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In the future, the world is in a parlous1 state. Earth people of the future (let us call them Futurians as in the answer by DWKraus) are desperate but they still have a number of time portals in working order. They decide to raid the past. They will travel back in time and steal resources that have lasting value, including oil, metals, and machinery.

The portals are open at one end in the future and simultaneously open at the other end in the target time in the past. The portals have zero length apart from the frame that contains the mechanism and acts as the entrance/exit. The time travellers2 can move back and forth easily between the two time periods and even run roads or pipelines through the portals for mass transport.

What they fail to realise is that they are robbing their own past and thereby impoverishing their ancestors. Thus they themselves created the barren world that led to their own downfall.

Let us focus on oil. The ancestors lose their oil because it is stolen by the Futurians. The Futurians are short of oil because it was stolen from the ancestors who therefore were unable to pass it on to their descendants.

This leads to a paradox — or does it? If we handwave the existence of time travel, is the scenario possible from a resources point of view? How can I make this work? How can I balance the books?


Information for would-be editors

1 parlous is a real word

2 traveller - British spelling

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    $\begingroup$ Of course this is a well-known time travel paradox. In your particular scenario - how much oil or metals these one or two time travel machines can steal? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 27 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ What particular time travel philosophy are you using? It could be that the theft of resources (and the societal collapse that followed) must happen because if did happen, or it could be that it forms a parallel timeline that has fewer resources but doesn’t alter the ‘prime’ timeline, or it could be something even more esoteric that leads to resources being created from nothing or destroyed entirely, or flip flopping in and out of existence. Or call it wibbly wobbly and just don’t bother trying to logically tie it up... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 27 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see an obvious problem here. It seems as though you are using an "inevitability" model for time travel; it did happen, it will happen. Robbing their past selves is essentially just removing a resource from earlier in the timeline, causing it to reappear later. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 28 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ "parlous" appears to be a slangy contraction of "perilous" ... from the 14th century. I guess we can let it slide :D $\endgroup$ – Ross Presser Jan 28 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Ross Presser - "I had hoped that ending with a smiley might convey that my comment was meant as humor" Yes, but my whole reason for being on Stack Exchange is to have a good argument. Don't try to distract me with humour! $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jan 28 at 15:13
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The future is impoverished because the past has been raided.

Let us say I was well stocked with cheese crackers Wednesday night but Thursday morning I am not at all. I wake up and the crackers are gone, all 4 boxes and one of them was Family Sized.

I am hungry for cheese crackers. Thursday and Friday and all through the weekend I am hungry and I cannot go out for more because I promised I would watch the cat. All I have are those healthy vegetable crackers and they are pretty old because no-one wants them.

Monday I am fed up, or actually unfed up with cheese crackers. I use my time machine and go back to early Thursday morning. There are the crackers! I consider leaving my past self one box but decide that suffering builds character and there are those vegetable crackers if he is hungry. All 4 boxes return to Monday with me.

I get halfway through the Family Sized box and fall asleep. I wake up Tuesday and 3 of the boxes are gone. Inside the Family Sized box I find the box of vegetable crackers. Bastard!

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    $\begingroup$ So, Wednesday's crackers were taken by you from next Monday, which is why you don't have them on Thursday. But I don't quite follow where those crackers went on Monday night - did they get taken by you from the Thursday after that? Who is the bastard? As I interpret this, the future is impoverished not because the past was raided (the stuff did come back through the portal to Monday, so the fact that it wasn't there on Thursday through Sunday doesn't really matter), but because it was raided by the even farther future. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Jan 28 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie: The crackers were re-stolen either by last Friday, creating an unstable time loop (which the Chrononauts Agency strongly recommends against doing - if the traveler ate the crackers on Friday, they would not have departed on Monday, so the crackers never would have been taken), or by the coming Wednesday (somebody Got There First). It's difficult to determine which. $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Jan 28 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie I figure the future me stole them, because that maneuver worked great for me just now. And the vegetable crackers maneuver seems just like his sort of twisted humor. I wish I had thought of that before he showed up and he would have stolen the vegetable crackers! $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 28 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ That was my interpretation, but the answer header threw me off. The future becomes rich by raiding the past, but the headline to me implies that raiding the past "carries forward" somehow and that a raid to the past will not improve your current circumstances, since you're making "past you" worse off. I'd say that the future is impoverished not because they raided the past, but because they were raided by the even farther future. Raiding the past is itself a great strategy in itself, but you also need to defend yourself against raids from the future to keep your spoils. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Jan 28 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ Alternatively, bring the cat with you in the time machine, go to a distant future and swap the cat for one that is evolved enough to watch itself. Then return to your cracker-less apartment, go to the store and buy more crackers. Or Alternatively-squared, just have amazon deliver more cheese crackers. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jan 28 at 21:46
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You are not creating a paradox, but in fact the opposite, a closed timelike curve. Physicists and philosophers don't like them, because there is no longer any clear sequence of cause and effect, but physicists and philosophers are long dead anyway so who cares.

A paradox would mean that by their actions in the past, the time travellers remove their initial reason to travel into the past, but here they actually create it, so all's ok.

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    $\begingroup$ This depends entirely on circumstance. Perhaps the plentiful resources before was what enabled them to build time machines in the first place, and now without it they can no longer build them therefore creating a paradox? $\endgroup$ – GamerGypps Jan 28 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ that would be an additional circumstance not inherent to the question. $\endgroup$ – ths Jan 28 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ Why ? Its not additional circumstance. Its a circumstance that you have caused yourself by going back in time. $\endgroup$ – GamerGypps Jan 28 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ additional to the premise. $\endgroup$ – ths Jan 28 at 16:33
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Embiggen the Bermuda triangle and a buddie movie.

There's been lots of oil spills over the years since the first days of tankers, all the way from a tonne and a half or so up to hundreds of thousands of tonnes. Take a shufty at the Wikipedia page about it, it makes for shocking reading, and gets tedious because it's so looong - which is shocking in itself.

Most are tankers, some pipeline leaks or bursts, one deliberate in the Persian Gulf during the 90' when at war.

Nabbing the tankers before they get grounded/run-into or just plane broken-up by bad weather not only would provide large quantities of crude oil, but diesel oil, refined petroleum and a goodly amount of steel and tanker engines and other bits and bobs to be found on- board. The side effect would be to protect the coastline and marine life, not to mention saving on the cost and manpower of clean-ups. No doubt the sudden disappearance might cause a few raised eyebrows and spawn a few conspiracy theories, but who cares.

The buddie movie part comes from when you kidnap Edison and Tesla, drag them to the future and show them what'll happen if they don't help sort out the past's energy usage and oncoming environmental-catastrope, send them back armed with all the knowledge you can give them for rechargeable energy storage and solar/wind/hydro power.

If that doesn't work well enough then when you've dropped them off and you return home to your time, you'll soon see if nothing much has changed. Time for another trip. World presidents/prime ministers and leaders the day after inauguration (not just their mates, the Al Gore incident taught you that lesson), then maybe a few billionaires for good measure. Rinse and repeat until the time you return home and like what you see.

Glossary of terms:

Shufty (or shufti) East-end of London slang meaning "glance at or peek at", popularised in the 1980-2003 British TV series Only Fools and Horses. Thought to be of Egyptian Arabic origin.

Nabbing, to nab. To take possession of, sometimes 1970's police slang "to arrest".

Rinse and repeat - self evident, like the shampoo commercial.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this. And now imagine the plot twist when our protagonists realize that they never went to their own past and only made some parallel timeline's present better. +1 $\endgroup$ – Nacorid Jan 29 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ They're calling it "Multiverse melancholia" , a type of narcissistic dysphoria for those who don't "see the big picture" of the welfare all those parallel places as important, apparently. @Nacorid $\endgroup$ – Rottweiler on market-day. Jan 29 at 11:22
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Renewables and Parallel universes:

I think that as long as your Futurians aren't DIRECTLY stealing stuff other people already mined or cut or manufactured, you should be okay.

Your Futurians always had the goods: I think you have no problem. If you assume the Futurians are exploiting the resources they are collecting, then their past selves/societies never had these to begin with - they were gone long before. There may have been evidence of what happened - old mines abandoned centuries before people learned to desire the resources that are gone - but the Futurians were the first to get to them, in a very backwards way (pun intended). But your Futurians HAVE the resources now (the future). Maybe they could have had a better past if they hadn't done that. Oh, well. If they collect the resources bafore the resources were even claimed by anyone, there wouldn't even be a legal question.

Your Futurians can take resources that were never used: But not all resources are gone if the future robs the past. There were (assumedly) huge coal reserves in Siberia 100's of millions of years ago, the burning of which in geologic events caused the Permian extinction. A lot of that carbon can be scavenged, and it just reduces the total planetary carbon levels by a minuscule amount. You could mine or pump millions of tons of coal, and millions of gallons of oil, and still not likely significantly affect the future. If biodiversity is a resource, they can sample organisms from throughout history. Or maybe they want a pleasant place to live - entire large cities that exist for hundreds or thousands of years could vanish into geological time without being noticed. If you want, they can even dump their carbon waste into the past and balance the mass scales, so their garbage turns to oil in 100 million years, and in the future, they get cheap crude from 100 million years ago. As well, much of the surface of the Earth has subducted into the mantle, where it isn't doing people a whole lot of good. Those areas could have been mined completely out and there would be no harm, no foul.

Your Futurians aren't going to their past: All that is also assuming that by traveling to the past, they don't end up creating a parallel universe. Travel back to 10 million years ago, and it's an alternate universe that will now evolve differently than out own - because they can't change their own past. So go ahead, enslave our australopithecine ancestors as soon as they develop thumbs! Mine those ores and pump that oil! You can make the future, or you can re-make it! You aren't stealing from your own ancestors; some other time travelers did that millions of years ago. Dirty bastards. Or your whole society could migrate back in time and simply replace the timeline with one of their own making.

  • PS: This next part depends on how your time stravel system works. If equity is what you are worried about, a resource exchange can be worked out. Find rich industrialists who are willing to trade things they have in abundance (like crude oil they may not even know what to do with yet) for things that are impossible for them to make (like advanced medicines from heart medication to Viagra). You might have a semi-permanent arrangement; they have less motive to develop tech if they can get the products for the mere price of wood, coal, oil and ores.
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  • $\begingroup$ The past selves never had them or they lost them. An oil well that dried faster than was thought likely. An oil tanker accident (who is sure how much oil is actually spilled and much 'banished' to the future). $\endgroup$ – Chebi Jan 28 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ I have borrowed your term Futurians. Hope you don't mind. $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jan 29 at 2:28
  • $\begingroup$ I have borrowed your term Futurians and edited them into my question. Hope you don't mind. I'll credit you. $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jan 29 at 2:44
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly - supports Monica No problem, if I have things to offer, it means I'm contributing. That's really the goal, isn't it? $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Jan 29 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ "they can even dump their carbon waste into the past and balance the mass scales, so their garbage turns to oil in 100 million years, and in the future, they get cheap crude from 100 million years ago." Underrated contribution here. fleshing out this concept could help the Futurians quite a bit, eh? $\endgroup$ – Segfault Jan 29 at 15:10
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You carefully raid only lost resources.

The wreck of the Exeter disssapeared from the ocean floor, experts blame scavengers. but we know better.

The Centralia Mine has been on fire since 1962, but the locals only see the smoke as evidence, the coal is really being stolen and the smoke returned to centralia after it is used.

MH370 disappears without trace: time pirates!

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    $\begingroup$ This was the solution that Kage Baker used in the Company series. They "raided" the past by hiding great or "lost" works. Or they relocated eventually endangered species to a place where they would be safe until they needed to retrieve them. They even paid for new works of art that would be unknown, but actual Vermeer pieces, even causing his actual death by their techniques, but everything still fit the actual timeline. $\endgroup$ – Scott Carlson Jan 29 at 16:54
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Accepting your given concept of time travel and it's consequences at face value, one thing the time travelers could do to offset their own future poverty is inform the past generation of what they are doing. Given that knowledge, the past generation could then accelerate their production of oil and other resources to compensate.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think politicians would like it. They have to do the best for the current population and their immediate offspring. Taxes are high enough already. An extra tax from the future would be very unpopular. $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jan 29 at 2:49

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