Why Thinking About Your Death May Prompt You to Save the Planet

  • Share
  • Read Later
Nicholas DeVore

Thinking about your own death isn’t usually the most pleasant experience, but it can be a beneficial one. Reminders of our own mortality can increase our desire to make decisions that will leave long-term, positive impacts on generations to come, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.

Momentary social cues about death, such as reading about a death in the newspaper or walking past a funeral hall, activate the “legacy motive,” which contributes to the drive to gain a sense of purpose in life and to make an impact that will live on after death. The legacy motive enables us to look past inherent barriers to the use of resources in ways that will leave resources for the future, rather than immediate consumption by individuals in the present.

“That kind of motive can override narrow, self-interested behavior,” study co-author and University of Michigan assistant professor Leigh Tost said.

(MORE: The Culprit in a Tragic Human Stampede: Physics)

The most common barriers to sustainable resource use, according to study co-author and Duke University associate professor Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, are the time lag between present action and future results as well as the tradeoffs endured by present individuals as they make room for future generations of people.

“You’d expect people to be willing to sacrifice more for other people in the present as compared to others in the future,” Wade-Benzoni said. “But if you act on behalf of future others you do get to leave a legacy, and that’s a psychosocial benefit that helps overcome these barriers to intergenerational generosity.” The authors also noted that death priming – that is, reminders of death – helps individuals feel more strongly connected to others in the future than in the present, increasing their incentive to act on behalf of others in the future.

“The tenor of other work had primarily been that [the idea of mortality] evokes anxiety and defensiveness, and it seemed very closed in,” Tost explained. “But we thought it could do a lot of positive things too.”

The authors conducted two experiments to get their results. In the first, they presented 54 graduate students at a U.S. university with two articles to read: one describing an aircraft brake failure accident that resulted in one death, and another neutral story about a Russian mathematician. They then measured “present beneficence” in terms of the amount of money the individuals indicated they would donate to an organization that serves “impoverished communities” right now, and “future beneficence” in terms of the amount that they would donate to a charity focused on creating future improvements in those same communities. They found that those participants who had read the article about the freak accident said they would give more money to the future-oriented charity than to the present-oriented one.

“The results were very much what we expected,” Tost said.

(MORE: As Rio+20 Unfolds, A U.N. Report Shows How Far We Have to Go to Save the Planet)

But Wade-Benzoni and Tost wanted to learn more about the specific factors that led those exposed to death priming to want to leave a legacy – so they conducted a second test where they had each participant act as the vice president of an energy company. When the hypothetical company acquired a new, inexpensive, efficient energy source, participants had to decide how much of the energy they would consume today and how much they would give to another recipient. They were exposed to the same death priming as in the first experiment. The researchers found once again that those exposed to thoughts of mortality were more likely to allocate their energy to an organization that would benefit in the future – and they also noticed that this benevolence seemed significantly correlated with the individuals’ sense of connection to the hypothetical future organizations.

Wade-Benzoni and Tost hope their findings will add to conversations about environmental policy, particularly as policymakers attempt to promote more environmentally sustainable behaviors. Tost noted that environmental policies are often aimed at affecting individuals and firms in situations very much like the types of decision-making situations her team studied.

“[The findings] suggest to me that in encouraging environmental decisions that are sustainable, we don’t just have to rely on ethical norms that say you ought to behave this way, but we can elevate the framework of those types of appeals to a higher level,” she said. “Think about what impact you want your life to have on people living 20, 40, 100 years from now. Think about how much power you have as an individual to impact the experience of people living on this earth after you’ve gone.” And the legacy motive goes beyond environmental policy – it may generally encourage individuals in organizations to sacrifice their immediate self-interest to benefit their companies in the long term, Tost said.

It remains to be seen how we can remind people of their own mortality as they make environmental or organizational decisions. But it’s nice to know that an effective impetus for action does seem to exist. “We know we’re going to die, so we want to create some meaning for our lives,” Wade-Benzoni said. “Leaving a legacy helps us to do that.”

(MORE: Rio Climate Summit: Top 10 Priorities for a Planet in Peril)

(MORE: Colorado Wildfire as Seen from Space)

Tara Thean is a contributor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @tarathean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.


This article is ignoring the fact that those who are least concerned about the Earth's future are the very same uber-religious types who are convinced that its all in God's hands.  Therefore, its not their problem.  As long as a large percentage of the worlds population actively believes in a controlling deity, then we're doomed.

James Thompson
James Thompson

People should be aware of the Worst that could happen; It could get so warm, that there would be Crocodiles living on Baffin Island Again, which is right across from Greenland, which is covered with Glaciers!    Fossile remains of Crocodiles have been found on Baffin Island, from past Warm Ages, which could Come Again!  That would indicate

that the Winter Temperature in Polar Regions would never get above 70 degrees Fahrenheit!  With that the higest Winter Polar Temperature, all the World's Ice would !have been Melted!  The World Sea Levels would rise 220 Feet!  Most all of Florida, and Most Other low lying Coastal Regions would all be Under Water!


I think it is time to take the gloves off and really place in the forefront the call to action set forth by adopting a Plant Based lifestyle.

I believe we are all kind and compassionate. Deep down we care. We send money to charities in the hope that our donation will make a difference.

Giving up meat is a win win. Seriously, it is a source of protein… that’s it. It is easily replaced.

I am not so naive to think that one less meat eater will fix all our environmental problems but I do present to you one concrete result: You will feel better immediately.

I did not start out my Plant Based lifestyle to “Save the Earth” but it is wonderful consequence and I am a better person for it.

It will save your life amp; that action will save us all.

Philip Wollen (born 1950) is an Australian philanthopist. He is a former vice-president of Citibank and was also a general manager at Citicorp. At age 34, Australian Business Magazine named him in the top 40 headhunted executives in Australia. In 2005, he received the Order of Australia and in 2007 he won the Australian of the Year award.

Check out his speech:

Ian Welch


Vasu Murti
Vasu Murti

Veganism Is Direct Action!  "

A diet that can lead to heart attacks, cancer, and numerous other diseases cannot be a natural diet," writes Keith Akers in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983).

"A diet that pillages our resources of land, water, forests, and energy cannot be a natural diet. A diet that causes the unnecessary suffering and death of billions of animals each year cannot be a natural diet."

I understand there are conservative Christians who fear vegetarianism... which is kind of like being afraid of nonsmoking, nondrinking, or recycling.

Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, in his 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, pointed out that 220 million Americans were eating enough food (largely because of the high consumption of grain fed to livestock) to feed over one billion people in the poorer countries.

A pamphlet put out by Compassion Over Killing says raising animals for food is one of the leading causes of both pollution and resource depletion today. According to a recent United Nations report, Livestock's Long Shadow, raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals for food causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks and other forms of transportation combined. 

Researchers from the University of Chicago similarly concluded that a vegetarian diet is the most energy efficient, and the average American does more to reduce global warming emissions by not eating animal products than by switching to a hybrid car.

"Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation." 

--Union Nations' Food and Agriculture Association

Nearly 75% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society)

Over 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to grow grain for livestock. (Greenpeace)

It takes nearly one gallon of fossil fuel and 5,200 gallons of water to produce just one pound of conventionally fed beef. (Mother Jones)

Farmed animals produce an estimated 1.4 billion tons of fecal waste each year in the U.S. Much of this untreated waste pollutes the land and water.

The following points and facts are excerpted from Please Don't Eat the Animals (2007) by the mother-daughter writing team of Jennifer Horsman and Jaime Flowers:

"A reduction in beef and other meat consumption is the most potent single act you can take to halt the destruction of our environment and preserve our natural resources.  Our choices do matter:  What's healthiest for each of us personally is also healthiest for the life support system of our precious, but wounded planet."

--John Robbins, author, Diet for a New America, and President, EarthSave Foundation

One study puts animal waste in the United States to between 2.4 trillion to 3.9 trillion pounds per year. The United states produces 15,000 pounds of manure per person.  This is 130 times the amount of waste produced by the entire human population of the United States.  

A 1,000-cow dairy can produce approximately 120,000 pounds of waste per day.  This is the functional equivalent of the amount of sanitary waste produced by a city of 20,000 people.

A 20,000-chicken factory produces about 2.4 million pounds of manure a year.  Poultry factories are one of the fastest growing industries throughout Asia.

One pig excretes nearly three gallons of waste per day, or 2.5 times the average human's daily total. One hog farm with 50,000 pigs in France produces more waste than the entire city of Los Angeles, and some pig farms are much larger.

Factory farm pollution is the primary source of damage to coastal waters in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Scientists report that over sixty percent of the coastal waters in the United States are moderately to severely degraded from factory farm nutrient pollution.  This pollution creates oxygen-depleted dead zones, which are huge areas of ocean devoid of aquatic life.

Meat production causes deforestation, which then contributes to global warming. Trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and the destruction of forests around the globe to make room for grazing cattle furthers the greenhouse effect.  The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that the annual rate of tropical deforestation has increased from nine million hectares in 1980 to 16.8 million hectares in 1990, and unfortunately, this destruction has accelerated since then. By 1994, a staggering 200 million hectares of rainforest had been destroyed in South America just for cattle. 

"The impact of countless hooves and mouths over the years has done more to alter the type of vegetation and land forms of the West than all the water projects, strip mines, power plants, freeways, and sub-division developments combined."

--Philip Fradkin, in Audubon, National Audubon Society, New York

Agricultural meat production generates air pollution. As manure decomposes, it releases over four hundred volatile organic compounds, many of which are extremely harmful to human health. Nitrogen, a major by-product of animal wastes, changes to ammonia as it escapes into the air, and this is a major source of acid rain. Worldwide, livestock produce over thirty million tons of ammonia.  Hydrogen sulfide, another chemical released from animal waste, can cause irreversible neurological damage, even at low levels.

The World Conservation Union lists over 1,000 different fish species that are threatened or endangered. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 60 percent of the world's fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock, and flounder have fallen by as much as 95 percent in the north Atlantic.  

The United States and Europe lose several billion tons of topsoil each year from cropland and grazing land, and 84 percent of this erosion is caused by livestock agriculture.  While this soil is theoretically a renewable resource, we are losing soil at a much faster rate than we are able to replace it.  It takes 100 to 500 years to produce one inch of topsoil, but due to livestock grazing and feeding, farming areas can lose up to six inches of topsoil a year.

Livestock production affects a startling 70 to 85 percent of the land area of the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union. That includes the public and private rangeland used for grazing, as well as the land used to produce the crops that feed the animals.  

By comparison, urbanization only affects three percent of the United States land area, slightly larger for the European Union and the United Kingdom.  Meat production consumes the world's land resources.

Half of all fresh water worldwide is used for thirsty livestock. Producing eight ounces of beef requires an unimaginable 25,000 liters of water, or the water necessary for one pound of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year.

The United States government spends ten million dollars each year to kill an estimated 100,000 wild animals, including coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, bears, and mountain lions just to placate ranchers who don't want these animals killing their livestock. The cost far outweighs the damage to livestock that these predators cause.

The Worldwatch Institute estimates one pound of steak from a steer raised in a feedlot costs:  five pounds of grain, a whopping 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 34 pounds of topsoil.

Thirty-three percent of our nation's raw materials and fossil fuels go into livestock destined for slaughter.  In a vegan economy, only two percent of our resources will go to the production of food.

"It seems disingenuous for the intellectual elite of the first world to dwell on the subject of too many babies being born in the second- and third-world nations while virtually ignoring the overpopulation of cattle and the realities of a food chain that robs the poor of sustenance to feed the rich a steady diet of grain-fed meat."

--Jeremy Rifkin, pro-life AND pro-animal author, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, and president of the Greenhouse Crisis Foundation 

"Carl Pope could probably affect the world more by being a vegetarian than through his job as president of the Sierra Club," quipped Jennifer Horsman.

According to the editors of World Watch, July/August 2004: 

"The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future -- deforestization, topsoil erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease."

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, similarly says in the February 1995 issue of Harmony: Voices for a Just Future (a peace and justice periodical on the religious left):  

"...the survival of our planet depends on our sense of belonging -- to all other humans, to dolphins caught in dragnets to pigs and chickens and calves raised in animal concentration camps, to redwoods and rainforests, to kelp beds in our oceans, and to the ozone layer." 

The number of animals killed for food in the United States is nearly 75 times larger than the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times larger than the number killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times larger than the number of animals killed in animal pounds.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is challenging those who think they can still be "meat-eating environmentalists" to go vegan, if they really care about the planet.

peta2 is now the largest youth movement of any social change organization in the world.

peta2 has 267,000 friends on MySpace and 91,000 Facebook fans.

A few years ago, PETA was the top-ranked charity when a poll asked teenagers what nonprofit group they would most want to work for.

PETA won by more than a two to one margin over the second place finisher, The American Red Cross, with more votes than the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity combined. 

“If anyone wants to save the planet,” says Paul McCartney in an interview with PETA's Animal Times magazine from 2001, “all they have to do is stop eating meat. That’s the single most important thing you could do. It’s staggering when you think about it. 

"Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty. Let’s do it! Linda was right. Going veggie is the single best idea for the new century.” 

Les Brown of the Overseas Development Council calculates that if Americans reduced their meat consumption by only ten percent per year, it would free at least twelve million tons of grain for human consumption -- or enough to feed sixty million people.

Partha Deb
Partha Deb

It can be used as a wake-up call to save our mother earth .


When you are dead you are dead.A ignort article. :)