I was driving with my mom, listening to Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me on NPR, when a predictable joke annoyed me. It was something like, “McDonald’s has announced it will sell a vegan burger—that’s great news for vegans, who unfortunately still can’t purchase a sense of humor.” I didn’t laugh.
“Lighten up!” my mom said, slapping my thigh.
It wasn’t that the joke offended me, exactly. I can laugh at plenty of things about being vegan, like our obsession with nutritional yeast. But I’m tired of being told, either explicitly or implicitly, to “have a sense of humor” at the expense of animals. Sure, this joke was about vegans, not animals, but I was annoyed by the disregard for the reason vegans sometimes seem humorless. Too often we’re asked to “lighten up” about the fact that literally billions of animals are abused and slaughtered each year just to satisfy people’s tastes.
I told my mom some version of this.
“I know what you’re saying,” my mom conceded before pivoting. “But I do think the vegan movement needs to do better at talking about things like starving children. I mean, what about all the other problems in the world?” It’s another common deflection I’ve begun to lose patience for. I’m not vegan only for animals, but if I were, should I have to prove that I still care about people? It’s as offensive as demanding that I prove I still care about men because I fight for women’s rights.
But in a sense, she’s right: Vegans do need to remind everyone how factory farming contributes to world hunger, climate change, and America’s public health crisis. In fact, veganism is a highly intersectional issue.
By eating vegan, you do something about a range of issues. Being vegan is the single greatest action you can take to fight climate change—it cuts your carbon footprint in half. It is also one of the best things you can do to foster a culture that better addresses public health. From obesity to heart disease to diabetes to cancer, meat and dairy are behind so many human health problems. By creating more demand for vegan products and spreading awareness about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, we empower others to take charge of their health.
By being vegan, you also take a stand for workers’ rights. Factory farms exploit poor rural communities and workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants who are denied basic labor protections.
And by the way, veganism helps alleviate world hunger as well. About 50 percent of the world’s grain is fed to livestock, grain that could feed hungry people. It takes around 10 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. As David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University, puts it, "If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.” That’s close to the nearly 1 billion people in the world who don't have enough to eat.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we have to increase food production by 70 percent if we want to feed the world’s population in 2050. That will be impossible if we maintain our reliance on resource-intensive animal agriculture.
Clearly, by going vegan we take a step in the right direction not just for animals, but for people and our environment. You can be vegan and care about other causes, but by choosing this diet, you already do more than most. We start by practicing nonviolence and compassion on our plates, but most of us don’t end our activism there.
So if you’re asking me to laugh at animals’ expense, or as an apology for eating like I give a damn about Earth’s future, then color me humorless. Holding others against their will, controlling their reproductive systems, stealing their babies, and using their bodies for profit—destroying our environment and human health in the process—goes against everything I believe in. There’s nothing funny about it, and I’m tired of being viewed as uptight because my actions remind someone of their own moral discomfort.
Here’s what I would ask the not-yet-vegan: Respect veganism as you would any other social justice movement. Many causes intersect with veganism, but that shouldn’t mean vegans have to prove they care about people as much as animals. And please, don’t ask them to have a sense of humor about millions of animals needlessly slaughtered every day. Instead, ask yourself why you need them to put you at ease.