One of the most common objections to veganism is that we ought to be concerned with human suffering more than that of animals. If you’re vegan, someone has probably asked you how you can care so much about animals while human beings are suffering from injustice and exploitation. Shouldn’t people come first? This is a nuanced question, so I’ll expound on three different responses: Yes, No, and Irrelevant. Here we go now, in reverse order.
1-Shouldn’t people come first? - Irrelevant. You don’t have to choose one or the other.
Black Americans are disproportionately imprisoned, while being under-represented in colleges and in government. Women do most of the world’s work, but earn significantly less money than men. More than 10% of Americans are treated as second-class citizens because of whom they love.
Is it possible to be an advocate for racial equality, gay rights, and feminism simultaneously? Of course it is. You yourself are probably in favor of environmental protection and the spread of education. Not only is it possible to push for animal rights and human rights at once, it’s rare to find a vegan who isn’t also an advocate for other causes.
2.Shouldn’t people come first? – No. Animals cannot wait.
The enslavement, abuse, and slaughter of non-human animals is an urgent and critical issue. It is the emerging moral problem of our time. (By “emerging” I mean that it is now reaching the consciousness of the mainstream.) Unlike most other persecuted groups, non-human animals are unable to launch their own liberation movement — to vote, lobby, or even to share their experiences in a way we can understand. But the lack of animal autobiographies does not make their suffering any less real, or their lives any less significant. Just as my life is of tremendous value to me, and the life of a child in Haiti is the most significant life to him, the life of a piglet is of infinite value to her.
3. Shouldn’t people come first? – Yes. Let’s focus on people.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant this premise in spite of all that. Let’s say human life is of the utmost importance. Here’s why veganism matters, in terms of purely human interests.
- The practice of confining animals in large, crowded, commercial compounds results in concentrated levels of methane and other toxins. A study found that asthma symptoms are more common in children who attend schools near hog farms. Massive heaps of manure from all sorts of animal farms are contaminating air and water supplies.
- Modern farming methods are also causing an evolution of superbugs immune to our existing drugs. You’ve probably heard of H1N1, the Swine Flu, which originated in a hog farm in North Carolina, and killed over 15,000 people worldwide. Additional epidemics of animal origin are avian flu, West Nile virus, and foot-and-mouth disease.
- In the time it took you to read this far, approximately one thousand people starved to death, most of them children in South Asia and parts of Africa and Latin America. As I explained in a previous post, eating high on the food chain means an exponential increase in the resources (water, time, fuel, and edible plants) used to make your food. Most of the farmland in the U.S. is growing crops to feed to animals, rather than growing food for people directly. We could be feeding the world grains and vegetables, but instead we’re fattening cows (and ourselves).
- A necessary cog in the animal industrial machine is the laborer who “processes” the animals. Increasingly, the dangerous jobs are being filled by the people most desperate for work: immigrants. In addition to frequent injuries, workers suffer from respiratory problems and infections. But let’s not overlook the psychological damage of killing for a living. Soldiers often suffer from PTSD, and I’m certain slaughterhouse workers do as well. Would you want to spend an 8 hour shift killing as many creatures as you can? Buying meat means giving that miserable job to someone else.
- Humans are dependent on our living planet, and as such, massive environmental destruction can be considered a human rights issue as well. The leading cause of Amazon destruction? The cattle industry.
- I could go on, of course.
I want to share one final point about suffering, activism, and how being a vegan fits into all that. There’s a lot wrong with this world. Wars, violence, slavery, disease, earthquakes, famine, land disputes, wretched poverty, sweatshops, addiction, kidnappings… if you’ve never felt overwhelmed by the immenseness of the suffering in the world, you’ve probably never encountered the news.
It’s hard to feel as though you can do anything about any of those problems. What’s the greatest effect you can have on one of these problems? If you have money, you can donate to an organization that you trust is doing good work. If you aren’t already having trouble making ends meet, you can be a meticulous shopper, buying only organic, local, fair trade-certified, recycled products. You can write letters to people in office, and letters to the editor in the hopes of swaying policy.
I was once passionately political. I’ve received a lot of form letters that say, in much stuffier language, “Thanks, but I don’t care.”
I’ve worked with non-profits. I’ve witnessed economically struggling people donating money they couldn’t really spare to NGO’s, in the hopes that paid lobbyists would convince politicians to enact legislation, which all too often is rapidly reversed anyway.
Veganism is free and effective. It’s something that has layer upon layer of impact. It reduces both short term suffering and the suffering that results from long-term effects of animal agriculture. It saves both human and non-human animals. It’s something you can do three times a day to make the world a better place! For those of us who care, and who aren’t Bill Gates, that’s good news!