Business and Finance to the Rescue?
I have long counted business and finance interests as opponents of the kind of changes necessary to fight climate change. There are good reasons for this! In our capitalist system any money you have today and invest counts more than money you might have later, so short-term thinking rules. Taken to a financial extreme, it’s possible to make gargantuan sums by trading stocks at millisecond intervals, billions of times, to leverage profit from tiny shifts in prices. When fluid capital is the only thing of value we will steamroll the rest of the world to get it, invest it, and grow it; whatever the cost.
When I left Justin and Kim in Frisco, Colorado, I rode south to lofty Leadville at 10,152 feet. On the way I passed through a landscape dominated by the Climax molybdenum mine. This operation started in the 1800’s, and by 1980 this was the largest underground mine in the world, producing 75% of the world’s supply of this important metal. Vast tailings piles and reservoirs for waste water filled the valley below the highway. Some whole mountains above had clearly been moved in 100 years of blasting and digging for ores. The fractured rock and mine tailings left behind will contaminate water in this area with heavy metals...forever.
You and I have no doubt benefited from the molybdenum extracted here. I lusted after “Chrome-Moly” BMX bike frames made by Roger De Coster in the 1980’s. Everyone in modern society benefits from the higher-strength steel made with molybdenum, in the form of tools, car frames, and all manner of stainless steels. Meanwhile, the mining, processing, marketing, and even mine cleanups associated with this mine have given livelihoods to countless individuals and communities. In some way we’re all tied up with this, like it or not.
The Climax mine shut down in the ’80’s due to low prices for moly, but re-opened in 2012. Leadville correspondingly busted and boomed. But alongside the mining economy the town caught some spillover of the recreation-based economy of nearby Summit County and its ski areas, spendy real estate, and shopping outlets. These visitors and new Leadville residents wanted presentable mountain vistas, clean water, and local character.
One business that got started in this period was Melanzana, a sewn-in-Leadville outdoor clothing company. Fritz Howard started making fleece hoodies with a friend, and over the years it has become a landmark business in town. When the supply chain got strained recently, Fritz cut off phone and internet orders to save inventory for the Leadville store. That limitation drove the already strong demand for “Melly” hoodies through the roof - leading to super-strong sales and a 100% increase in tourism in Leadville the last few years.
Fritz and Co. are dedicated to local workers, environmental sustainability, quality products, and having a good time while doing it all. They struggle to maintain these values in the face of this unexpected runaway success. For them, business growth in itself is not a worthwhile goal. Helping people live vibrant lives in closer harmony with the natural world is.
So, Melanzana donates money to all manner of local causes and organizations. They paid workers through pandemic shutdowns, and they are dedicated to local manufacturing and good-paying local jobs. Fritz feels a deep responsibility to his employees and actively manages the company and it's growth toward their needs. He wants to lead the local business world by example and show that a community and landscape based business can thrive in the current economy.
One of the biggest issues for workers in Colorado and other parts of the West is housing. The recent real estate boom has priced working people out of their own communities, and left thriving businesses with no one to hire. In Leadville the lowest wage workers live in old trailers outside town. These homes are most often energy inefficient to the extreme. At over 10,000 feet that is a real problem, as people come home from work to watch their paychecks get pumped out the cracks in thin walls overnight. The propane they buy and burn for heating contributes to our climate crisis - over 20% of U.S. energy use is for residential use, and these folks are unfortunately doing more than their share.
In response, Melanzana is planning to build efficient and comfortable staff housing right in town. That will help the company hire and retain workers, save workers money, reduce commuting time, and pay climate benefits for decades. It’s a way of spreading the benefits of Melanzana’s current popularity out over time and investing in many aspects of Leadville’s future. That's logical, forward thinking.
Imagine if that were the ethos of most businesses and corporations! What if somehow the Climax mine had held those values and had really worked to enact them over the last 100 years? Business and finance are among the largest forces in our world, and thus far their power has been focused on maximal profit and growth, while ferreting out every way to offload costs to the environment, poor people, and governments.
We have learned to accept the brutalizing logics of capitalism as natural, but it is a constructed system that benefits a few, to the great cost of many - stretching out into long future eras. This economy is not natural or inevitable. It was built, and so it can be reconstructed in a more humane and beneficial way. Fritz and Co. show some of the ways it’s possible.
It’s obviously a different thing to manage a small clothing brand vs. a multi-million dollar mining conglomerate. Consumer-driven brands are different from commodity producers. No one asks where the molybdenum in their car’s crankshaft came from and how those miners were treated - but we probably should, or at least support our governments when they ask those hard questions via regulations. We’re foolish if we think that allowing blind profit motives to run rampant over communities and the natural world will work out well in the long term.
It's not all dark and bleak, however, Some bigger companies are seeing the light of this long-term logic, and there are promising corporate governance developments like B-Corps. The financial world has turned the corner and is now skeptical of fossil fuels, giving preferential terms to renewable energy projects. And in a few instances I know of, billionaires who made their money in high-frequency trading are now investing in ranches that focus on conservation values and regenerative agriculture practices in Montana and Colorado. (More on that later...)
So, as in most things, the role of business and finance is not black or white. It is clear, however, that to succeed we must harness the great power of these sectors to creating a livable world.