The Environmentalist’s Catch-22:

Advances in technology and green energy depend on physical stuff, which has to be dug up from the earth.

Oct. 8, 2014

America can no longer afford a simplistic dialogue that pits environmentalists and the mining industry against one another as mortal enemies, each fundamentally opposed to the other’s very existence. All environmentalists agree that we need to build a more sustainable future that is not dependent on burning fossil fuels to provide the energy to power humanity. Yet underlying this desire is an inconvenient truth that is also a Catch-22 for environmentalists.

The technologies through which we will build the sustainable future desired by the green movement are dependent on raw materials that must be mined. Not surprisingly, these same environmental activists zealously oppose all mining.

Environmental advocates find themselves in this trap in part due to a major blind spot in our larger cultural discussion around technological progress. We often talk about innovation almost entirely in terms of things like apps and algorithms; essentially nonphysical creations. We have largely forgotten the fundamental role that materials science plays in high technology.

To put it simply: We have forgotten that every product we build is made out of physical stuff with essential scientific properties—stuff that has to come from somewhere. And the stuff that next-generation technologies like electric cars, wind turbines, fuel cells, LED lights and solar energy panels are made of comes from somewhat exotic minerals that must be mined.

Until World War II the elements required for technological innovation had fairly familiar names: copper, because of its ability to carry and conduct electricity long distances, or iron because of its structural properties as steel. These metals, or more properly elements, allowed us to build steam engines and combustion cars and to wire our cities for electricity.

Beginning in the 1970s, though, we began to make discoveries in materials science that formed the basis for small electric motors that could run cars and photon-collecting materials that could generate electricity. Our elemental toolbox moved further down the periodic table, and greater technological capabilities followed.

The connection between the expanded elemental palette and technological progress is not coincidental. The individual structure of each element gives rise to unique properties that make new applications possible. The metal-element neodymium allows us to make much stronger magnets than before, and these magnets are essential to electric generators for wind turbines and motors for electric vehicles. High-energy-density rechargeable batteries, such as those used in electric vehicles, depend on lithium. Solar cells require indium and gallium. To deny this would be as absurd as insisting that we could have built the railroads without the steel industry, or launched the computer age without silicon.

Opposing new mines in the U.S. that harvest these critical elements will not prevent all mining. This shortsighted approach will simply cause two situations; both harmful to the country and the planet.

First, without the mining of the more exotic elements, new energy technologies we will have to keep mining fossil fuels like coal in the U.S., further poisoning our atmosphere and contaminating land and water sources. Second, bans on new mining in this country will ensure that mining takes place in locales with relatively poor environmental records, such as China and Africa.

If our goal is to minimize environmental harm in the process of acquiring these essential mineral resources, there is no better place than in the U.S., where mining is highly regulated, transparent and based on the safest, most state-of-the-art process. The not-in-my-backyard mentality will also leave America dependent on foreign powers for materials critical to technological innovation, and consequently for our energy security.

The connection between green technology and mining can make the U.S. a world leader in clean energy. Trying to regulate mining out of existence is not only shortsighted but irresponsible. To save our planet we must find ways to use the resources it grants us to do so, and environmentalists can help ensure that we become responsible stewards of green-technology elements.

Mr. Silver is chairman and president of American Elements, a manufacturer and distributor of engineered and strategic materials.