Greg Halseth is co-editor and contributor to The Next Rural Economies: Constructing Rural Place in a Global Economy, a collection of essays aimed at promoting change in how we consider rural economies. In this interview with Northword contributor Amanda Follett, Halseth talks about the challenges and victories small towns and rural areas share worldwide and how, by being proactive in envisioning what they want for their futures, communities can better respond to a rapidly changing economic environment.
AF: Whom do you see as the book’s audience?
GH: We were very specific about who we were targeting. We wanted to be available to academic researchers and to graduate students, so that it can inform their work. It was also written so that it could be useful to local government decision-makers and to senior government policy people, who would be enmeshed in these issues of rural and small-town change.
AF: You had contributors from across Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia… How does their work apply to northern BC?
GH: We found a couple of things. First of all, since the problems were the same in many ways, we were able to learn about how they’re reacting to changes. Second, we were able to see the leading concepts and ideas being applied to understanding both changes and the responses to those changes. What we found was, northern BC is really at the cutting edge of ideas. Our work and the work of our colleagues here is really at the cutting edge of ideas seen around the world. That was a really rewarding and remarkable finding.
AF: In the chapter you wrote, you talk about place-based development. Can you explain the relationship between space and place as it relates to rural development?
GH: Historically, the development of rural frontier economies was based around the notion of accessing this space. It was about connecting a potential resource or agricultural region to markets. It was really about overcoming the challenges of space, so in the ’50s and ’60s in particular BC public policy was about roadways and railways and opening up these resource frontiers.
Well, today it’s a very different world. In this world where communications technology allows us to manage things globally, space is far less important. The question, in deciding where industry is going to invest, where capital is going to invest, is really more about the idiosyncrasies of places. If industry can be anywhere, virtually—they can assemble or develop things in a host of places around the world—why would they develop or invest in your place? What is useful, unique or special about your place that would attract a kind of development?
Our policies and approaches have not really kept pace with this rate of change, so in many cases we’re trying to catch up. Much of our work in highlighting this transition is to assist communities and policy in catching up so that BC and our rural or small-town places can remain competitive. So now the notion of place-based development really marries what communities might wish for their economic and community futures together with what their assets and features might be.
AF: It sounds like a shift from focusing on the negative, which would be the challenges of distance, versus shifting to the positive, which would be looking at unique aspects of the community. Is that a good way to summarize it?
GH: Not bad at all. In fact, add in there that this attention to place allows you as a community to be a much bigger player in where you go, so you can make more choices that might fit—you’re less reactive, you’re being proactive.
AF: Do you see northern BC moving away from a resource-based economy?
GH: I think for some time now we’ve had a fairly clear indication of what northern BC is doing and must do. That is building from strength to strength—going from a resource economy strength to an economy that still has a strong component in resources. Our resources are really highly valued around the world, but where we do diversification within those resource sectors—add value within those resource sectors—then we’re also adding other sectors and growing other sectors, and we’re diversifying within and across those other sectors.
AF: What’s driving that transition?
GH: There are a lot of things driving it, but the key thing is the way the global economy has transformed after 1980 and the significant recession then. Many more resource suppliers from around the world were coming online and a lot of those competitors are very low-cost competitors.
If we take the example of forestry: places where trees don’t take 100 years to grow, but take 12 years to grow. There’s been a push for a very long time to transform northern BC’s economy from one based on comparative advantage, where if you have lots of trees the model tells you to sell forest products, to one of competitive advantages. One that says, if you have lots of trees, be careful, lots of other places have trees too and they might be able to put low value-added products into the marketplace cheaper than you.
But what are the characteristics of your forest products that are special and unique? A successful player in that already has been our pulp and paper industry, which recognizes that our trees have very unique chemical and fibre properties and they’ve been quite different from those low-cost production sites where a tree that grows in 12 years doesn’t have those long fibre values.
AF: In the book’s introduction, there’s a line that says, “While an economic imperative to rural development remains, there is now greater consideration of culture, environment, and community issues and implications.” How do culture, environment and community fit into an economy that’s mainly focused on the bottom line?
GH: This has been one of the key aspects of the transition that the global economy has been going through. If we look historically at a very narrow-minded, bottom-line approach; if we look, not quite so historically, at efforts by large industries to remain competitive by focusing upon their core assets and jettisoning all their other activities, we find, in fact, that those other models aren’t being successful in maintaining either the corporations or the communities, and that those places that have been successful are taking a much broader approach to community development first and economic development second.
Because the pace of the global economy is such that if you get a successful economic development opportunity working in your community today, you should enjoy that success—maybe have a nice glass of wine tonight—but tomorrow morning you’d better start working on your next economic development option because the global economy changes very quickly and what is lucrative today may not be lucrative in five or 10 years. You always have to be prepared for this change. Being prepared for change means having robust community development foundations—services, attention to education, attention to a host of other things. We call them the four main infrastructures: physical infrastructure, human infrastructure, community infrastructure and economic infrastructure.
AF: With regard to development proposals for northern BC, when you consider resource extraction and the Enbridge pipeline, how do we convince urban-based industry or decision-makers about the importance of rural culture, environment and community?
GH: One of the things that we’ve found very important in working with industry on this matter is trying to talk about the things that are important for them in the long run. Several of them include old issues. For instance, the successful development of an industry depends upon a good workforce and maintaining that workforce. Well, what does the workforce want today? The new workforce is looking for a quality of life, a quality of environment; it’s looking for a balance between their work and their personal lives; it’s looking for a safe place to raise children; it’s looking for a community where you know people.
There are, of course, lots of opportunities for large-scale resource development, and communities have been fairly clear about how they wish to move with large resource developments. It’s about more benefits for communities, it’s about increased protection of the environment, greater attention to the mitigation of any risks that might be involved. It’s about jobs, not just for northerners, but jobs that respect the environment and quality of life for our northern communities as well.
Successful economic investment, wise economic investment, and wise policy development is looking for those things today. So, I think northern BC, like all rural and small town places, needs to continue to put forth its view on the future, its view on where it wishes to go with community and economic development, and continue to remind industrial, urban and policy audiences of what will work well and what will be successful.
More information about The Next Rural Economies: Constructing Rural Place in Global Economies _can be found at www.unbc.ca/cdi/nrebook.html _