Alberta in the 21st century contains several of the fastest-growing urban centers in North America, which have experienced explosive economic growth thanks to the significant rise of oil prices in recent years. Of course, Albertans have seen this before, most notably in the late 1970s, when oil prices, inflated by resource rationing by OPEC, skyrocketed overnight -- and created thousands of instant millionaires in the Alberta oil patch.
Though that boom went bust, on the surface, the same phenomenon appears to be at work today. But Albertans, ever-optimistic, say it's different this time. Pricey oil, they'll tell you, is due to rapidly escalating demand from places like India and China. And the law of supply and demand says that when demand is high, he who has the supply is bound to be happy.
When you consider that the second largest supply of oil in the world (after Saudi Arabia) sits in the province's northern oil sands, it's a safe bet that Alberta's a pretty happy place these days. The streets of Calgary, the heart of oil-fueled wealth and exuberance, are teeming with six-figure vehicles -- Maseratis, Bentleys, Lamborghinis -- and real estate in much of the province has, in desirable areas, at least doubled since 2002.
These are all the hallmarks of a boomtown that's all grown up, and economically Calgary has ever been the province's barometer. So when people here tell you that this time it's different, it's equal parts hope and reality. Alberta has what the entire world needs -- for the foreseeable future, -- and Albertans know it; there's little sense here of hope fading any time soon.
But the boom this time is different in less nuts-and-bolts ways, too; in the '70s, the province was oil-rich when oil was cheap. When it went up, there was the expected influx of outsiders from across the country, hungry for jobs, and when the bottom fell out a great many of them went home.
Thirty years on, Alberta is older and wiser. After laying fallow, this time the province's growth spurt has brought it an unprecedented spike in cosmopolitan diversity; international immigrants flock to the province now, looking not only to take part in the economic good times, but also to set up new lives. The result is the visibly changing face of a conservative province, settled by Scots Presbyterians but transforming into a cultural mosaic that seems to grow more diverse by the day.
And one of the principal assets of boom #1, the Heritage Fund -- a multi-billion dollar trust established by the government of the day from its share of oil revenues -- has, in the interim, fostered the new Alberta now enjoyed by the current generation. The Heritage Fund has financed public works projects all over the province, not the least of which have been investments in culture and education, dotting the province with state-of-the-art schools, arts venues, hospitals, and, of course, hockey rinks, among many, many other things. As a result, much of the province glitters with a sheen of surreal newness -- a place where the future has already arrived.
A frequent criticism is that Alberta goes in only one direction: forward. The companion to that, of course, is that as a culture Albertans don't do enough looking back. There's good support for that criticism, too, when you consider that less than half the province's population was born here; as a society of newcomers, history is an abstract concept at best.
But for those deep-seated Albertans, a worrying consequence of all the rapid growth has been a partial abdication of what made the province so attractive in the first place. And no, it's not just money; rather, it's the spectacular peaks of the Rockies and low, rolling green of the foothills in the run-up to the mountains, the broad plains of the Albertan prairie, and the deep river valleys and deltas that cradle much of the province's biodiversity.
As the boom has continued apace in recent years, much hand-wringing has taken place among long-time Albertans, as the northern Athabasca delta is increasingly fouled by the massive scale of extraction in the oil sands. Farther south, in Calgary and Edmonton, a similar alarm has risen as ever-sprawling suburbs claim thousands of acres of rolling foothills and plains -- Alberta's signature landscape, the subtle geographic moments leading to the less-subtle mountains, and the places where farming and ranching, the province's early lifeblood, forged the identity some fear may be forever lost to development's continued march.
There is a sense, however, that public opinion in go-go Alberta -- where they've learned to make hay while the sun shines, because, as the early '80s bust showed, it doesn't shine every day -- is starting to soften toward the preservation of its heritage.
While the right-leaning Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta has enjoyed uninterrupted rule, and a lopsided majority of seats, since 1971, the most recent provincial election, in 2008, showed some chinks in the armor. This is not to say that the Conservatives walked away with less than a majority (they had one and then some), but for the first time in memory environmental issues and the hell-bent pace of oil sands development were pushed to the center of the agenda. Perhaps for the first time ever, a majority of Albertans favored slowing the pace of the province's breakneck resource development -- unheard of in a place where the industry-friendly Conservative government had for decades given Big Oil a relative carte blanche.
This, in Alberta, is progress. In a place where the overriding ethic has always been money, the notion of heritage -- the coveted cowboy culture (or "western heritage," as they prefer) that gets trotted out for the Calgary Stampede each summer and then summarily shelved (for the city slickers at least) -- has typically been a footnote. But it's always been vital to a breed of Albertan for whom the land has been synonymous with their identity. And in the current generation, for the first time, that notion is growing. Which may be why, among the most optimistic of Albertans, a favorite hope is edging closer to the truth: The first boom is when Alberta grew; the second one -- happening right now -- is when it grew up.
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