Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews the British writer, vegan activist, and academic Alex Lockwood, author of the book “The Pig in Thin Air”
Life is full of surprises.
I never expected that I would become a writer. Let alone in what is, technically, my fourth language, although it has become my first in terms of usage now — yes, I dream in English, if you wondered. I knew I was a creative person, and I expressed it by drawing, researching, and taking photos. But using writing as my creative outlet is something I have discovered in later years. I knew that I had storytelling skills, but I always thought I lacked technique.
Writing on veganism and animals has become my main source of income now. It all came about because of publishing my second book “Ethical Vegan” in 2020. It’s a part memoir and a part philosophical/historical look at veganism. And, like most books, it is prefaced with a series of quotes from reputable people who wrote a positive review after reading an advance copy before publication. One of such generous people was the writer, activist and academic Alex Lockwood — who was even a guest speaker in the online launch of my book.
Alex is a senior lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Sunderland, in the north of England. He has a Masters in Creative and Critical Writing from Sussex University and a PhD in Creative Writing from Newcastle University. He has written both fiction and non-fiction books and won several awards. He had previously worked as a journalist, editor and editorial manager across several national magazines and online sites in music, the arts, and environmental journalism. And as a theorist, he has worked in the fields of Critical Animal Studies, eco-criticism, and creaturely writing as part of a wider anti-speciesist exploration of language and creative production. His main subjects of interest include plant-based food policy, veganism, activist praxis, environmental and animal protection, and narrative framing.
Alex was kind enough to read my book and to send me a good review, which prompted me to read his. I already knew him as a vegan activist, and I was grateful for his support during my campaign for the legal case that led to the recognition of ethical veganism as a protected philosophical belief in Great Britain. But after reading two of his books, I was also grateful for his writing. And how better to express this gratitude than by interviewing him and writing an article about his work and views.
I did just that a few weeks ago.
Alex’s Vegan Journey
Three things happening simultaneously transformed the London-born vegetarian Alex into a vegan. But better let him explain how he got there:
“I first went vegetarian when I was about 15. Just like a protest at family dynamics. As a way to get out of the sitting down together at Sunday lunch — because there always seemed to be a big argument. I remember my grandma being very angry with me for only wanting a cheese sandwich. It didn’t mean anything at the time, but you look back and you see how influential and provocative it was to step outside of even just the family norms around food practices.
And then I remember my first ethical choice was when I read an article in the Guardian Saturday’s magazine when I was 17 — this was 1991. When I read a story about the hunting of whales and wanted to not be part of the killing of animals. I obviously had no connection with whales. But that meant, therefore, I looked around to see where I did have a connection with animals. We had pets at the time, but the only other connection was through food. So, I just went: ’okay, I’m not going to do that’. And that lasted for about six months or so. And then in and out for the next 10 to 15 years. I was either vegetarian or not, without really thinking too much about it.
I’ve been vegan now for about 13 or 14 years. And it came about with a confluence of three things: adopting a rescue cat, getting much more into running, and the growth of Facebook and social media — and starting to see images there. It all came around at the same time. Being quite dissatisfied with life and not really living in the way I wanted to or achieving the things I wanted to. And so, I did a sort of like root and branch back to basics. Resetting the direction of life that I was in. And how I was eating was a large part of that. It started out with all those three things that were coming together.
I was vegan for maybe five or six years before I really stepped into thinking: ‘am I doing enough and do I need to go further with this? to be an active vegan an active advocate, and thinking about making this something more than just a lifestyle choice?’”
And the answer Alex gave to himself was ‘no, I am not doing enough.’ Therefore, he became an animal rights activist, participating in activism run by several organisations (Direct Action Everywhere, The Save Movement, The Farm Sanctuary, Animal Rebellion, etc.).
Alex’s Writing Journey
As the sentient animals we all are, we are constantly moving away from what we dislike and moving towards what we seek. And with time, we may end up somewhere quite different from where we started. Our behaviour could be untangled in a series of life journeys which, when explained to others, became stories with relatable narratives. We have seen Alex’s vegan journey. Let’s now look at his professional journey which, in his case, is centred around writing.
“I had my heart set on being a writer from about the age of six, and then, as you do, you sort of get excited and carried off into other areas. So, I did a lot of creative writing when I was younger. I did a lot of journalism. I went into media and advertising and then into media editorial work for charities. Working in the field with words but not really doing the kind of writing I wanted to do, which was more creative and personal.
I was then offered a job in Palestine, around 2003 or 2004. And it was quite a senior job. It was a director-level job to continue to be the next step up in the work I was doing for the charitable sector. I didn’t go. I didn’t take the job for a number of reasons. One of which was that it was a proper job. You can’t go to be a director of an information centre in Palestine in the middle of the Israeli Palestine crisis and always be looking over your shoulder thinking, ‘oh, I’d rather be writing.’
I left the career I was in and went back to study. I did a Master’s degree in creative and critical writing. Then, through a couple of hop, skips, and jumps, it led me to get a job as an academic in 2008. So, 14 years ago, I was teaching and practising journalism, and I did more creative writing. That led me to do my PhD in creative writing, which led to a Winston Churchill fellowship that led to my first book, ‘The Pig in Mid Air’. And then my second book a few years later, ‘The Chernobyl Privileges’. Ever since I’ve been doing lots of writing projects.
I now consider myself mostly a writer, but it’s always at the intersection of animals and activism. Those are the things that a lot of people talk about. You’ve got this passion for writing the words, and for literature, and for moving people through stories and narratives. But what mission is it attached to? and that mission is to bring about a better world. Essentially, the mission is: we need to change our relationship to the non-human world. And the passion is the acts by which you do that.”
Chinese Pigs and Ukrainian Physicists
I really liked ‘The Pig in Thin Air’. It’s a very easy to read non-fictional book that puts you inside the head of a vegan in a quest to explore activism. I very much relate to the vividly described journey Alex went through in his searching through America and the UK for the type of advocacy that would suit him. I found fascinating his analysis of the image of the Chinese pig escaping from a truck on its way to a slaughterhouse. I even mentioned it in one of my articles on echo chambers, as I feel is one of the best-documented cases of a social media image making a real impact that leads to change in someone’s attitude. This is what Alex told me about this book:
“The Pig in Thin Air came out in 2016. It was published by Lantern Books, which, as most people in the animal activism world will know, publishes an awful lot of this work about veganism, vegetarianism, activism, animal welfare, animal rights and philosophy. My book is essentially how I became an animal advocate. And then, what kind of animal advocate one can be. It was essentially a journey. It’s part memoir part road trip. Part vegan philosophy about finding your place on the front line to serve this work for bringing around an ethical world — liberation and justice for animals. And it was the story of my journey to that. It was how I saw the importance of becoming an advocate for animals and then going out and trying lots of forms of advocacy to see where I fit in. I did a restaurant dining with DxE, worked on a sanctuary, visited lots of other locations, and did some work with The Save Movement bearing witness. All these forms of activism that you can try, to see where you fit and where you can really contribute your maximum.”
I also read Alex’ first novel, “The Chernobyl Privileges”, published in 2019 by Roundfire Books, and I also enjoyed it very much. Although it is a fiction book, it is based on real events and has lots of factual information, so I learnt a lot about the infamous 1986 accident in the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine. It remains fresh in my memory — I vividly remember that anti-nuclear pin that Dr Enric Alonso de Medina, my PhD supervisor, wore on his jacket during his animal behaviour seminar I attended that scary day in Spring 1986. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history both in cost and casualties. The reactor exploded, the core melted down, the building was destroyed, and the air was contaminated by radioactive material spreading around the world — killing many people over the years. I knew what had happened, but Alex’s book showed it to me from a completely different angle. It made me experience what it was like for the ordinary people in the area, and how did they cope with it years after — with the health burden they had to carry. It made me wonder if one of the reasons cancers are so widespread these days is because of how far the radioactive cloud travelled — I remember scientists measuring the radiation in the air from the hills around Barcelona, where I was at that time. And it made me realise that the forgotten risks are still very real today.
It’s not a book about veganism, though. It has a strong environmental message but is centred on the nuclear energy issue alone, not on animal agriculture. However, I could tell it was written by a vegan who deeply cares about animals — as many characters of the book do too. I loved the fact that the main character — a Ukrainian physicist now living in the UK— could be a vegan without explicitly saying so, as everything he ate during the modern timeline could easily be vegan-friendly (the kind of things I often eat). And some characters were vegan without that being essential to the story. An interesting way to “normalise” veganism in fiction, I thought. Alex explained more:
“The Chernobyl book is in two timelines. There’s the historical timeline of the Chernobyl disaster leading up to the present day, and then there’s the present day. So, half of the book takes place within a two-week period in the present day and the other half is the historical timeline leading up to it. In that historical timeline, it wouldn’t have been credible for the young boy, the character, and his family in Ukraine, to be vegan, so when it was relevant, they were eating animal food. But in the present timeline, I was conscious of it. One of my beta readers was a very vegan-aware conscious academic activist who was pointing it out to me as well. And saying, ‘you could do more with it’. And so, the man isn’t a vegan character but the environmental investigator who he interacts with is — and asks for vegan food. It was a very conscious decision to do that.
What really got me stimulated around writing about Chernobyl is a wonderful book by Svetlana Alexievich called ‘Chernobyl Prayer’. She’s a Belarusian journalist, so she’s from the region. She’s done an awful lot of work around Russia at the end of the Soviet Union on ordinary people’s lives. Ordinary women’s lives, ordinary soldiers’ lives. And the Chernobyl book was about the ordinary lives of the people who lived through Chernobyl. She created this new format which is an oral history from the unique perspective of the people who lived through it. It is so interesting. And I also think it’s a book all humanity should read. For the absolute tragedy and ridiculousness of people who think they can control Nature and nuclear. It inspired me to write about it. I think we need more stories like that in our movement. We need a Chernobyl Prayer for the animal activism movement.”
Alex’s Advocacy Journey
Having disentangled the vegan and professional journeys from the rope Alex is pulling through to progress in this world, let’s pull out his diverse and inspiring animal advocacy journey from it. Some of it can be seen in “The Pig in Thin Air”, and it started in America, where Alex spent some time thanks to a fellowship he received.
“By the end of the book, I’ve gone through doing street activism with DxE, working on a farm sanctuary, and then working with the Save Movement and bearing witness. And also doing ‘performance running’ — I guess you could call it activist running — where I organized a run from a factory farm to a slaughterhouse which was about 66 kilometres (about 45 miles). And I ran that journey to trace the line that the trucks would take.
At the end of the book, I very much found there were two things for me in the short period of time that I’ve been exploring activism. I found that bearing witness and doing that with the Save Movement was for me the most profound, impactful method, because of that profound connection and encounter with the vulnerable body of the animal. The pig, the cow, the sheep, or the chicken, who is just about to be killed. It was a very transformative moment. And the activists who perform that bearing witness are generally transformed by it. And then, obviously, there’s the opportunity to amplify that message through social media and push it out sharing it with others.
I also advocated for it as an act — or a duty — for other people to bear witness. And I did so in 2014. Then, the Safe Movement came to the UK in 2016, when Manchester Pig Save held the first vigil in the UK. Obviously, this wasn’t the first-ever formal bear witness as we had several 70s and 80s protests at live animal exports, bearing witness to the animals going off on ferries and ships abroad. But this was a revival of it, a renaissance of it, in an organised way. I was there at the first vigil in Manchester.
I also organised a few ‘performance runs.’ We did this all-day relay run around the slaughterhouse in Manchester where we got all the vegan runners down to join in. We collectively ran about 400 miles around the slaughterhouse that day as a means of performing activism and bringing in people who might not normally come and bear witness — because one of the things about bearing witness is people feeling scared about it. They feel like they might not cope. They don’t want to do it; they feel vulnerable. I did, the first time I did it. I felt very vulnerable and exposed. I felt like the commuters driving-by were really judging me as some wacky extreme animal lover, and I felt incredibly exposed. My masculinity felt exposed. My academic intellectual identity felt exposed. I understand how it can feel, so we wanted to find ways to give people things that they were comfortable with, like being a runner. Get them to focus on that, almost without even really noticing their bearing witness. And it really worked.
From there, we carried on, and we set up Northeast Animal Save. Myself, and some friends up a local group. I was the one who actually stepped into organizing a governance structure, so I became the legal director in the UK for the Safe Movement and distributed funds to grassroots groups to help aid it. That was 2017-2018.
Then I got involved with Animal Rebellion as one of the core original members who got it off the ground. There was about 10 or 15 of us really who did that. I was involved from June 2019 right the way through to the international rebellion of October 2019. I led on press and media, and I was also constitutive of the narrative.
I shaped a lot of the narrative. For example, the occupation of the Smithfield market, which was the landmark beginning framing action for Animal Rebellion in the 2019 international rebellion. We shifted from a position of occupying it illegally and battling on the streets — and being in opposition to the meat market and the animal agriculture industry — to a position of having an agreement with Smithfield market to be there legally but for a shorter time, and agreeing to move on. We did that for a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons was wrong-footing the right-wing media so that we didn’t have ‘extreme vegan’ vs ‘normal people trying to do their job’ framing — because that would have just killed us and we would have been all arrested and moved on.
We did something very different that really allowed us to shift the conversation and its framing action. It means that all the other actions that you do after that, which can be more radical, provocative, and extreme, can be also brought back and framed within that bigger picture. So, my work in Animal Rebellion was a lot of that framing of the narrative, of what we needed to get across in terms of what our purpose was. And our purpose was getting a plant-based food system into the vernacular, into the common-sense conversations around what we need to do about animal agriculture. I pretty much left Animal Rebellion at that time in that capacity and have just maintained a sort of ad hoc supporting on issues, as and when they needed it.”
I guess that, as in my case, the pandemic has helped some of us to shift our focus and find new ways to be as helpful for the animals as possible within the current state of affairs. I have also channelled my activism towards the written word away from the street.
“I have moved on a bit. I still struggle with street activism. I’ve done the Cubes. But I really struggle speaking to people in the street. I can speak to 2000 people in a lecture hall, or speak to really rabid right-wing shock jocks on the radio, and do that with no trouble at all. But you asked me to go up to a stranger in the street and hand them a leaflet, I’m terrified. I think it’s okay to know that you can do some things and not others. You’ve got something to contribute where you are. Don’t always stay in your comfort zone. It’s good to be challenged and go outside of it, but where can you really contribute most, that’s what’s really important.
In the last couple of years, I’ve really focused on putting my energy into what you’d call the intellectual effort of the movement. For 18 months, I produced a report for the Vegan Society about the policy we need for a plant-based food system. The work I’m doing at the moment is very much the theoretical philosophical work around narrative, and how we need to develop an understanding of narrative in the movement for shifting behaviours. Shifting the common sense, the understanding of how the status quo treats animals. I’m connected to grassroots activism but, at the moment, I’m stepping into that space where I’m doing the intellectual or philosophical work.”
Is Nuclear Energy Still Bad?
In recent years, I have seen how the environmental movement has begun to abandon its classical uncompromising opposition to nuclear energy for a more subtle approach. As the climate crisis has become the main subject of attention, and nuclear energy is being sold now as having a lower carbon footprint than burning fuels, some environmentalists have started embracing nuclear power. As Alex wrote about this issue in his novel, I thought I would ask him if his position on nuclear energy has changed.
“No, my views on this have actually consolidated around the idea that it’s a terrible idea, for a number of reasons. One is the revolving door between civil and military nuclear. In actual fact, around 2005-2006, Tony Blair’s Labour government in charge at that time was on a plan to decommission nuclear and put all of those billions into renewable energies. And a large part of the reason they didn’t was because of the nuclear lobby — but also, the military nuclear lobby — lobbied to Tony Blair and said: ‘we cannot sustain a military nuclear capability without all of the expertise, intelligence, and capacity that comes out of the civil nuclear industry.’ That is basically why we kept nuclear and reinvested in it. We would probably have the leading renewable energy sector in the world if it wasn’t for the British need to feel like it needs a ‘hairy chest’ in its nuclear deterrent. And the only reason we keep a nuclear deterrent is to keep our seat on the United Nations’ Security Council — because if we don’t have nuclear we don’t deserve our seat there.
Purely for that argument, I was consolidated. We need to get rid of it. The environmental argument doesn’t stack up for me, because even if nuclear power stations are now safe in the way that Chernobyl wasn’t safe, we are still having all of that radioactive material for the next quarter of a million years on this planet. It is the wrong direction to pollute. And, actually, the climate emergency is a smaller element of the overall pollution emergency. We are polluting our atmosphere, we are polluting our seas, we are polluting our soil, we are polluting everything, and nuclear is part of that. For me, there are so many positive renewable regenerative cleaner compassionate ways to direct ourselves into a future other than nuclear.”
The Intersectionality Controversy
When I conduct this sort of interview, I always think there is an opportunity to ask the opinion about topical issues discussed within the vegan movement for either being controversial, emerging, divisive or representing unresolved grey areas. As I think we need to get better at tolerating differences of opinion, it’s always good to discuss such issues when one has had the opportunity to learn about context and where people “come from”, rather than approach it from a naked social media question which tends to trigger people and start infighting. In Alex’s case, I thought I would ask him about the problem of anti-intersectionality within veganism, and the controversy about the intersectional approach.
“I don’t think it’s controversial at all. I don’t think the care, compassion, advocacy for one form of life, or one species, or in a particular place, at a particular time, needs in any way to derail or undermine the compassion, care, and advocacy for other forms of life. When we organized Northeast Animal Save, we had people there who were gay, queer, trans, with mental health issues, disabled, and there were other people in the movement, in the region, who were like ‘I don’t need to take that into account; if I’m advocating for animals it has to be about the animals’. For me, the question is ‘what kind of world is it that we are trying to create?’ And the answer is: a compassionate one. It’s a caring one. And it’s one where every being has access to their birthright to flourish. That’s the same if you’re a trans person, or queer person, or an animal.
I also probably have just completely misused the whole idea of intersectionality because, obviously, the way that Kimberlé Crenshaw conceptualised it when she introduced it was around the multiplying discriminations that black women face. If you’re black and a woman, as opposed to white and a woman, or white and a man. And, in a way, we have to be very careful when we use intersectionality. Not to use it in a really vague way to apply to any conflict between different groups when we’re competing for action or attention, but as it is manifested within the animal movement. It generally occurs between old school activists who say ‘you’re diverting attention from the animals’, and perhaps younger, different generations who are thinking ‘no, we have to welcome every part of everyone.’
The animal movement is a social justice movement, and it has to interact with, and sit within, the social justice movement field. That isn’t to say that people who claim intersectionality and talk about it are always right. Sometimes they’re very naive in their arguments and they’re sometimes very blinkered and do not understand nuances of where other people are coming from. I think we need an awful lot more careful listening to each other, and compassionate action for common outcomes. The bottom line is we all have a birthright. Every single being on this planet has a birthright to flourish and that’s the world we want to create.”
The Narratives of Our Movement
In addition to my non-fiction book “Ethical Vegan”, I also wrote a novel called “The Demon’s Trial”. So I, like Alex, have visited these two dimensions of writing, which are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive. In my case, I started with animal rights fiction to get my foot in, and then moved into vegan non-fiction. Although I would like to write more novels, I recently felt a bit put off by what I call the threat of conspiracy theories — as I think we need to get the world back into reality, as far too many dangerous people lost in fantasyland are now in the streets messing our lives up. I asked Alex about what would be more helpful for the vegan and climate movements, writing fiction or non-fiction. His reply was very illuminating:
“I’ve always had the struggle with writing fiction that I do feel that it’s self-indulgent. At a time when we don’t have time for indulgence. We need to act on the climate emergency. We need to end animal agriculture. Can fiction do that? Not on its own. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making art for art’s sake. And I still have ideas for novels, and ideas for novels that I think can really communicate some of the themes and issues. Like the deep entanglements of where we are at the crisis areas we are at. And I see brilliant novels doing it. Brilliant novelists and writers doing that. But, for me, to do that, I just need to clear some space in my everyday work patterns to be able to do the activism and the creative writing. So, for me, fiction, literature, art, the kinds of narratives and stories that move people, are essential. And particularly, they are essential to our movement. They are essential to the animal activism movement and the climate activism movement because it is stories and narratives that can move people.
My feeling is that there is just a missing link between the story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and the inaction, the new narrative construction, to get people moving and living in a different way. So, for example, I don’t think a novel, or even a play, moves people to action because the cognitive framework in which fiction lands is that permission to remove yourself from reality. You don’t need to change your life after reading a novel. No one really thinks that way.
It might work on a deeper level. Every now and then it does. Black Beauty changed laws. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle changed laws. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 is an incredible example of this. Where it brought about the Environmental Protection Agency after John F Kennedy’s Environmental Commission on the basis of her work. But the wonderful thing about Rachel Carson’s book is perhaps one of the best examples of the way I’m thinking. Is that she drew upon fable, and mythology, and allegory. All of these literary and rhetorical tropes in her very scientific non-fiction work, to communicate and move people, to get the message across.
I think Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is an example of the link between the fictional and the non-fictional that moves people into enacting a new narrative. And for me, that’s the kind of work that I’m thinking about. That is how we work with the movement, climate movement, animal movement, to get people from listening, hearing the messages, agreeing with the narratives, even repeating the messages ‘you can’t fix the climate emergency without ending the animal emergency,’ to moving them into enacting new narratives in their lives and in their systems. For me, the next bit is really connecting and getting in that missing link between the stories we tell and the actions we want people to take. And showing how the story leads to action.”
I do feel Alex is into something here. Whether this reality is just a game played by a bored god or an ensemble of stories that energy and particles have been enacting since the Big Bang, living in it is just narrating a particular story. A story with a beginning, an arc, and an end. And is through stories that we learn to act, and through actions that we tell our story.
The missing link between the carnist and the vegan could be the story of the animals. And the missing link between the stories we create and the human action we want to cause is simply us, the people in the middle. The sentient creatures we feel we are. The sentient beings that talk and listen.
Life is full of surprises, but the biggest of all is that we get to write any story we like about it.
All of us are authors, characters, actors, and spectators of life stories told and retold in an existential drama played for continuously revolving sets of audiences, moving in and out of an ever-changing stage.
Let’s write a happy ending for this one.