Last Updated on December 14, 2020
They say that if you don’t study history, you are doomed to repeat it. Well then, what lessons from the past can we learn that can help us better prepare for the hard times we know are coming?
In an effort to understand hard-times, the Great Depression may offer the best opportunity for learning. Families lost their homes and businesses due to foreclosure, and shanty towns sprang up across the country as a refuge for the homeless. Unemployed men traveled the railways to different locations, desperately searching for work. Bread lines and soup kitchens were the only forms of sustenance for many, during the Great Depression. Surely, we as preppers can do better than that. Can’t we?
While the Great Depression was a nightmare for a large number of people, many never felt real hardship, and some became wealthy. There are lessons from the past to be learned from the successes and failures that apply to prepping. Let’s look at a few of them:
Floyd Bostwick Odlum anticipated a stock market crash, cashed in many of the stocks he thought would fail, and was left with a lot of cash when the market crash happened. He used that cash to buy failing companies at drastically reduced prices and then used those assets to make more cash. His strategy was so successful, that he became one of the ten wealthiest men in the country.
Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father), amassed an enormous amount of wealth, primarily through real estate, during the Great Depression.
On the other end of the spectrum were investors who didn’t anticipate the crash. They believed that the good times would never end. Some, in fact, borrowed money for the purpose of buying stock. Some lived like the grasshopper (in the grasshopper and the ant fairy tale), never setting aside anything for a rainy day. Needless to say, when the crash happened, they were devastated.
Chain letters, offering get-rich-quick schemes, seem to have first appeared during the Great Depression. That, no doubt, was an effort to take advantage of people’s desperation. E-mail scams and social engineering are today’s version of that.
In the mountain communities of Appalachia, whole families were reduced to dandelions and blackberries for their basic diet.
What can we learn from those examples?
The things you consider assets now, may not be assets after the SHTF. Own things that will be of great value to you, and to others, post-SHTF. Put yourself in a position to thrive, not just survive, in an economic downturn. Be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Being able to adapt to jobs in different fields is essential.
Don’t be fooled by get-rich-quick schemes. Expect an uptick in scams as shysters try to take advantage of people’s desperation.
Learn to grow, and preserve, your own food. You may have read some articles about growing your own food, but don’t overestimate your ability. Learn by doing. That’s the only way you’ll know for sure. What you don’t know might surprise you. It’s better to find out what can go wrong before you’re actually depending upon those crops for survival. Know how to minimize the effects of drought on your plants, because water may be a precious commodity. Save seeds from your own successful plants, but not from hybrid plants. Anticipate your needs, and act accordingly. You may be proud of yourself for canning 50 jars of tomatoes, and you should be, but how long will they last? If you consume just 1 jar a day, you’ll run out early in the winter. And needless to say, you can’t help others if you don’t even have enough to meet your own needs. During the Great Depression, communities supported each other and kept everyone fed.
Learn about container gardening, and growing indoors. Those too might be skills you’ll need in the future. Teach family members those skills, because you may have to travel to a distant location, in search of work.
Use the assets you have, and don’t waste anything. If you have an apple tree, make canned applesauce, and lots of it. Someone will be happy to accept applesauce in trade for something you need.
Understand what’s happening, as it happens. Mr. Odlum wasn’t just lucky. He didn’t like what he saw in the markets, and he took the appropriate actions. While few were as successful as Mr. Odlum, many businesses changed their tactics, in order to survive the Great Depression. Giveaways, diversification, more and better advertising, better service, and providing more for less, were just a few of the ways many businesses were able to stay afloat. Depending upon the nature of your business, one or more of those strategies might just help you weather the storm that you know is coming. Plan now, before it’s too late.
What else should you be aware of?
Crime surged during the Great Depression, primarily because desperate people will do desperate things. This should tell you that money you spend on security, weapons, and ammo is money well spent. Cultivate good relationships with family and friends. You’ll need them, and they’ll need you, to stay safe and protected.
Watch the Signs:
Early on, the United States focused on domestic issues and did not directly intervene in conflicts overseas. But with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States could no longer continue its isolationism policy. If conflicts overseas are ignored, sooner or later they’ll arrive on our doorstep.
The government initiated several programs during the Great Depression, including giving away blankets. These came to be known as “Hover Blankets”, named after the president at the time, Herbert Hoover. Sound familiar? Recently, President Obama gave free phones to the needy. They became known as “Obama Phones”. Some believe that the United States dodged a bullet when Donald J. Trump was elected. Time will tell.
When the Great Depression hit, Mexican-Americans were accused of taking jobs away from “real” Americans and of unfairly burdening local relief efforts. Some were “encouraged” to return to Mexico. Sound familiar? Not just that, but Californians tried to stop migrants from moving into their state. It’s hard to believe these things actually happened in a state with so many “Sanctuary Cities” today. Don’t be surprised if you see a quick change in attitudes towards people who are not native to your area, once the SHTF. Just like in the past, minorities will be hardest-hit in the event of another economic downturn.
President Roosevelt succeeded President Hoover, and his “New Deal” radically changed the role of the Federal Government. Many were helped, but unfortunately, some came to believe that the government was the solution to every problem. Sadly, many people still believe that and don’t feel that they need to contribute to society. Programs initiated during the Roosevelt administration, such as Social Security, FDIC Insurance, and Unemployment Insurance benefitted many Americans then, and still do today. But, for everything to work like a well-oiled machine, labor participation needs to go up, as welfare participation goes down. To have a healthy economy, all mentally and physically able people need to pull their own weight. If history repeats itself, we’ll see new social programs and new abuses of those programs.
Unless we have leaders who effectively deal with waste, fraud, and abuse, taxes will rise dramatically.
If you run out of money as you’re adjusting to a major financial crisis, it’s a problem. If you have money, it’s just another day. The Great Depression created hard times for about 40% of the population, but that means that 60% did alright. And, a small segment of the population did exceptionally well. Which group will you be in?
Prepare to prosper, not just survive. To do that, you’ll first need to stay healthy. Your odds of staying healthy improve if you have plenty of nutritious food, clean water, comfortable living conditions, and security. If you’re currently out of shape, you should do something about that. Life will be strenuous after the SHTF, and you need to be ready for that. Consider creating a strategy based on your present training and skills. If you’re a builder, can you practice your trade without electricity, and with limited availability of supplies? If you’re in the medical field, having a good knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs will be helpful. Having the ability to repair shoes and clothing will be another in-demand skill because many will not be able to buy new things. Bicycles will become a popular way of transportation when people can no longer afford cars, or when gasoline is either not available, or too expensive. Knowing how to maintain them will be a valuable skill.
It’s interesting to note that the suffering during the Great Depression was not only due to the collapse of banks and the failure of retail businesses. Those who made their living by farming or raising cattle suffered through an extreme drought in the early depression years. This, perhaps, is another learning opportunity. Water is life. Know what to do in the event that your current supply dries up. Rainwater can be captured from your roof, and stored if you have the appropriate catchment devices and containers. 55-gallon food-grade containers are available from local sources, such as farm supply outlets. Know how to purify water to make it safe for drinking. Have portable equipment, in the event, you need to bug out.
You may choose a strategy based on the nature of the disaster you anticipate. To prepare for a powerful EMP, store sensitive electrical devices and components in a Faraday Cage. Learn about solar power systems, and stock up on component parts for that. After all, electrical devices are of no value if you have no way to power them. Imagine the value of a sustainable alternative source of electricity, in the event of a widespread power outage. Imagine yourself as one of the few who can pick up emergency broadcasts (if they still exist), and have 2-way radio communications with others. Having the ability to boil water, and cook food, without a tell-tale fire in your back yard helps to hide those activities from unwelcome guests. Things like lights, walkie-talkies, and security equipment will contribute to your safety and comfort. You could be one of the few in your community with a working TV. Broadcasts may no longer exist, but DVD’s will last virtually forever. Escape from your troubles once in a while, as many did in the depression years. At the very least, a working TV provides a way to entertain the young, keeping their minds off of the serious nature of the situation. The ability to play movies, shows, and recorded music will be a great moral booster.
An EMP will damage most modern automobiles, and the rest would last only as long as gasoline is available. However, automotive batteries will probably survive an EMP attack, and can be re-purposed as emergency power sources. Sadly though, after a widespread grid power outage, only a few people will have the ability to recharge them. Will they bring their batteries to you, for recharging? Probably, if you have one or more solar panels. Consider stocking up on rechargeable flashlight batteries, and purchasing a good quality charger. Recharging flashlight and equipment batteries is another service you could provide, in exchange for things you need.
The cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically over the past few years, to the point where almost everyone can afford a solar electric system. The cost of energy-efficient LED lights has also dropped dramatically. Where it once required 60 watts to power a light bulb, you can now get the same amount of light from a bulb requiring only 9 watts. So you see, even a small system is of great value. Don’t be misled by those who’ll tell you solar electric is not practical. I’m sure they mean well, but perhaps are not aware of recent advances. And, as I previously mentioned, automotive batteries may be available at little or no cost, greatly cutting the cost of a complete system. Use marine (deep discharge) batteries if possible, since those are better suited to off-grid solar electric systems, but automotive batteries are fine as an emergency power source.
Begin by determining how much power you need, and then put together a system large enough to meet that need. I’ve posted a TPJ article in January of 2017 that tells how to do that. Your EMP-protected electronics stockpile should include a good quality multi-meter, preferably an analog type since a digital one would be more susceptible to an EMP. Understand that an EMP attack may be followed by another EMP attack at a later time. Keep devices you’re not using in a Faraday Cage. Keep a good supply of spare parts, such as blocking diodes for the solar panels. If you can afford it, keep duplicates of all critical equipment. LED bulbs might also be damaged by an EMP, so keep some protected spares of those.
There are a great many disasters, other than an EMP attack, that can cause long-term and widespread power outages. For that reason, I consider alternative power a high priority.
If you anticipate a financial collapse, and your goal is to become wealthy, you might choose to store large amounts of gold or silver, since paper money may be worthless. If you simply want to survive a zombie apocalypse, then perhaps weapons, ammo, and fortifications are more in tune with your prepper philosophy. There is no one-size-fits-all plan. It’s important to learn as much as you can, because you may not always be able to “Google” things.
Does your survival strategy take into consideration where you live? If you live in a cold climate, you’ll have to stay warm. If you live in a warm climate, you’ll have to stay cool. If you live in a big city, you’ll need a bug out plan. If you live in the desert, you’ll have to be concerned about water. Well, you get the idea. Stockpiling is a short-term solution to a disaster. To survive in the long run, you have to have a sustainable strategy. Prepare for a scenario where every service you depend upon suddenly no longer exists. Start with your most basic needs (water, food, and shelter), and work outward from there.
When disaster strikes, you may find strength through optimism, as many did during the Great Depression. Many looked at their disadvantages as personal challenges that could be overcome with ingenuity and hard work. There was virtually no sense of entitlement. People understood that they would only survive if they worked hard. Many came to realize that they’d been given a great gift; an opportunity to experience the love of family and friends in a way that is almost unimaginable today. Those who lived through the Great Depression learned to appreciate the simple life and to have compassion for those in need. If history does repeat itself, I hope I can at least match that level of compassion and generosity. I hope you can too.
Editors Note: Another guest contribution from John D to The Prepper Journal.