consumption may be tempered by volatile economic forces, but the deep-seated drive to buy status symbols tends to be strongest among the worst-off. Paradoxically, that could well mean that survivors of a global disaster would have an appetite for shoes that make a statement.
And of course, no pilgrimage to the rumored Safe Place that somehow made it through the storm unharmed could make it far without some resilient footwear. Whether escaping, working, or curb-stomping the infected hordes one skull at a time, shoes are a guaranteed must-have commodity after the apocalypse, and can quickly convert to food in your belly or a blanket on your shoulders.
Listen: nobody is condoning slavery here. But it isn’t exactly without precedent; ever heard of a bride price? Basically, babies have a price and expected value, and losing a baby-maker, i.e. a female family member, carries an opportunity cost that grooms and their families are expected to offset—and this is a pre-apocalyptic practice. Even without throwing death and destruction into the mix, everyone from China to Japan to England (circa Children of Men) can attest, youth is a finite resource for which there are no substitutes. This makes children precious, tradable, and perfectly viable as a currency substitute.
Also consider that, after a worldwide meltdown of current, high-tech systems of production and transportation, people will be stuck not just on a Paleo diet, but caveman-ing it up through a whole lifestyle of pre-industrial DIY extremes that all mean labor is the most valuable “thing” in the land. If overnight the world went from growing fears of robots taking our jobs to Wall Street bankers hunkering down behind a plow to avoid starvation, you can bet that no amount of money can substitute for having a few more hands in the field or a few more able-bodied workers pounding on anvils and sewing up cloth.
For better or worse (realistically, probably worse, but that never stopped a money-making scheme before), children will represent a store of potentially lifelong wealth that makes them tradable commodities.
The whole reason the printing press was so revolutionary was because it made knowledge available to the masses, and it required almost no infrastructure. Compare that to the integrated systems of electricity generation; server farms (with their own requisite need for adequate climate controlling infrastructure); mobile devices with hardware and integrated support for various access platforms; coders and programmers; and the host of raw and processed materials needed to make digital data storage viable.
Any number of things could disrupt the infrastructure necessary to make magnetic data storage go kaput, and suddenly those old, archaic paper warehouses known as “libraries” will be veritable treasure troves of invaluable information.
If you believe the end is nigh, don’t fill all the shelf space in your fallout shelter with canned food; stock a bookcase or two, and just see if you don’t find your encyclopedic knowledge of such arcane subjects as “first aid” and “growing food” makes you uncommonly popular—and wealthy.
Depending on the quantity, alcohol-nutrient content ratios, purity, and other such variables, this one stands to serve a whole bevy of economic purposes. There is no question that people will work for booze; heck, if it was good enough for the pyramids, it is good enough for the post-modern apocalypse.
Alcohol, it turns out, has been a popular alternative currency just about as long as people have known how to make it. And, just as with the best sorts of luxury commodities, alcohol can be crafted into a whole spectrum of different varieties of wide-ranging strengths, quality, and exclusivity. When something is functional at a basic level, yet can be refined enough to convey status and wealth, you know you are on the right track to replace gold as a currency.
Leaving aside the mind-altering properties of alcohol, it may be worth bearing in mind that it makes a fine disinfectant and sedative (hey, modern anesthesia is standing on the shoulders of booze as it is), ensuring that even teetotalers will be willing to shell out some eggs and jerky in exchange for a bottle or two.
Knives are useful, convenient, fashionable, and sure to be in universal demand; all the hallmarks of great post-apocalyptic money.
A lot of survivalists and zombie movie fans might insist that guns and bullets make more sense than knives, but as the Mythbusters proved, you can’t very easily shoot down a tree with guns, much less carve up a chicken for dinner. If we accept for a moment that post-apocalyptic trade is actually going to take place, and that life isn’t just an endless shoot-em-up race across a charred desert landscape, knives actually come out on top as a viable means of exchange.
In fact, ancient China—the same society that first invented gunpowder and the ancestor of all firearms—also pioneered using knives as currency already. Feel free to hoard your arsenal, by all means, but if you want to go to market, you better make like the second Terminator and stick to “knives and stabbing weapons.”
Mad Max: Fury Road got it right. You can have all the guns, bullets, flame-throwing guitars, vehicles, oil, and child-bearing women you can lock in a mountain vault, but seeds will still be a game-changing ingredient.
The world has grown accustomed to a supply chain that takes “food” and turns it into “value-added processed snacks” that have all but bankrupted traditional family farms, turning over the global production of edibles to a shrinking number of massive corporations. When the systems that make “money” more than just scribbles on pieces of paper dissolve, so will our ability to get avocados in Calgary year-round.
The value of human labor will skyrocket in part because so much of it will be needed to keep farms operating and churning out seasonally-determined, locally grown, non-refrigerated produce. At the heart of this whole system are the little powerhouses of life we plant in the ground to turn into food: seeds. Those who managed to preserve non-GMO seeds (that grow plants actually capable of producing their own, non-proprietary seeds) will be carrying around pockets full of, well, gold. But better.
And, by extension, honey bees. In combination with the aforementioned seeds, bees become an integral part of the agricultural system that, sadly, hasn’t thrived under pre-apocalyptic conditions.
But outside the bees themselves, honey is an incredibly versatile, functional, non-synthetic substance with myriad applications. From anti-septic properties and other healthcare uses to its value as a dietary supplement, honey has much to recommend it.
Taken together, honey and honey bees play an integral part in enabling humans to survive in a world without the modern means of production of medical care. Portability and scalability are easily achieved, if not inherent, and the ubiquity of need and value make it a solid option for universal trade.
In many ways, sugar was the very foundation of the New World, aka the driving force behind colonization of the Western Hemisphere. Classic U.S. imagery tends to dwell on tobacco fields and especially cotton plantations as the setting for American slavery, but in reality it was sugarcane that drove the greatest demand for enslavement and forced labor.
One of humanity’s favorite drugs, sugar is equal parts natural resource and tradable commodity. If the social order governing the societies of the world were blown up by forces or events unknown, there is no way that our appetite for/addiction to sugar would disappear along right with indoor plumbing and absentee ballots.
The means of production responsible to produce sugar actually make it remarkably similar to gold: the supply is limited in part by the sheer difficulty in getting appreciable quantities of it, and in a form that makes it practical to use for trade. Of course, while the supply of gold is finite, sugar (in theory) could continue to scale along with the redevelopment of the economy, making it as durable as it is practical as a means of conducting trade.
This is actually one of the leading arguments against using gold as a currency: the cost involved in its extraction routinely exceeds the value of any gold extracted. Sugar production is difficult, but it can also be done in a sustainable system rather than an earth-depleting mining operation.
Salt is, literally, the original currency. Consider the word salary, and you start to get the picture of just how foundational salt is as a store of value and wealth. The lives of humans, the fates of empires, and the seasoning of meats the world over have hinged on the production and distribution of salt for centuries. So, the smart money says that a piddling world-ending apocalypse won’t get in the way of salt’s domination of all life on earth.
Unlike many other items on this list, salt is not just a luxury, a status symbol, or any other sort of nice-to-have—even though it has, at various times, been all of those things. Salt is used to preserve other foods, making it the next-best thing to refrigeration in a world without an electrical grid (or, you know, Freon circulation systems).
Salt trumps gold on every other measure of what makes a currency viable—and in the event of The Big One, it may be your ticket to wealth, prosperity, and survival.