Making a Living After the Apocalypse

In a previous blog I described how agricultural products will be the most important commodity in the new world. So much so, whatever currency is used may hold a foundation based on calories, and non-edible products will be traded based on the perceived caloric value.

Your main goal in this new world is to survive. To do this, you need to make sure you can feed your family and fight off those who would steal from you. But, how do you make a living if you don’t have a green thumb?

In this article, I’ll outline what I think will be the easiest ways to make a living after the fall of civilization. I’ll describe what you can make or grow to trade for food or other valuables. Certain products or services can be produced with little effort, some will need a certain level of skill, and others will require skill and specialized equipment.

Don’t Bother with These

Let’s start with what you should avoid. Precious metals and jewelry aren’t going to be worth much. You can’t eat a diamond ring, and they don’t have much utilitarian value. Precious metals can be worn as jewelry and that’s pretty much it. Speaking of which, I personally don’t recommend wearing jewelry. You’re basically inviting people to steal it from your cold, dead fingers. I recommend you hide any jewelry you may possess or discover and maybe use it to trade with later.

I don’t think there will be much of a market for new clothes, since there’s already an overabundance of clothing. Clothes will likely be abandoned and free for any passerby to take. However, once the economy has stabilized and clothes become scarce, there may be a market for new clothing. I just don’t think much profit can be made as a seamstress[1] unless you’re doing it in your free time as entertainment.

Passive Products

There are a few things that can be produced or grown with little to no effort on your part. Some herbs and vegetables can be grown “wild” and thrive without human intervention. Plants like: green onions, mint, potatoes, ginger[2], mushrooms (starter spores required), some peppers, and some established trees.

Most of these foods will grow year-round.

You can raise chickens and produce honey almost wild too. However, both require an investment in shelter and you need the proper skills to harvest the final products.

If that’s not enough, or if you tend to kill plants and animals just by looking at them, you can forage[3] for your food. There’s plenty of food to be found growing in the wild. You can find: wild tree nuts (acorns[4] & pecans are easiest to identify), loquats, dandelion greens, clovers (save any 4-leaf clovers for luck), roses, carnations, honey, and psychedelic shrooms (medicine/trade).

If done properly, you can easily survive on passive foods and trade any excess you produce.

Mid-value Products & Professions

If you can make products from raw materials or provide services no one else can, you may earn enough to be part of the new middle-class. I don’t think people will get rich making these because they’ll have to pay suppliers for the building materials and maybe pay to distribute the products. 

Preserves

If you have the knowledge and have the equipment, almost any food item that can be dehydrated and made into a powder will be valuable. Foods like grains, potatoes, corn, and nuts are the most common and easiest foods to dehydrate and turn into powders.

Pretty much anything that’s made into a powder will last forever, and that longevity will make preserved foods great cash crops. The only requirements to preserve dry foods are… to keep it dry, and don’t allow humidity or pests to infest the food.

Don’t be too reliant on conventional crops. It’s not likely you’ll live near a region that grows food grains like wheat. That means you’ll need to think outside the box [5] and convert what you can produce or harvest into equivalent products. If you have pecan trees growing more or less wild on your property, harvest those nuts as they drop and use them as a flour alternative[6].

Food will quickly lose its value when things settle down and supply stabilizes. But I still think you can gain wealth manufacturing and trading food.

Soap

Hygiene products will be extremely important to prevent diseases and infections. Simple bars of soap only require 3 ingredients and can be transported easily, but require time to make (and you’ll need some practice to perfect your recipe).

Regular customers of soap makers will be medical facilities, Laundromats, and, if they exist, communal baths. Although, I have a lingering fear that many people will forego bathing. We’ve seen this happen with various degrees during the Medieval period, (also known as the “Dark Ages”).

Laundromat

Many people may turn their noses up to this, but another profession could be cleaning clothes… from piss[7]. Urea from, well, urine has been used to clean clothes since ancient times. The process is much the same as it’s done today, and I’ll briefly describe it since it’s such a gross-sounding task:

  1. Add clothes and cleaning agent (urine) into a container and agitate the clothes. Agitation was done by stomping on the clothes in ancient times.
  2. Thoroughly rinse the clothes.
  3. Hang the laundry out to dry. I imagine the sun and breeze airs out any lingering urine smell.

The launderer could charge a premium to wash clothes with scented soaps. Another upcharge could be to offer an expedited service to rapidly wash and dry clothes by using precious electricity to machine-wash and dry them.

Going into Labor

Labor is a mid-value product too. You can lend your hands to help on the farms, work to construct buildings, or labor on an assembly-line (if any factories or workshops exist).  Your earnings will always be capped at what your boss can “pay” for your labor, which may be as simple as food and housing, or other valuable supplies. Remember that food and housing are scarce and valuable now that millions of newly homeless people are roaming the countryside. You may make more money if you already know a trade like plumbers or electricians. But don’t bank on this because the raw materials (power and water) may not exist.

Quick Cash

Tools will be the gold bars of the post-apocalyptic world, but they won’t make you rich. You can make a quick profit by trading any tools you don’t need. Alternatively, if you need them for work, keep them under lock and key. You should be prepared to defend your tools and even kill for them, because people will try to steal them for a quick “buck”.

What are the best ways to get rich in this new world?

The cash-crops, so to say, are going to be commodities required to power technology, luxury products satisfying vices, and medical labor. All of these are going to require knowledge or skill.

Energy

If you don’t have a green thumb or don’t have anything edible growing wild, then maybe you can make and sell luxury items like fuel and alcohol. There won’t be a reliable supply of energy, and your local gas station won’t be getting a resupply. The refineries will almost certainly have burned down and if they haven’t, there won’t be any labor to operate them.

If you happen to be lucky enough to live in an area that still has working pumpjacks that produce oil, it may be possible to refine it. That is, if someone in your community knows how to do it[8]. If you have the knowledge and are able to make a simple refinery powered by fire and horses, you’ll be rich. 

Some generators and cars can operate using ethanol, which is easy to make by fermenting food waste. You just need a container for the food waste, bacteria to allow fermentation to occur, and something to distill the alcohol (ethanol) out of the mash. You may need to redistill the alcohol to achieve a higher ABV.

Liquor & Wine

Of course, you can sell your ethanol as a beverage commonly known as vodka or white-whiskey, or moonshine[9]. You can charge a premium for whiskey aged in wood barrels.

I think wine will be pretty hard to make and sell. If you can’t find or make a still, you may have no other choice but to rely on wine as an alcoholic beverage. First, you have to grow the grapes, or other sugary fruits like apples, pears, or peaches. Then, you have to keep yourself and others from eating the fruit. If you still have fruit, you’ll need to pulverize and ferment it. Once fermented, bottle it.

It sounds easier than distilling, but the hardest part to wine making is getting past the first 2 steps: growing and not eating the raw materials. Distilled liquor, on the other hand, can be made with leftover food waste.

Another use for ethanol is sterilization. You can sell or trade your high ABV liquor to medical professionals for “money”, food, drugs, or services.

Medical

If you happen to be a doctor or nurse, you’ll be a very valuable member of society. Medical professionals will be hard to find, and any community will guard and treat these professionals well to ensure they’re happy. Medical supplies will be scarce or non-existent, so a good doctor will need to know how to treat ailments using herbs. A good doctor in this new world will need to know how to manufacture drugs as well.

When the civilization-ending disaster starts, most medical facilities aren’t going to be concerned about payment. A triage system will quickly be put in place, but I don’t think hospitals and emergency clinics are going to be concerned about payment until resources become scarce.

As medical resources run out, payment will be demanded up front. Food will likely be accepted, but the most valuable forms of payment will be fuel, cleaning supplies, and sterilization materials (alcohol). Facilities or private practices will maintain the triage system as a standard practice, even after things calm down and we get used to the “new normal”. It simply doesn’t make sense to waste time and resources to treat people who are going to die regardless of medical intervention, or even those who cannot contribute to society.

A wise government or medical facility will socialize medicine to ensure medical treatment is available to the community. This is smart because the medical staff can provide a list of drugs and materials that are running low or are depleted to the community. The local government will be in the best position to ensure the medical facility has the fuel necessary to operate, and can scrounge or trade for drugs and other resources. And the government can easily provide security to the facility.

Ironically, socialized medicine may win in the end. The caveat being medical staff will be required to adhere to strict government rules dictating who they can treat and how.

Drugs

Criminals who made and sold drugs prior to the apocalypse, may find their craft newly legalized if they can retool their operations and make useful drugs for doctors. Any excess drugs can be sold to other communities. Don’t forget the inconvenient truth that there will always be a market for recreational drugs, but be careful with the new laws.

The laws of the local community can go one of two ways regarding the sale and use of recreational drugs: legalize or ban. A devoutly religious community will likely outlaw such vices and severely punish (kill) those caught in the manufacture and distribution of drugs. Whereas, a moderate or practical community may allow the manufacture of recreational drugs, if they aren’t sold within the community.

If the community doesn’t have a specific policy, the authorities will likely turn a blind eye, if you make it worth their while. Don’t be naive and think that bribery won’t exist. Bribery has always been the oil that lubricates government since the dawn of human civilization. Some countries legalize and profit from bribery by renaming it to permits. Some politicians accept bribes in the form of campaign contributions, and charitable donations to organizations they may have a stake in.

The Oldest Profession

Prostitution will still exist, and may even thrive now that centralized state or federal laws are no longer enforced. If the local community doesn’t ban it, we may see the rise of brothels. These brothels will cater to all of your sexual needs, both hetero– and homosexual. As always, be prepared to pay more for male prostitutes.

Why will men be paid more in yet another industry? I remember seeing a documentary several years ago about “straight” porn actors who describe their pay as 10 times that of women[10]. The reason is because they are rare, and it’s an exotic taste[11], and men are willing to pay more for discretion to hide the fact they sought the services of a male prostitute.

It’s going to be a rough life for female prostitutes, and it’s going to be even harder for male sex workers. Willing gay men are going to be hard to find because they’ll die at a much higher rate than women of the same profession will. Just like women, they’ll have to endure the usual risks from abusive clients, jealous lovers, and sexual diseases. But on top of that, the religious fanatics won’t have anything to stop them from murdering gays en masse, and don’t forget about opportunistic gay-bashers who will prey on gay sex workers to prove something to themselves or their peers.

We live in a very accepting and inclusive world now[12], but that will change once civilization falls. Religious communities are going to be common and we need to expect a return to the historic religious persecutions of people who don’t fit with the dogma. Prostitutes are shunned by the major religions, and gay prostitutes are going to be double-negatives in the eyes of fanatics.

Straight men won’t have much work, because women have historically patronized brothels or individual prostitutes less often than men. There may not even be a demand for straight male sex workers.

Of course, if you follow this career-path, you’ll have to worry about the local laws. Just like drugs, the community will either allow or ban prostitution. If you happen to be in a religious community, expect the penalty to be death or worse.

***

Producing and trading these products or services will help ensure you can survive and can help generate income or wealth (or the post-apocalyptic equivalent). Some will be fast tickets to wealth, or they’ll make you a target for exploitation by any potential overlord. 

Let’s hope for a not-so-grim outcome.

I’d like to close by saying that while I use a nuclear attack as the cause of the fall of civilization, it’s important to remember that chemical and biological warfare can have the same effect. A chemical attack can render entire cities uninhabitable until the agent has been cleaned, or enough time has passed that weather has disbursed the toxic chemicals. The same may even be true for biological attacks, but biological warfare is much messier and harder to manage (as evidenced by our democracy’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic).


[1] Fun Fact: The male version of a “seamstress” is a “seamster”.

[2] Ginger – Some  caution should be taken with growing ginger, as other wild tubers can easily be confused as part of the plant.

[3] A word of caution regarding foraging: You absolutely must know how to identify plants, or you could kill yourself and your family. The same can be true for gardening. It’s possible to accidentally pick and eat the poisonous parts of edible plants, or unknowingly pick a poisonous weed from your garden and eat it.

[4] Acorns – Acorns need to be processed by boiling out the tannins. You will need to boil them and replace the water several times, until the water is clear or the acorns aren’t bitter. You can remove the tannins from acorns using cold water as well. The process is similar, but will take over a week to achieve the same product.

[5] Thinking outside the box is probably the best survival practice anyone can have.

[6] Pecans fall from the trees with an external shell, protecting the shell we’re familiar with. Remove both, and pulverize them to dehydrate the “meat” using the sun or an oven. This can be ground down into a fine flour.

[7] Laundromat – I’m  pretty sure I learned this from one of my history teachers. I remember someone asked how the ancients kept their clothes clean, and the class was grossed-out to learn they used pee. I had a very subtle reminder about this method of cleaning laundry from a show I binge-watched recently, Plebs.

[8] I think a crude (pun intended) explanation of refining is distillation of oil to make different gases at certain temperatures. I’m not a chemist or an oil expert, by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m sure there are other processes I’m missing. Refining oil is very dangerous, and if not done by an expert can cause severe injury or death.

[9] Moonshine is just vodka or whiskey that hasn’t been taxed. Also, there’s no real difference between spirits distilled as moonshine and vodka.

[10] Male Porn Stars: I want to say it was I’m A Porn Star: Gay 4 Pay, but I’m not sure.

[11] Rare & Exotic: Free online porn and services like “OnlyFans”, made it more readily available and reduced the demand for male sex actors.

[12] Inclusive World: 10% of the population has been the standard calculation of LGBTQ population in the country for nearly 2 decades. But if you consider the fact that many men who like having sex with the same sex, don’t identify as either homo- or bi-sexual; or those who just want “fun”, the percentage is almost certainly twice that… and that’s not counting all those other sexual identities (there were over 100 when I graduated from college in 2018).

Post-Apocalypse Markets

How will we operate businesses and trade after World War III, or if a catastrophic attack or disaster befalls our country? The local economy is going to have to focus on producing or trading products needed for survival. That means the most important products and services are going to be things that can immediately be used for everyday household needs, and probably won’t stray too far from that. 

Where will you find a market to trade goods? The surviving malls of the old civilization have been turned into palaces for highway barons and their minions[1]. Most supermarkets have been looted and damaged so extensively that it’d be impossible to secure your inventory. So, what does that leave us with?

Flea markets!

After everyone abandons the major cities and metroplexes, after the initial chaos settles, and when communities start coming together, the once forgotten flea market is going to become the new mall or trading hub. Why?

  1. They exist out in rural areas, which aren’t going to be targeted by a foreign enemy.

I mean, come on! Who’s going to waste a nuke on Woodville, Texas, or a small village called Swartout?!

  • There won’t be any reliable electricity, and these places with outdoor pavilions are going to be perfect to serve as the malls of the post-apocalyptic future. Some of the more upscale flea markets are wired for electricity, and a generator can be hooked up allowing the market to operate at night. 
  • Most flea markets are structured in a way that makes them easily defendable. The rent and protection fees vendors will be forced to pay landlords will help fund the market’s security.
  • Plus, it shouldn’t be too hard to convert some of the stall-pavilions into make-shift housing for vendors and security personnel. 

The only problem I can see is getting products to that market. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 21 million horses in the United States[2]. Nowadays, horses, donkeys, and other draft animals are endangered here in the USA. According to Pete Gibbs[3], a Texas A&M University animal science professor, the Houston area has one of the highest concentrations of horses in the country, with a population between 150,000 and 200,000. We’ve become so dependent on the almighty car, we don’t have the draft animals to produce the “horsepower” needed for agriculture or transportation.

There’s a reason why automobiles are advertised as having varying amounts of horsepower.

I always liked a scene in Things to Come[4] when the Airman lands and the community leader arrives on a convertible car being pulled by horses. I thought it was funny the first time I saw the movie, but that odd sight may very well be the stagecoach of the future. We will need to return to using animals to power our new agrarian society and to bring those products to market. 

Dollars will be worthless.

The new economy will be based on barter. If you want a certain product, you’ll need to trade something of equal or greater value… and more often than not, you’ll need to trade with greater value.

Inequitable trading is to be expected. Recall that a centralized economy doesn’t exist anymore. There is no reliable currency, so it makes sense people will want to trade their products for greater value because of this unreliability.

Whatever you do, do not accept any immaterial currency as trade. Currency only works in an insulated environment controlled by someone who has power to enforce the stated value. It also needs the faith of people who believe in the inherent value of that currency. None of that exists any more.

You may be able to trade currency with one person, only to find out it’s worthless to another. It’s also easy for that same person you originally traded with to turn around and say they aren’t accepting cash or currency as legal tender anymore. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who’s as gullible as you to accept that currency in turn when that happens. 

Recall that I previously mentioned currency only works in an insulated environment? In this new world, you may encounter specialized currency at a sealed market. In this situation, you trade goods the community needs for a posted amount upon entry and receive a locally accepted form of currency, which can only be used inside the borders of the market. Expect the person issuing you the new currency to take a cut of your trade as a fee. (The local government has to make money too.)

If you encounter this type of system, you need to make sure you spend all of this new money immediately. If you have any cash left over, use it to buy something that has a stable value, like non-perishable food.

Nothing is certain anymore. A change of leadership could happen, or counterfeiters could flood the market. Whatever the cause, the accepted form of payment can change overnight and you’ll be left with nothing of value to trade the next day.

I’m pretty sure food will become the new unit of account for currency, akin to what the “gold standard” used to be. If the new markets are smart, they will base the currency on the common knowledge of caloric count. and may give special dispensation, or increase in price, to foods which provide a boost to certain vitamins and minerals. An example would be bananas, which are high in potassium. If you’re operating a distillery in the post-apocalyptic future, it’d be beneficial to grow bananas as well as distill alcohol. You could resell the bananas as a hangover remedy[5]

What’s going to be sold at these markets?

Food will be the most important products being sold at the market, and you might not find much else until the local economy gets stronger.

Eggs and live chickens are light and easy to transport, and will be the first proteins or meat to be traded. I emphasize that chickens will be traded alive, because there won’t be power to refrigerate and preserve butchered meat. The best way for the new markets to cheaply “preserve” meat for days is by selling it live.

I don’t think many hens capable of laying eggs will be sold at the market. It doesn’t make sense for the farmer to sell something that’s making money or ensuring the survival of his or her family.

Livestock will be another early addition to the market. Horses and donkeys will cost a fortune because they can provide transportation and power to work the land. You may be able to find goats at the market too. Demand for goats milk and cheese will plummet. Most Americans don’t have a taste for either, and storing the dairy products will be next to impossible without electricity. Farmers will need to sell off or cull their stock when it becomes apparent they can’t feed all the animals on the farm. You can buy them for the meat, or if you can get a male and female, purchase to start your own farm.

You may find the same situation with pigs. There will be too many mouths to feed and no way to quickly preserve the meat. Both pigs and goats can eat pretty much anything, so feeding a small number of these animals won’t be much of a problem for a survivalist farmer. If it does get too hard to feed them, then it may be time to host a meat-lover’s party.

Fuel may show up at the market at some point. I’m not sure when it will appear though. Most people with petroleum gas or propane may try to hold onto it to power farming machinery or generators. Barring hoarding for personal use, I’m pretty sure fuel will get confiscated by local governments to power emergency vehicles, or possibly provide a dramatically scaled down form of public transportation.

A Word of Caution

What if you want to start a business and open a shop? That’s very enterprising of you, but drill this into your head now:

Don’t set up shop at home!

You’re basically inviting people to come to your house and look at what you’ve got. The majority of your shoppers are probably honest, but you need to expect that with every 10 customers, there’s probably 1 thief scoping out your home to rob later. If the “business” gets burglarized, so does your family.

It’s much safer to sell things at a market. Yes, you’ll have to pay rent on your stall and you may have to pay a security surcharge on top of that, but it’s worth it in the long-run.

***

Money as we know it will be worthless after a catastrophic attack or disaster befalls our country. So, how will we conduct business and trade? Our redefined economy will be based on barter and locally defined currency exchanges. Flea markets will be the perfect foundations to establish markets to buy, sell, and trade goods.

Check my blog later for the next part of this post-apocalyptic series. I plan to describe what you might do for a living after the collapse.


[1] A wise slum-lord will take over a mall with a jewelry store, and use the gold, diamonds, and other precious metals as a form of currency to pay an army of desperate soldiers.

[2] ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance. (2007, September). The Educational Programming Guide for Going Places. Retrieved from Park City Museum: https://parkcityhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Teacher-Background-Information.pdf

[3] Crowe, R. (2006, January 18). Riders rearing up over new horse restrictions. Retrieved from Chron: https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Riders-rearing-up-over-new-horse-restrictions-1889342.php

[4] Menzies, W. C. (Director). (1936). Things to Come [Motion Picture].

[5] I’m sure there’s a Ferengi Rule of Acquisition related to this.