by Whit Gibbons

May 13, 2007

Awhile back I asked, what if the average human life span were a thousand years instead of less than a hundred? Would our environmental attitudes be any different? Or what if carnivorous dinosaurs roamed our neighborhoods? Or what if insects reached body sizes of 300 pounds rather than only a few ounces?

Despite the many real and captivating 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 different perspectives of the way the world could be.

The questions about dinosaurs and giant insects are easy to answer. A species of land-dwelling, meat-eating dinosaur, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, that would eat a human or a cow as a snack, would soon be on the verge of extinction. Few animals that kill and eat humans still exist on earth, and most of them, such as certain sharks, saltwater crocodiles, and tigers, are imperiled, with little assurance of long-term survival. The life expectancy of an enormous, flesh-eating dinosaur with no fear of humans would be short indeed in regions where modern weapons are used. The only survivors would be a few 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 an eighth of a ton. Can you imagine how well-received a 250-pound roach would be as it came into your kitchen 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 popular would 200-pound dragonflies be after they had carried off all 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. Many people feel that any species that competes with us should be eliminated--look how quickly mountain lions and wolves disappeared from the eastern United States.

The prospect of living a thousand years, more than 10 times the normal human life expectancy, would also 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, I feel certain we would we be more conscientious in our environmental decision making.

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, around your 500th birthday, you would have nothing left of the wild. The citizens of the United States would surely insist on policies that set stringent limits on environmental degradation.

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 environmental change 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 lifetimes--and beyond.

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