On February 1st, 2023, at 1:30 PM EST, McGill EA x Law hosted Philipp Ryf in a presentation titled “McGill EA x Law Presents: A Fireside Chat on Non-Litigation Animal Advocacy.” The presentation focused on Sentience’s efforts to use direct democracy to forward animal rights in Switzerland. This post is a summary of that presentation.
The presenter has reviewed this summary. The author adopted all their suggestions.
Introduction to Sentience
Philipp Ryf has been a member of Sentience since its earliest days in 2014, back when it was a project of what has now become the Center on Long-Term Risk. In 2017, they became an independent Swiss Association. Though no longer an EA organization, they still identify as part of the EA movement.
Their primary agenda is to centralize animals’ needs in the direct democracy discourse. Direct democracy means that citizens can submit ballots that fellow citizens vote on. If the required number of votes (a simple majority) are reached, then Parliament must pass that bill. For a motion to gain a ballot, it must have 100K supporters. There are four votes per year.
Sentience’s Theory of Change is to shift the Overton window by turning sensible propositions into popular ones. They use two strategies: (1) proposing radical ideas, so that the sensible ones appear more acceptable (door-in-the-face approach); and (2) increasing discourse around sensible ideas to make them more popular (foot-in-the-door approach). Their Fundamental Rights Initiative (the Primate Initiative) and Initiative to Abolish Factory Farming were founded on these ideas. The last initiative won a 37% acceptance vote.
What drew you to work on animal rights?
Philipp has been a vegetarian since he was 10 years old. Not for any moral resolutions; more because it was strange for him to eat meat. Around 15-16 years of age, he began developing an interest in politics and an increased awareness of the environment. At 22, as he was completing his political science degree, he decided to try going vegan for ethical reasons. He is still trying it to this day in his 38th turn around the sun.
He later completed a master’s in sustainable development, where his thesis focused on the environmental ethics around wild animal suffering. It was then that he was introduced to EA through a local chapter, and then worked at Sentience since (with some gap years in between).
How has Sentience evolved over the years?
In Sentience’s early days, animal rights weren't a popular topic in Switzerland. Now, a few years later, the fight seems winnable. Over the years, they've adopted their communications to their audience, occasionally compromising their stance to get the message across. In other words, they've become more pragmatic.
Originally, Sentience was more of a think tank. Now, they are a “do-tank”, focusing on voter communications. Their messaging, the less thorough, has become more relatable. All of that said, they aren’t shifting their strategy as much as they used to. The most important thing for Sentience now is to build on a solid foundation.
What are the consequences of working “across the aisle”?
There have been some negative reactions on the animal rights side criticizing Sentience for being too welfarist. That said, politicians were not ready to ban factory farms: if it were to happen, it would require a 25-year adjustment period. Most organizations, though, see Sentience as being sensible and taking the necessary steps. Their strategy has found some new allies, all of whom are listed on their website.
They could not win everybody over, and large powerful groups have been especially uncompromising (e.g., the National Farmer Association). However, Sentience recognizes that these conglomerates are persuaded more by economic arguments rather than ideological ones. Sentience sees it as part of their job to shift the economic conditions to persuade the other side.
How do you account for the differences in support in your surveys vs the polls?
In short, when people are asked to act on something, more of them drop out than when they only need to consider it in the abstract. Moreover, the political discourse around the ballots probably swayed peoples’ opinions. In any vote, there is always a status quo bias because there is a fear of change.
What messaging did the other camp adopt during the voting process?
The other side argued that there were no factory farms in Switzerland. When compared to their American counterparts, the farms are relatively small: there are a maximum of 27,000 chickens or 1’500 pigs per farm in Switzerland, whereas many farms in the United states hold more than 100,000 animals. Plus, the many animals that are visible in Switzerland, mostly cows grazing on pastures, have a relatively high standard of welfare.
You gave up eating meat early in your life. When is a good time to teach children about these lessons?
The answer largely depends on the context. When Philipp was 10, veganism (or vegetarianism for that matter) was not popular, so it may have been hard to convince his peers to do similarly. Now, veganism is trending on social media and stores are continuously increasing their vegan selection. plant based alternatives to conventional meats make it easier to invite everybody to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption.
Philipp notes that one benefit of adopting his diet early on is that it quickly became part of his social identity. His friends knew early on that he didn't eat meat, so they always prepared their meals accordingly and never asked about it.
What plans do you have for Sentience moving forward?
First, Sentience will follow up on the lessons that they’ve learned from their previous campaign. Afterwards, they have three campaigns that they are actively working on ramping up:
- Protein lab: The protein lab is meant to be a collaborative effort where, with Theory U, they are figuring out how to deconstruct the status quo by mapping the system of actors involved in promoting meat consumption.
- Alliance: over the years, Sentience has built an alliance of actors in the agriculture community committed to reducing meat consumption. after their last vote, the alliance reaffirmed their commitment to reducing meat. The alliance is proving especially important because when Sentience onboards another side before they start the project, that other side becomes an ally with a stake in realizing the project's success.
- Pressure on retailers: sentence will continue to remind retailers of their obligations, emphasizing the RRR strategy: refine, reduce, and replace.
What lessons has Sentience learned that anyone around the world can learn?
- NGO's always need legal experts, especially because they always need to write legally sound texts.
- Don't be afraid of losing, especially in politics. Media exposure goes a long way, as does a counterproposal from the other side.
- Prototype locally: there is nothing wrong with starting with your immediate community to find a big change. The Basel vote, for example, got international news coverage.
- Keep at it, and don't give up.
How can folks stay in contact with Sentience?
Feel free to join Sentience’s newsletter online and check out their website. You can follow them on social media, you can remember from anywhere in the world, and if you want, send a donation from anywhere in the world at this link.