Sustainability with Time Travel
Kathryn Trost, Division 3, College freshman #ws18e-s2d3

A question of changing the past always has a complicated answer. One of the main arguments against time travel – and indeed, one of the most common plot points in time travel movies or TV shows – is the issue of paradoxes. For example, there is the popular Grandfather Paradox, in which a time traveler accidentally kills their grandfather before he could have any children. This creates a paradox. Because the grandfather did not have children, the time traveler no longer exists. But if the time traveler no longer exists, then they are not able to travel back in time and kill their grandfather, which means he survives to have children, which means the time traveler exists after all, and so they do kill their grandfather, and so the loop goes. Depending on the way the universe works, this could either create a separate reality altogether or tear the universe apart. This is why one must be extremely careful when changing the past.

Another complicating factor is the impact of atrocities on the history of the world. For example, if a time traveler were to assassinate Adolf Hitler before he rose to power, there is no telling what would happen to history as a whole. With Germany in the state it was in, there is a high probability that in Hitler’s absence, another dictator would have stepped in to take advantage of the opportunity. But, for the sake of argument, suppose the time traveler was successful and World War Two never happened. This would have huge ramifications on the rest of the world. Without the war boosting its economy, America would have taken much longer to emerge from the Great Depression. Women, without opportunities to work in the factories as men were drafted, would have been forced to fight much harder for gender equality. After the war, Japan was forced to stop its military spending, which led to a huge technological boom as the funds were diverted to research and development. Without the war, it is unlikely that this would have happened. And this is only one atrocity; every horrible thing that has happened has had a major impact on the rest of the world, for better or worse. World War One was the impetus for founding the League of Nations, 9/11 brought stricter security measures to airplanes, the Civil War shaped all future relations between the North and South, and without the Revolutionary War, America as we know it would not exist.

The question, then, remains: should any changes be made at all? Given the difficulties and dangers inherent in time travel, is it a fool’s errand to attempt a redirection of the past? I believe that it is not. As long as you are careful about doing so, it is possible to change the past for the better. A subtle change, made in the right place at the right time, could result in a present that is almost identical to the one we live in, with a few key differences. Given the opportunity, I would change the foundation of the industrial revolution.

In our world, the industrial revolution was built on coal and oil, which led to a dependence on fossil fuels and the consequential destabilization of the environment. There have been serious repercussions from this. America uses fossil fuels to generate eighty-five percent of its energy, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration website, America imported approximately 10.1 million barrels of petroleum per day last year. 10.1 million barrels every day for a year works out to three billion, six hundred and eighty-six million, five hundred thousand barrels of petroleum imported during 2017. That is a ridiculously high number. A dependence on fossil fuels has also contributed to severe air pollution; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), ninety-one percent of the world’s population lives in areas that exceed WHO guideline limits for air quality, and air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths each year. This is at least partially caused by the severe deforestation occurring around the world, which occurs to obtain fuel, rare resources, or simply to clear the land. According to a statement on the World Wildlife Fund’s website,
“We’re losing 18.7 million acres of forests annually, equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute. Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as a carbon sink—soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere and contribute to ongoing changes in climate patterns. Deforestation undermines this important carbon sink function. It is estimated that 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation. ”
Now, it is true that the world as a whole is becoming more aware of these issues and is working to correct them. We are, however, at a distinct disadvantage; the decades of carelessness that have led us to this point force us to begin with a world full of pollution and environmental trauma. The lack of concern for the environment at early stages in our technological development has introduced world-wide bad habits that we must fight to overcome. This is the heart of the problem, and it is here that I believe we should work to change the past.

Humans were using the power of water and wind long before the industrial revolution took place. When we saw the need for generating power, watermills and windmills already existed. My proposal is this: going back in time to convince the ‘movers and shakers’ of the day to use these sustainable energy sources rather than coal and other natural resources. They certainly had the technology to do it, and history has proven that they had the drive to create new and better methods of doing things.

Perhaps the biggest argument against this is that, done this way, the process would be much slower. Coal is a powerful fuel source, and it allowed explosive growth in several areas, especially manufacturing. Wind and water power are slightly more difficult to harness in such large quantities, so more time would have to be devoted to making the harnessing technology more efficient. I am confident, however, that if we poured as much time and energy and resources into sustainable energy as we have into fossil fuels, we would find a way to make wind and water power efficient and cheap. And perhaps the slower build-up would be beneficial; it would soften the impact of the technological change, giving society time to absorb and process the new advancements, rather than racing to keep up the way it did with coal power.

One possible, extremely unpredictable consequence of a different technological base is a different distribution of wealth between countries. Many countries in the Middle East are wealthy due to the discovery of oil; if oil were not as widely used or in such high demand, they likely would not have the money that they do. In contrast, Africa does not have much oil, but there is a lot of sun and a lot of heat. If the world focused on sustainable energy, perhaps the African nations would have easy access to solar panels, and thus be more advanced than they are today. Regardless of the specifics, it seems logical that the distribution of wealth in the world would be far different.

And, of course, the biggest benefit is the most obvious. Sustainable energy would lead to technology that has less of an impact on the environment, and would not drain our natural resources in the way our dependence on fossil fuels has. It would also lessen the amount of pollution that is present in our world, though it likely would not remove pollution completely. Humans do tend to be careless about what they are putting into nature. But with a focus on forms of sustainable energy, there would likely be less smog, less deforestation, and next to no oil spills.

I believe that changing the foundation of the industrial revolution is the best use of time travel. If done properly, very little about our world would change, except that it would run on cleaner, more sustainable energy. It would not be perfect, by any means; we would still need to do our part to ensure that the environment stays healthy. But my plan would give us a better starting point from which to do so. After all, we only have one planet. We need to take care of it.
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