The Sentience Institute believes it can find answers to today’s problems in the history of social movements.
Growing meat in a lab for human consumption was once the stuff of science fiction, but it’s here, now. Food companies across the world are developing cultured meat, which is grown from cell structures in a lab instead of in animals, and it won’t be long before it’s on store shelves. The meat promises to be more ethical than eating vegetables and less damaging to the environment than factory farming (though, that doesn’t mean anyone will want to eat it).
Kelly Witwicki and Jacy Reese want to tackle that problem head on. The pair are co-founders of The Sentience Institute, a new think tank dedicated to the expansion of humanity's “moral circle,” defined as the sentient beings that receive humanity’s moral consideration, through the use of effective altruism.
“We want to see a world where the interests of all sentient beings are fully considered, regardless of their species,” Witwicki told me over Skype. “We see this as an important step to preventing suffering, both now and far into the future.”
It’s a big goal, but the pair aren’t just idle dreamers, they’re dedicated researchers who understand that ambitions are achieved through a series of practical steps over the course of a lifetime. They want their social activism to work. “It’s about applying data, evidence, and strategy to achieve our goal,” Reese explained. “For us, that looks like tackling a neglected problem. How do social movements expand the moral circle?”
It’s a tricky question for a problem that’s sometimes more about emotion than it is about evidence. “It’s not a question that lends itself to the scientific method,” Reese said. “You can’t run a randomized control trial where you take two different societies and see what works and what doesn’t.”
But while there’s few established guidelines for expanding humanity’s moral circle, the Sentience Institute’s does have concrete goals, the first of which is the elimination of factory farming, which is both cruel to animals and environmentally unsustainable.
It’s a huge endeavor that the Institute acknowledges will take years, but the institute took its first steps in 2017 by researching historical social movements and technological advances. They wanted to know how other efforts expanded the moral circle, and how controversial technologies became commonplace.
To that end, they focused on the British anti-slavery movement, the widespread adoption of nuclear power in France, and the rejection of GMOs. The anti-slavery movement gave them a historical example of the expansion of the moral circle and French nuclear power showed them what it takes for a culture to accept new technologies. The failure of corporations to get the public to accept GMOs taught them how to avoid scaring people with new forms of food.
Reese told me that, in their research, they found that institutional change tends to be the most effective strategy. “It’s more effective than a focus on individual change,” he said. “By this, I mean focusing on changing institutions such as non-profits, governments, and corporations over trying to change individual consumption habits.”
He pointed out that only 5 to 10 percent of the US population is vegetarian (in some form) and that those movements have typically attempted to spread their views by targeting individual consumers. It doesn’t work. “It’s virtually unprecedented for a social movement to succeed with that kind of focus,” he said.
Going after individual consumers was a tactic abolitionists tried in the early 1800s when they started a boycott on sugar and rum produced in the West Indies. “That only reached about 4 to 6 percent of the population,” Witwicki said. “Most of that was women who couldn’t participate politically. That clearly didn’t work. It was symbolic and got attention, but ultimately what got rid of slavery in Britain was a movement for political change.”
British abolitionists did more than stop buying sugar, they lobbied parliament to change the laws. They toured the country, knocked on doors and had conversations, got people to sign petitions to end slavery and forced the government to intercede. It was a huge, multiyear effort that involved white allies as well as former and current slaves and it came from the bottom but was enacted from the top.
The Sentience Institute wants to do something similar with factory farming, but it knows that people won’t want to stop eating meat. Reese and Witwicki understand that cultured meat replacements will help their cause, but they also know there will be initial resistance against the idea. For many of us, lab grown meat just sounds icky. That’s where the French nuclear power and anti-GMO movements come into play.
Nuclear power didn’t go over well in the US, despite the oil shocks of the 1970s. But France saw it as the solution to its problems. “France had a history of taking on large technological projects,” Reese explained. “In the US, you saw people talking about nuclear energy as a danger. What we see in social movements is often a polarization of media attention. So it’s either very good or very bad. In the US [nuclear energy] became very bad, it became focused on nuclear disasters.”
Thanks to the blockbuster movie The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island incident, nuclear power never became widespread in America, and even when scientists tried to talk about its benefits and relative safety, the message was often twisted. “One report said that, actually—in the event of a nuclear disaster—the death toll would be quite small,” Reese said. “News outlets ran with this as ‘a nuclear disaster can happen and still have a death toll.’ The intention of that report was to show how safe the technologies were.”
In France, the technology was seen as a solution to the problem of high energy prices. Paris led the way and the people followed. Reese and Witwicki said they’d seen a similar backlash against GMOs in America. “They’ve had such mixed success and they’re also a food and technology issue,” Reese said.
It’s a smart place to look when considering how to get people to accept lab grown meat. “GMOs have failed—to the extent that they’ve failed—because they were [created] behind closed doors and introduced to the public as something that was done by large corporations for profit,” Reese said. “There was a lack of transparency. This put people off.”
The cultured meat industry has done the opposite. “They’re showing all of their mistakes, giving tours whenever they can, and inviting people to try it.” For Reese and Witwicki, that open and honest approach will be more effective than the shady practice of the GMO companies.
And for The Sentience Institute, it’s all about what works. “There’s a lot of room across all movements for thinking about what’s effective,” Witwicki said. “A lot of times people want to go for what feels right. Factory farming is one of these issues that’s so monumental and so urgent that people have this impulse to shake people and make it stop. I think that that impulse comes from a place of love and altruism, but [you must] take a step back and ask if your methods are going to work in the long run. It might get attention right now but is it going to change people’s mind?”
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