“The reality is… if you’re a rural community that does not have good broadband and there’s still a lot of it out there, it is a real challenge, but if you don’t have that infrastructure as a community then you may as well forget about getting anybody under the age of 35 to even think about moving there” – Lars Hallstrom
Lars Hallstrom is a political scientist by training, with a long-standing combination of teaching and research interests in comparative politics, environmental policy, environmental health, public health and natural resource management. He is the first Director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities, University of Alberta (ACSRC) since 2009.
They have conducted over 40 projects related to rural sustainability in Alberta and Canada (based largely in 3 priority areas: environmental sustainability (water), social sustainability (aging and youth), and institutional sustainability (rural/municipal planning, policy and governance). They have also partnered with researchers, research networks and rural development organizations (such as the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation) around the world.
In addition to rurally-focused work, he continues to work with different teams of researchers in Canada, the USA and the EU on environmental policy and planning issues such as water and watershed management, municipal planning and governance, regionalization, innovation and most recently the possibility of a new/alternative pedagogy for sustainability.
Lars Hallstrom: The reality is if you're- if you're a rural community that does not have good broadband, and there's still lots of them. Not just in Canada, but around the world. Where connectivity is a real challenge, including cellular. But if you don't have that infrastructure as a community, then you may as well forget about getting anybody under the age of 35 to even think about moving there.
Lars Hallstrom: Thank you for having me.
Lars Hallstrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lars Hallstrom: Good question. Part of it comes from my upbringing and my personal history in, um, growing up in different places around the world. But also, then, as I started my education as an undergraduate, not only being able to continue that education internationally, but starting to- to see and live in and experience first-hand, the way that different kinds of policy dynamics, like the environment or health for example, are connected. And y- the reality being that while I started thinking about political science in a pretty narrow and conventional way about protest movements and collective action. It became very apparent as I started to build my research into graduate school, that there were much bigger questions about how these different components that we like to separate actually fit together. And how things like environmental policy can link with planning can link with how we design our communities can link with how we educate our youth to how we treat our senior and people who, maybe, have physical or developmental challenges to the ways that we try and develop or not develop our economies and govern them. So, it's been a long and complicated journey.
Lars Hallstrom: Part of it comes from as a youth, I have family in- in Germany. And following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the- the Berlin Wall, I had an opportunity to- to travel to East- former East Germany and see some of the environmental damage that had happened there. Uh, particularly what is called the Black Triangle. The intersection of Germany, what is now the Czech Republic, uh, and Poland. That was in 1990. And then being able to, sort of, layer that against some of my experiences with, uh, both working in and having family working in, uh, the energy sector all over the world. But then, also, working with more marginalized communities. Um, as my career developed in different parts of Canada and starting to see how not everything that is seen is beneficial always plays out to everybody's benefit.
Lars Hallstrom: Yeah, I mean, that- there are- there are a lot of similarities. Both geographically, of course, and- and also politically. We have, for those who aren't fam- too familiar with Alberta, Alberta is- is often, from a Canadian standpoint, kind of considered to be one of the more American style provinces. We've had conservative government, small C conservative government then capital C conservative governments here for, pretty much, the last 80 years. Uh, we actually just elected another conservative government a few weeks ago. And we have some very strong connections to the US. To- to open spaces, to ranching, to agriculture, we have the mountain based tourism, just like Jackson Hole. Uh, we do have lots and lots of coal and of course, uh, huge amounts of- of other kinds of natural resource extraction. And we're- we're western. We're at a distance from our capital city of Ottawa. We've got some degree of what is called western alienation. We even have a provincial separatist movement. Uh, seeking to establish the province as its own country. And we continue to struggle with the reality of being very industrially dependent upon a small number of industries. And some of the environmental, social, and economic challenges that that can present. I think there's a lot of similarities.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).
Lars Hallstrom: The- the re- the immediate challenge, and this comes from both the- the federal government and here in the province from the previous provincial government, which is basically to find a way to move a number of rural communities away from being almost exclusively coal dependent. We have relied upon, historically, coal for, uh, almost two dozen coal fired power plants. Uh, across the province. These power plants are built right next to the coal mines. Like huge swath of the province is a coal seam in one way or the other. May not be great coal, depending on where you are. May not be very deep. Might only be a few inches. Might be several dozen meters.
Lars Hallstrom: But these communities, such as, uh, for example, Forestburg, which is not very far from where I live, has a- a large plant that's slowly converting over to natural gas. But the community that has really risen up around the coal mine and the plant over the last 80 years. And so the question is what do you do when you are required to, or are incentivized to phase out the use of coal for both environmental and economic and other developmental reasons? So, the province has put, uh, and the federal government as well has put quite a bit of money into trying to find ways to ease this transition. But it's still very troubling to any community. And it's a bit of a, uh, forewarning about what being single industry dependent can mean for a rural community of several hundred or a few thousand people.
Lars Hallstrom: Yeah, and I think that's the natural, the- there're two dynamics that played in there. They're not unique to the coal question, they're part of the broader question of rural development and rural sustainability. Whether it's in the United States, whether it's in Europe, whether it's in Asia, or in Australia, and the first tension is well what worked somewhere else, and the second question is well will it work here?
Lars Hallstrom: And there's an odd dynamic where rural communities often like to feel that they're really unique and special. And they- they typically are, they're very diverse. But we also know that there are broader- broader patterns. From a Canadian standpoint, and I would suspect for Wyoming as well, probably the- the better lessons to look at, maybe, are coming from different parts of the European Union.
Lars Hallstrom: And certainly we have not seen a mag- there's not magic bullet. There's never a magic bullet to this. This is a case of what is called, is conditional economy. And if we look at Germany, for example, um, as we know from the- the event that was held in Jackson Hole last year, they, in the Saarland, they have spent a huge amount of money to transform, uh, an entirely coal mining dependent region, uh, that was an industrial anchor for several hundred years into a post-coal community. But this takes engagement from the private sector. It takes engagement from mining communities, uh, mining industry. It takes engagement from community. It takes political leadership from the local all the way up, in that case to the European Union that cost a huge amount of money. It's, uh, it's a bit like, let's say, if I were to take an American example, going to Detroit and saying, "Well, you don't make cars anymore."
Lars Hallstrom: I'm going to find a way- a way to make you something else. Right?
Lars Hallstrom: Uh, and, you know, the- the market kind of has done that. But, this is a very pronounced policy based approach to saying, "We cannot- c- we can no longer really rely upon this pat- particular industrial emphasis." And unlike larger cities, or areas like Alberta, or Wyoming, or Montana, the opportunities to diversity, I mean, your choices, if you're- if you grew up and are working in a coal mine or in a coal fired power plant and they close, your- your options are not very great.
Lars Hallstrom: You'll most likely have to pick up your family and- and move. And unlike in the German case where you have quite a high degree of concentration and high population density like you- you might look at that, the Saar region of- of Germany and say it's rather rural, but it's rural in a very European way. Which is, you know, nothing's more than 15, 10 15 miles away at the most. Whereas, as you know, out in the western United States, and western Canada, you can drive for hours without, you know, coming across anything that would resemble much, or very, very small communities. So where- where do you move? What do you do with people? How do you find ways to get them to- to stay where they've grown up. Where their kids, maybe, are going to school, or they've worked for much of their careers or their lives. It seems that that takes a significant amount of intervention. If we just let market do it, if you just phase out the industry, you just need a closing up of the shop, so to speak.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs). Well, since we're talking about fantasy land, I'd probably go back about 45 years-
Lars Hallstrom: ... and spend a lot more money on diversification. We- we're at a very interesting point now, from- from an ecological standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from a political standpoint. And there's some, I mean, energy, whether it's coal, oil, and gas, etc. the- these are very, very large corporations with very significant cost and profit margins. So there- there are lots of reasons for a high degree of inertia.
Lars Hallstrom: But at the same time, we also know that that innovation happens. And substitution happens. Right? So we know- we know that we can move from coal fired plants to natural gas plants. And that they can actually yield positive economic results. But, we- we tend to do so in a rather reactionary fashion. Right? We wait for the problem to emerge, and maybe to crest and then we act. And it- it's not that it's too late, but it actually compounds the costs of doing so. So, I- I think one of the things that, and, you know, does involve a little bit of time travel, but it- it's worth talking about it now because we'll see it with other industries in rural areas in- in the US and in Canada. Which is to actually look forward and to say, "Well, we're very dependent upon this industry now." It might be cattle, it might be meat processing, it might be very specific, uh, agricultural products. It might be coal. It might be natural gas, could be oil sand, as the case here. What will the global economy be looking for in 50 years? We can't see into the future, but we- we cannot, we should have learned by now that we cannot simply expect that things will always stay the same.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).
Lars Hallstrom: Yeah.
Lars Hallstrom: Oh, abs- absolutely. We've seen, in the space of two generations, basically, uh, a complete flip of the rural to urban ratio. So Al- Alberta is now 85% urban, or city-based and about 15, depending on how you count it, 15 to 20% rural. Whereas, you know, in- in the 50s and the 60s it would have been the other way around. It would have been 85% rural. And the- the idea that rural youth are- are leaving their communities is absolutely true. And it's not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back here to the 1850s. And it exists. In the US it's called hollowing out the middle, or there's a youth brain drain. In Canada we call it learning to leave, you know. Kids grow up and if they're smart, and they're the best in their class, they go off to a city to go to university. Or they go off to go to vocational education, etc. and it's very tough to recruit them back. And that means that we functionally have rural communities that are not only losing their youth, but in very small agricultural communities, with age and people sell off their farms and retire, A there's nobody ta- to take up the agricultural reins, pardon the pun.
Lars Hallstrom: Um, nor is there necessarily demand to move back in and- and work in coal, for example. Uh, and that's compounded then by automation. Right? Heavy industry like that is historically has lagged a little bit in terms of automation, but is now, as we've seen here in Alberta, really starting to pick up. So there aren't even necessarily jobs to take if you did want to come back and work in that industry. If you were in- in that minority. Which doesn't paint a very rosy picture for a lot of smaller rural communities across North America.
Lars Hallstrom: Yeah.
Lars Hallstrom: Yeah, but there's certainly, I mean, w- we've done a number of studies here on connectivity in rural broadband.
Lars Hallstrom: And the reality is if th- you- if you're a rural community that does not have good broadband and there's still lots of them. Um, not just in Canada but around the world. Where connectivity is a real challenge, including cellular. But if you don't have that infrastructure as a community, then you may as well forget about getting anybody under the age of 35 to even think about moving there.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).
Lars Hallstrom: Well, I mean, the- there's a long history of different approaches to rural development. Especially in the United States. Whether it's coming from extension offices, whether it's coming from land grant institutions, whether it's coming from government, whether it's coming from local communities, as in the case in Idaho, for example. And same here in Canada. Yes we're moving into what is probably- we've probably moved past what might be called a t- a tipping point. We're not- we're not going to reverse a demographic trend that's been going on for a century. But I think we're also moving to a point where people are starting to be aware of what the implications are of these shifts, right?
Lars Hallstrom: So you can go 100 years and have mining and or oil and gas dependent communities and economies. And we kind of have come to see them as normal. But these- these pressures on them happen very quickly. And it does force, uh, pl- policy, political, and personal attention. So then, people have to decide if they're willing to- to really watch this part of their community or of their province or of their state or of their identity just go away. Some- some people will be fine with it. And others are actually fighting quite hard to- to try to find ways to keep their communities alive an vibrant. And to find ways to- to diversity and to innovate and to- to push the ways that economic development and investment take place. Because they- they have value. In- in the spaces and the places and the services where they live.
Lars Hallstrom: Yeah. Yeah. But I'll- I'll challenge that.
Lars Hallstrom: Is with- with- with the- the reality, and we won't do the attributions, but there is- there is the line that, you know, the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs). So, you know, innovation is key. And if you had asked any farmer or rancher 100 years ago about what they wanted, they wouldn't have talked about broadband. They wouldn't have talked about access to markets or ... they would have asked for- for a stronger, faster, or bigger horse.
Lars Hallstrom: So, you know, it is- it is worth our time to think about where are these trajectories taking us. Nobody can see into the future, but w- we do know that factors such as diversification, connectivity, forecasting type thinking, and community engagement, i.e. getting the community to think about their future, are all really important things.
Lars Hallstrom: As these transitions take place.
Lars Hallstrom: And- and that means people are, in my experience, very willing to, not just engage with, wanting to have a voice in their future. But w- understanding that- that without taking that step to having that voice they don't have any stake left at all.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).
Lars Hallstrom: Thank you so much, Emy.
Lars Hallstrom: I- I agree. I- I think 10 or 15 years from now, maybe even five years from now, w- we could be looking at remarkably different economies and situations, both positive and or negative.
Lars Hallstrom: (laughs). That's true.
Lars Hallstrom: No, I, uh, I was actually working on a set list for our next show before this call.
Lars Hallstrom: So, I l- I've busy.
Lars Hallstrom: Thank you so much.
Lars Hallstrom: Take care.
Lars Hallstrom: Bye-bye.