Lars Hallstrom: Coal Communities and Economic Diversification

“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

Welcome to the Global Speaker Series. a podcast partnership between the Wyoming Humanities and the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs (

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.

Emy diGrappa: Hello. I'm Emy diGrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guest the question, "Why?" We learn about their passion. Why they do what they do. Why should we care. And what can we learn. What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities. Serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. This is What's your Why.

Emy diGrappa: This interview is part of our global speaker series. A partnership between Think Why, Wyoming Humanities, and Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs. And today, we are talking to political scientist, researcher, and professor, Lars Hallstrom. He has focused his work on rural sustainability in Alberta and Canada. Based largely in three areas, environmental sustainability, water; social sustainability, aging and youth; and institutional sustainability, rural municipal planning, policy, and governance. Welcome Lars.

Lars Hallstrom: Thank you for having me.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. That was a mouthful, wasn't it?

Lars Hallstrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: You do a lot of research. And I thought it was very interesting, just the range, you know, and just in reading your background that you are a political scientist by training. And then you found a way to combine all of these, your teaching and research into these different areas of study. So, tell me how that became your pursuit and passion in your work.

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.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. But really, when I think about how you looked at it, and it almost feels like you had some inspiration to make that your focus. Really.

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.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, yeah. For sure. And what are some of the connections that you could make in rural communities in Canada and Alberta that you can connect to Wyoming? Because we're such a rural state.

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.

Emy diGrappa: Yes. Oh, my gosh. Really. So-

Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: ... you have a history with coal as well as Wyoming. And what are the fel- the challenges that you're facing in regards to coal's future? And what is the response right now?

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.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. Really. And outside of Wyoming, have you looked at other communities around the world? Um, have you looked at China and looked at what are they doing? What are they changing? What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? You know, and- and what can be done?

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?

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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.

Emy diGrappa: Hmm.

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."

Emy diGrappa: (laughs). Right.

Lars Hallstrom: I'm going to find a way- a way to make you something else. Right?

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative). 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.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

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.

Emy diGrappa: So, I have to ask you, because that is a- that is our challenge and you obviously understand that challenge. So if you could snap your fingers and make a policy come true in Wyoming or Alberta, that would change things for the better, what would your wish be?

Lars Hallstrom: (laughs). Well, since we're talking about fantasy land, I'd probably go back about 45 years-

Emy diGrappa: (laughs).

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.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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.

Emy diGrappa: Well, here's another situation that I'm wondering if you're taking into consideration. And that is, you know, the fact that our populations are changing in these rural communities in terms of, you know, the millennials are growing up and do you think they have an interest in working in a coal mine?

Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: (laughs). I'm just putting that out there because-

Lars Hallstrom: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: ... you know, they're- they have different interests and a lot of them are ... you know, that's one thing Wyoming is grappling with is there- they want to keep their young people here. And so, are you experiencing those same issues in Alberta?

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.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. Absolutely. Boy, that- that's really grim when you think about it. What are- what are people going to do when automation takes over so many jobs? And- and I think because our young people are- are a lot different than say you or I when we were growing up. They have s- it's so different in terms of what they have available to them in technology.

Lars Hallstrom: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Now, I can't even imagine living without my cell phone. Well, they are 10 times worse than I am.

Lars Hallstrom: Yeah, but there's certainly, I mean, w- we've done a number of studies here on connectivity in rural broadband.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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.

Emy diGrappa: Uh, yeah. (laughs). Exactly. You just-

Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: ... you just made my point right there, Lars. (laughs). So, I'm going to end on a bright note, because that's so huge to think about. Unless you have, like the magic key and the answer, it's just something that I feel like we're going to have to painfully go through to get to the other side. Don't you?

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.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. And that's- that's excellent. And- and it's good that necessity is the mother of invention.

Lars Hallstrom: Yeah. Yeah. But I'll- I'll challenge that.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. (laughs).

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.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs). I like yours better. (laughs).

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.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

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.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lars Hallstrom: As these transitions take place.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

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.

Emy diGrappa: Right. Right. Well, uh, it's been great talking to you.

Lars Hallstrom: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: Boy, I can-

Lars Hallstrom: Thank you so much, Emy.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah, I- I'll- we'll have to circle back around sometime and- and see how things are going in Alberta. Because I think- I think we're- we're both Wyoming and Alberta are definitely in places of- of big transition right now.

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.

Emy diGrappa: Well, Lars, I read in your bio that you are a guitarist.

Lars Hallstrom: (laughs). That's true.

Emy diGrappa: And, um, I was really happy to read that. That you weren't, that you didn't just have your head stuck all the time in a book. (laughs).

Lars Hallstrom: No, I, uh, I was actually working on a set list for our next show before this call.

Emy diGrappa: Oh.

Lars Hallstrom: So, I l- I've busy.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, good. Oh, good. (laughs). Well, thank you so much and have a- have a great evening.

Lars Hallstrom: Thank you so much.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Lars Hallstrom: Take care.

Emy diGrappa: Bye.

Lars Hallstrom: Bye-bye.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's your Why. A production of Think Why, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information go to