The Time Fence
People rarely sit on fences anymore. No, I’m not talking about the literal kind, though there does seem to be less of that going around as well. My father grew up on a farm, and I imagine in his day they sat on fences a lot and picked their teeth with shoots of hay. They likely spoke their opinions and hemmed and hawed about the state of the world, and some of these fence-sitters probably went back and forth on an issue or two, unable to make up their mind.
Nowadays? Not so much. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about pretty much everything. If you don’t have an opinion, a quick Google search will land you one. These days, we tend to stand on one side of a fence or the other while we toss insults and barbs over the rail. Less vacillating and more bloviating seems to be the trend. Hardly any perching, waiting, contemplating, hoping to come down on the right side. We just jump to the side our friends are on and root around for a nice, heavy rock.
In a recent Facebook debate, it was world population that we took sides over. I happen to be on the side of the United Nations, which performed the most rigorous study ever conducted on the issue of population growth and decline. Most people I know are on the other side of this fence. My wife works with one woman* who is mortified by how many humans there are. She trembles at the sight of growth forecasts, all of which conveniently end right before the looming decline (with the unwritten threat that this growth is going to continue forever).
In fact, most projections see population growth halting by 2050-2075. The rate of world growth peaked in the 1960s. The people who study this sort of thing have been watching with some alarm at the massive drop-off in fertility rates everywhere that prosperity spreads. One of the great fears people have with feeding the hungry and tending to the sick is that this will free these populations to have more and more needy offspring, but that’s not what happens. When parents know their kids are going to survive to old age, they scale back on having them, trending toward having two or even one.
Many people are choosing to have none at all. In China, the fear is that they took too many corrective measures. Some provinces have taken to urging parents to have more than one child, even offering money. The vast majority of parents are refusing. Part of this is the cultural shame ingrained by longstanding programs. The other part is the new reality of a non-agricultural lifestyle: Kids are now an economic liability, not an economic boon. They don’t work the fields for us, they go to expensive colleges. And besides, we’re too busy having fun in our new urban lifestyles where kids in their 40’s are still hanging out and flitting from job to job. We no longer worry about what we want to be when we “grow up.” Now we wonder what we’re gonna do when we retire (if we ever do).
The fear of the world’s carrying capacity is wholly unfounded. Every human being alive today could fit in the state of Texas, each with their own townhouse. The rest of the world could be farmland and golf courses. And land is only 1/4 of the planet, which leads to our next fear: that we’ll run out of water. Our planet is smothered in the stuff, and we fear it’s going to vanish. Desalination is simple. Parts of Australia already rely on desalinated and piped water. When it gets in short enough supply, we’ll engineer our way through the mess and start charging for it.
The same goes for power. If we ran out of everything else, the world would switch to nuclear and deal with the environmental non-factors and the fear-mongering. Today, we have the luxury of taking a stance on either side of this fence and yelling insults across. The choice may disappear one day when all the fossil fuels are too expensive to reach, and so will the fence. Which brings us back to the literal sorts of fences. Here’s where all the opinions scatter: when real people have to climb real walls.
For the past century, people have argued voraciously on the merits and pitfalls of communism and capitalism. Forget the figurative fences, look for a moment at the literal ones. What do people do with their bodies? They cast them in one direction, often risking their lives to do so. East Germany built a wall to keep people in. The Soviet Union did the same. Cuba relies on its waters, and yet people fjord their way to Florida on coke-bottle rafts.
Capitalist countries on the other hand build walls to try and keep people from rushing in. Europe deals with this just as surely as the United States. And while time travel is not and never will be possible, I find it informative to imagine another kind of fence: A time fence.
Pose this question to yourself and to others: Would you get in a time machine that sent you back into the past if you had no control over where you would end up and who you might be? That is, you might be a woman living without any right to vote or the freedom to chose who you would marry. You might end up the property of another human being. You will live a shorter life full of difficult labor. You will be more aware of death because it will surround you. No refrigeration, no immunization, a limited and seasonal diet, arduous and rare travel.
And for any who delude themselves into thinking they could go back far enough to find a land of noble savages living in harmony with nature, that world is a complete fiction. The further back you go, the greater the chance that you will die at the hands of another human being. Life is ever more barbaric on the other side of this hypothetical fence of the “now.”
Let’s reverse the scenario. How many, instead, would get in a machine that took us into the future? Personally, you would have to kill me before you sent me off into the random past. I’ve read too much history to want to visit the place. The future, though? I’d be the first in line. Even though I couldn’t know which country I’d end up in, what color or gender I would be, I’ve seen enough trends to know that the world is going to continue getting better and better for more and more people.
That’s almost all it has ever done. And the steps backward have been fleeting and atypical. They are usually caused by the hands of a tyrant or warlord and eventually smoothed over by the larger progress of time. North Korea, one day, will be as prosperous as South Korea, another area where physical fences (and rivers) are braved, people moving from one theoretical world (communism) to another (capitalism).
We can talk all we want over figurative fences, but the people who have the ability to choose demonstrate the hard truth when they make a physical climb from one side of a wall to the other. If the Time Fence was a reality, I think the Jeremiahs and the Chicken Littles would quickly scurry over to my side. I think the line to crawl inside the Future Machine would be long indeed. And the one that led to the machine that heads back into the past? I doubt there would be a line for that machine at all. If there was, it would be full of crazy people, people who have not studied history, and the confused few who really, really, need to pee. ___________________________________________________
*It bears mentioning, perhaps, that this is also the only woman I know who is about to have her third kid and is dying for a few more.