In this article, I am explaining how to build a time machine that can be used to send raw materials into the future. How can this be done, and what would it be good for? As you will see, it is technically possible without breaking the laws of physics. And it could even be useful. If we will ever do so, however, is a different question.
Many technologies we are using today depend on the use of chemical elements that are rare. With today’s rate of consumption, many important materials will only last a few decades, in some cases even only a few years. Since prices remain low until the reserves are nearly finished, recycling rates are low. You can see here a diagram from 2007 showing the estimates back then. Since then, the situation has not improved.
Some people say that prospectors will certainly find more of these materials. We might not yet know all the reserves that are there. This is certainly true, but it does not solve the problem. If reserves would be much greater, say four times as high, this would only shift the problem for some time, it would not solve it. And since many materials are recycled only to a limited extend, it would in fact increase the amount that is dispersed in the environment. Some of these materials are very toxic. So having larger reserves could turn out to be a problem instead of a solution.
Obviously, using raw materials like this is not sustainable. A sustainable economy would completely recycle all the materials it uses. A sustainable economy is an economy that can go on not just for a few decades, but for thousands of years. What can be done to achieve sustainability?
Let’s assume we could raise the prices for these rare raw materials further and further. After some time, we would reach a level at which some uses that are not essential would be given up. For example, if the price of the gas helium would be increased, it would at some point become too expensive to be used for applications like helium balloons. Where possible, it would be replaced by changes in the technologies. Where possible, we would try to build devices using the material in such a way that they last longer. If we increase the price further, it would become so valuable that regaining and recycling it would be the most economical option.
The way to raise the price would be to buy all of it up, until the price reaches a level when complete recycling becomes the most economical option. But where is the money going to come from? Well, if we use up helium or other materials, this will be bad for people from the future, so let them pay to prevent this. So the time machine I was talking about simply works like this: the people of the future send us money. We are using this money to buy up raw materials that are then kept for future generations. Once the recycling level price is reached, there would be no reason for future people to send more money.
But how does such a time machine work. Time machines are impossible, aren’t they?
Well, our time machine has two parts: part one is sending the raw materials into the future. This one is easily done. The organization running the time machine stores the materials in some containers (barrels, tanks, ore deposits in the ground, etc.) and leaves them there. It owns them and as a result, they become unavailable for the current economy. Inside their containers, the raw materials travel into the future, at the travel speed of one second per second.
The other part is getting money from the future. This is actually not such a problem. Whenever you take a credit, you transfer money from the future to the present. Businesses or government agencies taking a credit or issuing bonds are doing exactly that: they take money from the future. A positive sign of an account balance indicates that in this account, money travels from the past into the future. A negative sign indicates that money is moving from the future to the present. So money belongs to those things that can travel in both directions.
So selling raw materials to the future works like this:
- An agency is created for this purpose (think of something like a foundation). Let’s say we create the “helium Foundation”, for example.
- The agency opens an account with the central bank. A law is passed that allows it to withdraw any amount of money it needs from this account (or it issues bonds and the central bank is obliged by special law to buy any amount of these). So new money is created for this purpose. Technically, this is a (possibly very large) credit.
- The money is used to buy up and store the respective resource (e.g. helium) until the price reaches the recycling level at which the use of helium becomes sustainable.
Different states and central banks could participate in such a scheme and there might be one or several such agencies. The amount of helium the agencies must buy might be smaller than the total amount needed to reach the recycling price because after some time, speculators might step in and also buy the stuff.
The next generation actually does not need to pay back the credit because it can repeat the same operation and sell the raw material to the next generation in turn. The material reserves will continue flowing into the future (without being used) and the money will continue to be taken from the more distant future.
Of course, this requires that economic growth will stop. But I am talking here about a non-growing steady-state economy because a sustainable economy must be non-growing. Growth is incompatible with sustainability because it will eventually exhaust all resources. In some sense, executing this scheme could be viewed as economic growth: we are exporting large amounts of materials, although not abroad but into the future. But actually, the point is to stop economic growth.
I do not have illusions that this scheme will be followed. In the current economic and political condition of our planet, it appears much more likely to me that we will continue exploiting our resources in an unsustainable way until we cannot sustain exploiting them. When that happens, our world economy and our technical civilization are going to collapse in a catastrophic way.
But my point here is to point out possibilities.
The first necessary insight is that economic growth is not the solution, it is the problem.
The second is that a non-growing, sustainable economy is possible.
The third is that it is possible to change our institutions in such a way that our economy would change into such a sustainable state.
(The picture, showing a container for liquid helium, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liquid_helium_dewar.jpg)