Front Porch Republic held its fifth annual conference titled “Sustainable Localism: Sages, Prophets and Jesters” in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom on Saturday Oct. 3. Speakers addressed varied localist concerns including the direction of national politics and the state of small industrial cities. The conference included a panel about the career of social critic and former University of Rochester professor Christopher Lasch. Historian and University of Rochester professor Robert Westbrook, Lasch’s biography’s author Eric Miller and Lasch’s daughter Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, conducted the panel titled “The Life, Thought, and Legacy of Christopher Lasch.”
Topics mainly centered on what Lasch called the modern “culture of narcissism” as well as his belief in the “the politics of nostalgia.” Panelists examined at social problems through these lenses.
After a lunch break, author of The Geography of Nowhere James Howard Kunstler performed his keynote address titled “Looking for Sustainability in All the Wrong Places.” Kunstler’s main focus was what he termed the current “period of profound wishful thinking.”
Kunstler identified a “misallocation of resources” in multiple American enterprises from farming to finance. According to him, midsize cities rather than large metropolises and sprawling suburbs are the future of American communities. He said that the next century will revolve around the “unwinding of globalization … [and] other arrangements for daily life in America and the end of the ‘suburban project.’”
Following the keynote presentation was another short break followed by a panel discussion titled “Urban Design: Buffalo as a Representative City.” This panel included a presentation by Catherine Tumber entitled “Provincial Cities and Spatial Democracy in the Age of Global Warming.” Continuing one of the major themes from Kunstler’s presentation, Tumber said that she is “making a bid for long maligned industrial cities from Toledo to Rochester.”
Tumber stated that “most smaller industrial cities have the most fertile land on earth,” but due to “urban sprawl and the petroleum-based economy,” they are under-utilized. She also discussed the writings of activist Jane Jacobs and sociologist Lewis Mumford.
After Tumber, preservationist Tim Tielman shifted focus from the standing of certain cities to how they were civilly engineered. Titled “Paleo-urban Principles for the Modern Town,” Tielman’s presentation utilized pictures of different urban areas. Images showed what Tielman termed “the friction of space,” which he described as a problem with how cities organize points of interest and “green spaces.”
Many of the addresses were focused on the present and future, but during the final panel discussion “In God’s Country,” political writer for The American Conservative Bill Kauffman almost exclusively spoke of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Kauffman worked as an aide under Moynihan for a number of years. He described Moynihan as “a pugnacious, populist wit who understood the New York north and west of Yonkers.” Kauffman did compare Moynihan to modern partisan politicians, adding that “he was well to the left of Democrats on foreign policy, but well to the right on domestic affairs.”
Other speakers and presenters included Abbot Gerard D’Souza, author and English professor Jason Peters, philanthropic consultant for FPR Jeremy Beer and political science professor Jeffrey Polet. The conference was attended by a diverse blend of students and outside spectators, including groups from Arizona and Illinois.
In his 2005 book The Long Emergency, Kunstler wrote about the impetus that he and others seem to be under. “Above all, and most immediately, we face the end of the cheap fossil fuel era,” he wrote in the book. “All the necessities, comforts, luxuries and miracles of our time … owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel.”