Every video roleplaying game has basically the same setup: shops offering increasingly powerful items and equipment accompany the path toward the final boss. You sell your junk there, make repairs, upgrade cloth armor to leather to chain mail to plate, and stockpile healing potions. Prices remain fixed, nonnegotiable; you’re not getting that +7 Fiery Icewight’s Slaying Hammer until you cough up 2500 gold. In gameplay terms, this is completely necessary and proper: you both get what you need, and know that you need it, for the next stage. You level up and power up in preparation.
When you consider it rationally, this arrangement is hilariously unrealistic. Imagine shopkeepers behaving this way if the world were actually about to end! “Gee, I sure don’t want to die, and I don’t want everyone and everything I know to be destroyed—but no, sorry, I’m not giving you that armor at a discount. You’re our only hope, but I gotta make a profit.” Won’t the usual rules of mine-and-yours get tossed aside quickly when, metaphorically speaking, everyone can see the giant earth-destroying asteroid screaming toward the earth? Won’t we pool our resources at the end?
But then again: is it so unbelievable that the usual rules would persist? In the past couple of years I’ve read several science-fiction novels of end times that suggest they will, for the most part. These books are fairly consistent with each other, and eminently plausible; they read more like reports than novels.
Octavia Butler’s Parable series is for me the most plausible (and therefore most disturbing).
Butler’s world is coming apart for no particular reason—not a virus or world war, just things falling apart. The USA in the 2020s has become a splintered, violent series of separate neighborhoods and townships. Drug gangs have proliferated, and they savagely prey on everyone they can. Federal and state governments still exist nominally, but they’re roughly as effective as ordering the wind to stop blowing. People band together desperately for survival. Gasoline is prohibitively expensive and rare, so hordes walk the highways hoping the next settlement will provide a safe haven—always in groups for safety, always armed, always alert for attacks. Pretty much everyone takes a gun everywhere. And yet: trade goes on. Currency continues to change hands, without unusual inflation. Big-box stores like Wal-Marts still sell all kinds of products.
Now, though, there are also people for sale. Indentured servitude makes a widespread comeback, as does outright slavery. Corporations have in many cases bought whole towns; these function like premodern independent city-states, slaves and all. Since the police and (now-greatly-reduced) army only act on behalf of those few who can pay cash for their services, they don’t waste their efforts enforcing even such basic laws. Civilized society has crumbled completely—but trade goes on. Our current system has, in short, evolved along a logical, predictable trajectory. Butler’s picture of our future is so detailed, feral, and plausible that I believe it much more readily than the series’s larger context: this hellish America is the historical past, the bad old days during which the character Lauren Olamina founded “Earthseed,” a transformative religion/philosophy that eventually saves the planet and takes us to the stars.
At the end of The Bone Clocks (2014), David Mitchell imagines a 2043 in which trade systems are about halfway fallen apart. As in the Parable books, that’s just how things have evolved, or devolved; civilization just unraveled.
There is still an Internet—an important factor unaddressed by Butler, who wrote during the 90s—but it only works in patchwork spots around the globe. Electronic trade’s days are thus sharply numbered. Currency has lost value and meaning to a degree resembling that in Weimar Germany. The electrical grid is vanishing, along with the labor and expertise required to maintain it. So outright force and barter rule the day. People trade eggs for wheat, or guns for cows, and hope (mostly fruitlessly) that raiding parties will stay away.
Both Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) picture very small post-apocalyptic populations in our near future, with many armed, nervous people walking the roads and normal commerce completely ceased.
Manufacture of new products has essentially stopped too—there’s no labor pool and no working infrastructure. So only hoarded items from the prosperous past—clothing, canned goods, weapons, hand tools—have much value, not that there’s much of anyone left to barter with. One scene in The Road still chills my bone marrow: the one in which people are being hoarded in someone’s basement, kept alive as a food source.
In Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut twists the trope around, imagining that money itself will bring on the end of the world.
Basically, people “stop believing in money.” Presciently—it was published thirty years ago, when banking systems relied significantly less on computers—Vonnegut imagines that money’s increasing abstraction topples world economies in a giant chain reaction. Customers no longer feel secure exchanging electronic 1s and 0s, demanding instead tangible goods. Nations no longer honor debts which exist only as (electronic) ledger entries; they insist on actual barter of physical goods. Powerful countries attack weaker ones for natural resources. Killing and destruction spread worldwide until only a few humans who happen to be cruising to the Galapagos Islands are left alive.
Vonnegut hits upon the key to the whole question, What will trade look like at the end of the world? It will come down to what people believe. Yes, of course people would surely stop attacking each other and pool resources if the world were truly ending. But first they would have to understand and believe that it’s for-real, no-kidding ending, and that cooperation would save them. That hurdle may be permanently too high to clear. Consider our capacity for self-deception: most people consider themselves above average in intelligence and various abilities, for example, though that’s statistically impossible. Consider our petty competitiveness. Consider our penchant for believing what we want to believe: “I’m sure I can change him”; “Donald Trump will drain the swamp.” Between hoping the signs aren’t as bad as they look, and our fervent desire for at least the appearance of stability and normalcy, more likely than not we’ll be pursuing business as usual right up to our final hour, bickering over coins as the ashes fall.