Here’s the Future of America

Writing from:  Aspen, CO.  I’m speaking/attending the National Geographic Environmental Conference (focus of the conference:  adapting to climate change).

I had the good fortune of sitting on a conference panel with Mayor Fetterman of Braddock, PA.

He’s a great bear of a guy (he makes me, at 6′ 1″ and well built, look small in comparison), but despite his size, he looked like he was slowly being crushed by the weight of the world when he showed up at the panel.

His story explains why.  He’s spent the last decade trying to save a storied American town, crushed by global economic and financial forces.  Forces that gutted a prosperous steel town of 18,000 with some historical treasures (e.g. the first Carnegie Library) and a thriving retail sector.

When Fetterman arrived in Braddock, the town was already in shambles.  The population had fallen to below 3,000 and gang crime was rampant.  In fact, the landscape of the town was so bleak, the town was used as a setting for the darkest apocalypse movie I’ve ever seen, “The Road

Condemned houses in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Undeterred, he set to work.  He cleaned up the crime.  Built a local organic farm inside a no-go zone, to produce food for a town without a supermarket.   He also established a craftwork that produces high quality and inexpensive ($15) ceramic water filters.

However, despite this progress, it seemed that with every advance he made, something always dragged him backwards.

The day I met him, the good news was that a well-known organic chef was opening a restaurant in Braddock (due in part to the success of the organic farm there).  The bad news came in a phone call that woke him at 5AM:  somebody in his small town had been shot.  More bad headlines.


“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

William Gibson


When I met the Mayor, it was pretty clear to me that the story of Braddock isn’t a story about how a steel town failed.

Instead, Braddock is our future.

A future created by a perfect storm of financial and environmental disasters that is already ravaging the landscape.  A future that will manufacture tens of thousands of Braddocks — small towns to major cities mired in the intractable muck of an economic depression (D2).

Fortunately, we have the capacity to prevent this outcome in our communities.

However, as we saw with Mayor Fetterman’s heroic yet Sisyphean task to make Braddock resilient, it’s much tougher to do after the damage is done.  After the wealth, skills, and talent leaves.  After the infrastructure and social networks decay.

In this way, Braddock serves as a cautionary tale.  A warning from the future.

This is the message I brought to Aspen.   Braddock tells us to get to work, sooner rather than later, on building Networked Resilient Communities.

Networked Resilient Communities bounce back when faced with the types of financial, economic, and moral assaults that reduced Braddock to dysfunction.

Networked Resilient Communities integrate the production of food, energy, and water into the community’s fabric.  They smartly leverage the best technologies and methodologies (e.g. permaculture) to maximize the quality, quantity, and availability of essential goods.  This production will prove invaluable when retailers depart (Braddock lost all of its retail, including its supermarket) and utility providers find it impossible to provide regular service (blackouts, disruptions, bankruptcy, depletion, shortages, rationing…).

Networked Resilient Communities aren’t insular.  They understand a larger world exists and even if the economy is depressed, they are actively entrepreneurial.  They seek new sources of income.  However, they don’t do this by courting large businesses.  They do this by helping small artisinal businesses and co-ops learn to export goods and services to the larger world.   Why?  A group of nimble, small businesses like these produce a diverse income stream (where if one goes dry, another takes its place).  They also can be flexible on terms (trade, barter, new currencies, etc.) in ways that larger businesses cannot.

Networked Resilient Communities build local platforms that make it easier for everyone in the community to produce.  From tool libraries to Saturday fix-it sessions to hackerspaces to co-working spaces to solar co-ops to community supported agriculture to garden allotments to community currencies.   Platforms that make the common things needed for productive tasks easier and less expensive.  Platforms that make community building and business formation easier.

The Good News:  The Resilient Community Network is Growing.

We’re getting more innovators and contributors every day.  People who are dealing and solving the problems — from overcoming antiquated zoning to finding alternative means of financing projects — we face.

If you are already a member of this amazing community, thanks again.

If you aren’t, join us.  The future awaits.


Your future is local, productive, and connected analyst,



PS:  Let’s design/copy, prototype, and test methods our compatriots in Braddock can use to become resilient.   Methods that many will find very useful in the future.

Get Self-Reliance Updates
Be the first to get fresh Walden Labs updates straight to your inbox. Your email address will never be shared
  • R Greej

    Are there any existing “resilient” communities identified in Arizona?


    john, been reading your stuff for 4 years now and this one here is –imho– might be the most brilliant piece you’ve ever written, as well as perhaps as one of the most incisively realistic yet optimistic analyses of our current challenges i’ve yet to read on the interwebs.

    thanks for the breakdown & the pickup — time to get a’workin & a’playin, yes?

    how’s the wiki coming along?

    • John Robb

      Thanks much.

      PS: I’ll resurrect the wiki in the future. Focusing on getting this right first.

      • Jan Steinman

        Need some help? I’m pretty good at setting up, maintaining, and administering MediaWiki sites — the same software used by WikiPedia.

        Our own resilient community website is based on Mediawiki, as is Ecovillage Newsletter, which author Diana Leafe Christian didn’t want to look like WikiPedia.

  • Burgundy

    As John Michael Greer put it, “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush”.

    Excellent post John. Creating a resilient system to sustain the lives of everyone in a community is not something that can be done quickly. It takes years or even decades. Once the economic, climatic and energy crises reach criticality and become self-sustaining, it will be nigh on impossible to do. Which begs the question, how long have we got left before that happens?

  • Connor Sites-Bowen

    John- been reading your stuff for a while. If you ever want to come to Pittsburgh/Braddock and check out the different resilient communities we are building, as well as amazing amounts of crashed rustbelt ruins, drop me a line. I help run a makerspace / art space called Assemble, and we’d love to have you speak there.

    • John Robb

      Connor, Thanks much. I need to put together a road trip. JR

  • David

    It’s tough to re-attract the talent. In my experience, crime must first be reduced to a tolerable level. What is that level? Quants don’t apply. All I can say is that if an environment exduces the reptilian mind, not the higher mind, the talent can’t stand the place.