WE LIVED FOR A THOUSAND YEARS
by Whit Gibbons
October 13, 2003
if the average life span of a human were one thousand years instead
of the few decades we look forward to now? Would our environmental attitudes
be any different?
the many real and intriguing ecological questions that can be asked
and answered, an occasional foray into the realm of "what if"
is also healthy. Such questions are not only intriguing, they also provide
us with some different perspectives of the way the world could be. For
example, what if large, meat-eating dinosaurs still existed on Earth?
Or what if insects reached body sizes of 300 pounds rather than a maximum
of only a few ounces?
The questions about dinosaurs and giant insects seem fairly easy to
answer. Most land-dwelling carnivorous dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus
rex, which would eat a human or livestock without hesitation, would
soon be on the verge of extinction. Some animals that kill and eat humans
still exist, such as sharks, saltwater crocodiles, and tigers, but most
of them are endangered species, and none live with any assurance of
their continued existence.
The life expectancy of an enormous, flesh-eating dinosaur that had no
fear of humans would be short indeed in regions where modern weapons
are used. The only survivors would be the few that were confined to
island populations where they could be viewed as oddities. In short,
if dinosaurs remained on earth today, they would be few in number and
those around would be endangered species.
The same would be true for insects reaching up to an eighth of a ton.
Can you imagine how well-received a 100-pound roach would be as it came
into your kitchen, presumably through the back door it had just ripped
off the hinges? How long would we tolerate animals that could consume
everything in the pantry within 10 minutes? How long would 200-pound
dragonflies remain popular after they had carried off all the cats and
small dogs in the neighborhood? Understandably, gigantic insects would
quickly fall out of favor.
Typical human nature would prevail in situations in which fauna in the
form of dinosaurs and big insects inhabited the earth. Most people feel
threatened by any competitor, resulting in a sentiment among many people
that such species should be eliminated--look how quickly mountain lions
and wolves disappeared from the eastern United States.
But the prospect of living a thousand years, more than 10 times the
normal human life expectancy, might well bring on a different perspective
among the human race. Think about how many environmental decisions are
made with only short-term consequences in mind, decisions predicated
on the realization that we might live to be 90 if we are lucky. If we
had expectations of living for a thousand years, would we be more conscientious
in our environmental decision making? I think we would.
For example, most people have a fondness for clean streams and rivers,
magnificent forests, and abundant wildlife. But because of our short-term
perspective we have steadily destroyed our wetlands, woodlands, and
wildlife. If you knew you would still be here 900 years from now, would
you accept the current rate of destruction of our natural habitats?
Almost certainly not. You would know that long before you reached middle
age you would have nothing left of the wild. The citizens of the United
States would surely insist on policies that set stringent limits on
If it's hard to imagine what our thought processes would be with a thousand-year
outlook, turn the formula around. Speed up the current loss of biodiversity
and forests; increase the rate of air and water pollution. Imagine that
happening 10 times faster than it does now. If we continue to degrade
natural habitats, remove forests, and eliminate species without regard
for long-term consequences, such a scenario is plausible--and it doesn't
take a lot of imagination to envision.
If we expected to live a thousand years, we would not tolerate the current
rate of environmental loss. We can't increase our life expectancy tenfold,
but we can protect the environment. It's time to ensure that the world
has clean air and water, and healthy wildlife and habitats during our
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