An Interview with Mikko Järvenpää, Founder of Sentient Media
Sentient Media is a non-profit founded to focus on animal protection in media.
Posted Nov 17, 2019
"We surely are not exceptional or alone in the arena of sentience and indeed, membership in the sentience club is rapidly growing. There are sound biological reasons for recognizing animals as sentient beings." —A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending
Ever since Sentient Media was founded in 2017, I've closely followed its online essays written on behalf of nonhuman animals (animals). Last week I met with its founder, Mikko Järvenpää, and after we chatted about "all things animal sentience" for a while, I realized that an interview with Mikko would we most welcomed by people who want to know more about his organization. Previously Mikko was CEO of Infogram, a data visualization tool, and a Product Marketing Manager with Google. He has an MSc in Philosophy of Social Science from the London School of Economics. Below are his answers to a few questions about Sentient Media.
Why did you start Sentient Media, and why focus on sentience?
Sentient Media is a non-profit founded to increase the discussion and coverage of animal rights and animal welfare issues in the media. We saw there was a need for a communications-oriented organization that would both help established press to cover more animal rights-related stories, and assist existing animal rights groups in getting their stories heard.
I wanted to make the idea of sentience the focal point of our work. I don't consider sentience a trait like intelligence or physical strength that varies in degree between nonhuman and human animals, but rather a property of existence, which may vary in degree but also in kind. That is a slightly phenomenological notion of sentience–and likely not even widely shared–but it is one where the property of sentience gets special consideration as it relates to the existence and experience of nonhuman and human animals alike.
Sentience is also closely linked with a more reductive idea: the ability to experience pain, the ability to suffer. Suffering also comes in kinds and degrees, and experiencing pain and reacting to it are physically measurable. Across species, an animal's ability to suffer and the desire to avoid pain and suffering are very real measures and indications of sentience.
Most ethical systems–all defensible systems, at least–agree that other things being equal, suffering ought to be avoided. So we don't even need to take sides with our ethics to agree that suffering is negative and that it would be the morally right thing to do to reduce suffering. That's why we focus on sentience.
Sentient Media focuses on farmed animals. The main animals used for farming–chickens, cows, pigs, and fishes–are all sentient in the above sense. They experience pain and suffering and actively desire to avoid it. They are also dramatically under-represented in terms of human empathy in proportion to their sentience and the sheer numbers in which humans use them.
How would you summarize its mission statement and goals?
We aim to make the topic of animal rights more salient and urgent in public discourse. As part of their neglect, farmed animal suffering is rarely discussed in the media, even though in the United States alone, nearly 10 billion land animals are bred into a painful, limited existence and killed every year.
Our goal is to report on the negative externalities of humanity's use of animals. While sentience and animal suffering are our ethical starting points, the industry of intensive animal agriculture is awash with damning opportunities to cover. We report on the climate impact of farming animals, the cutting of forests to produce feed, and the rapidly increasing share of greenhouse gas emissions from the industry. We report on the human health impacts of animal products that are sickening us. And we consider the more hidden issues, like the brewing of antibiotic-resistant pathogens on factory farms, and the issues facing human labor in the industry.
How do you get the word out about what you do and what you hope to accomplish?
We like working with media partners and have, for example, published a video series called Animals Matters in collaboration with The Intercept. We help other organizations working on farmed animal issues in getting their stories covered. And we support freelancer journalists with our Writers' Fellowship Program by helping them find, pitch, and publish more stories addressing animal issues.
Are you hopeful that by informing people about animal sentience, they will change their ways and show more compassion, respect, and empathy for nonhuman animals?
Yes, that's a fundamental assumption in our theory of change. We are hopeful because we have seen that happen throughout history. Humanity has, slowly but surely, expanded its circles of morality to include the experiences of "other minds."
The idea of the rights of sentient animals is a natural extension of a significant trend in human history. Today, we no longer think that humans are the pinnacle of creation, or that a flat Earth is the center of the universe, or that the Western white male is somehow superior to other people–though unfortunately we still have work to do on some of those. But in general, we're getting rid of the idea of privileged experience and the wobbly ethical justifications that have historically gone with the idea. And that's good riddance. Nonhuman animals experience the world, and their sentience makes them deserving of our compassion and ethical treatment.
For my part, I'm a jaded optimist when it comes to human behavior. Effecting changes in attitudes is nearly impossible without simultaneously making changes in behavior easier and more desirable. As readers of Psychology Today probably know, much recent research indeed tells us that in many cases, people change behavior first, and only then adjust their attitudes to align with the behavior and to support it.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell the readers?
As consumers, we are working with outdated metaphors when it comes to farmed animals. To the nearest approximation, nearly all animals bred for food are factory farmed– intensively, brutally, and without compassion. The green fields of grazing cows are a small minority, far from the reality of most cows. The chicken in an outdoor coop is essentially non-existent: over 99% of both broiler chickens and layer hens are factory farmed. If you ever buy animal products–meat, dairy, eggs–and you don't get major sticker shock, you're probably paying for significant sentient suffering. It is a systemic issue, but individual consumer choices make a difference. It is worth it for each of us to look into how we can reduce suffering in the world.
Thank you, Mikko, for taking the time to answer these questions. Sentient Media is making strong and important inroads on how people view other animals, and I'm sure that your influence will surely grow as more and more people realize that animal sentience is all over the place and that membership in the sentience club is not limited only to humans.
Bekoff, Marc. The World According to Intelligent and Emotional Chickens.
Zampa, Matthew. How Many Animals Are Killed for Food Every Day? Sentient Media.