Beware! Rebellion really can transform your life

Alex Lockwood
Oct 29 · 7 min read

A month or so before the October International Rebellion began, five of us from the political strategy group of Animal Rebellion sat down in our London offices to take our plans back to the drawing board.

We’d made a big statement about our ambitions for the Rebellion — naming Smithfield Market as our first target, as a rallying call to the animal justice activists who we were hoping to mobilise in their thousands. Our goal was to ensure animals were not left out of the climate conversation.

George Monbiot delivering the best speech of his life at Smithfield market. Image © Jo-Anne McArthur

As the hard edges of time, capacity, opposition and policing began to impact upon our organising, and after some back and forth around our plans, we decided to strip things right back. We focused on what it was we wanted to achieve over the full two weeks of the Rebellion, that ended on Saturday 19th October after an incredible two weeks. The Rebellion has shifted the conversation around making possible a plant-based food system, as a radical but essential response to the climate and animal emergencies we face.

The five of us round the table offered a range of aims and objectives: from people feeling safe, to enabled, empowered, and absorbed into decision-making. The one thing we all said independently was this: we wanted people to feel transformed.

Transformation on the ground

I don’t think those of us involved in bringing the new organisation to life could have imagined how successful and transformational Animal Rebellion was going to be:

  • A peaceful occupation of Smithfield Market that truly shifted the framing of animal activists as ‘angry vegans’ into a new narrative, where even Smithfield workers were able to voice their support, and fear of the future
  • Over 300+ media appearances, from Sky News to talkRADIO to full pages in The Independent to of course Mr Broccoli on Piers Morgan, and the downmarket tabloid The Daily Star imploring ‘ordinary blokes’ to take action on climate change
  • Helping shift Extinction Rebellion’s narrative towards a less anthropocentric, human-oriented rebelliousness
  • Establishing new momentum in the animal justice movement, an umbrella campaign and organisation working to demand broad systemic changes, specifically of our food system, which added to and complemented the already existing campaigns focused on changing individual habits (Challenge 22+, Veganuary. etc)
  • Seeding new decentralised and democratic organisation skills and capacity within the movement, following solid research from historically successful campaigns, such as the Civil Rights Movement

Although we are not claiming to be the first or best in making shifts for animal justice, there’s no doubt that Animal Rebellion has made a huge contribution to a transformation of the movement. And October was only phase one.

With governments, elites, corporates and their lobbyists defending business as usual, the work for animal and climate justice is far from done. There are plenty of critiques of how Extinction Rebellion, and Animal Rebellion, acted, that we can learn from, especially around decolonizing activism and decentralisation.

But the building of capacity, one campaign at a time, as seeded by the direction of Animal Think Tank that helped create Animal Rebellion, has achieved more than we’d expected: a transformation in the landscape of animal justice activism and an assurance that animals will not be left out of future climate conversations, as far as rebellions go.

Be careful what you wish for: handling change

So why do I feel so bad?

There is the typical post-project blues to contend with. After pouring heart and soul into a project, it is natural that when that project comes to an end, and you move on, that there is a hole that remains that needs to be filled.

The advice is to not try and fill it too quickly. The trough is essential for the peak. And the body and mind are both worn out. (At one point during the Rebellion I ate a second breakfast 10 minutes after the first because I couldn’t remember eating the first. Mind you, it was a tasty free porridge from the rebellion camp, provided by October Sustenance.)

And I did let go my self-care in the run up to and during the campaign. I stopped running, reading, writing and performing yoga — four of the key activities of my life that keep me grounded, but also give me purpose. So I am out of practice of my practices. And it has been hard, depleted as I’ve been, to find the willpower to restart them.

Mr Broccoli, as upbeat as it gets © https://www.instagram.com/steventiller/

But there is more to it here for me. I am struggling with this: that the Rebellion really was a source of transformation for me. But in its aftermath, not in the upbeat, positive, clarifying way I’d imagined.

We set out to transform people. We wanted people to have a transformative experience so that they would be active again in defence of animals and our planet. That we would built momentum behind this demand for a change of our food system, radically, through policy, legislation and government will, rather than through (slower?) individual change. We have, as we are told, less than eleven years now left to act.

But transformation — any change — can feel chaotic, scary, disorienting. It is where most midlife narratives begin, after all (Dante’s Inferno begins in the dark wood, lost and wandering). Learning and taking part in action is the very definition of “transformative learning” (when done right). As Norbert Elias wrote:

Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self; transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analysing underlying premises.

On the streets, Animal Rebellion set out to direct conscious processes — our activism — into changing the symbolic contents of our entire social system. The symbolic contents of our social system are built upon speciesism: that it is normal, natural and necessary to kill and eat animals. We were challenging that, and all of its underlying premises.

This is what we set out to transform. And we achieved some part of this.

But it also disoriented my normal life: that of an academic, a writer, essentially someone who prioritises the lonely writing of books as a way to bring about change. The Rebellion was for me a complete change in a way of living and operating. No wonder I feel disoriented.

For Jack Mezirow transformation needs such a “disorienting dilemma” to achieve any growth.

This is where I’ve ended up — in a “disorienting dilemma”. Because going back to my ‘normal’ life — which on the face of it never looked that bad, being an academic with plenty of autonomy over what I research and write — now doesn’t seem quite as important. As important as the campaigning mode of making change on the streets, reframing the story about animals, getting the media to take a plant-based food system seriously.

I’m transformed. And I’m disoriented. I don’t know how to get back on with the pending deadlines for academic book chapters most people won’t read; with the daily grind of teaching; with the administration.

But not only with those things. With the fact that the last ten years have all been working towards creating for myself the life of a professional writer. Writing books… now doesn’t seem quite as important either, not when there are immediate needs, and immediate ways to bring about change.

I guess I did not expect my work — framing the narrative of transition around Smithfield; building friendships and collaborations with other activists; supporting others through their low moments — to be so fulfilling. And to show up my existing choices as perhaps less fulfilling. Although that is still being reflected upon.

Channeling and integrating transformation

I’m writing this after one of my fellow advocates on the Animal Rebellion team also expressed her struggle and chaos at having let go of her process to make the rebellion happen. And so perhaps it will also resonate for others who have been transformed, and are working out what it means for them. Perhaps for you.

The experience will have been different for all of us. We bring different stories and contexts to these moments, so they change us in different ways, if we allow them to.

And I suppose I need to allow the changes to take place. If I block the learning and the energy, what will that mean for me? If I can find ways to integrate the transformations, the new perspectives on old things, then perhaps it will really feel as if I have been lifted.

So regeneration is also a process of assimilation, what Jean Piaget spoke about as the process of learning from the world around us to chart our course through that world. Or what my favourite psychologist of all time, Marion Milner, called, in her early writings, finding A Life of One’s Own away from the hand-me-down scripts of ‘normal’ modern life.

The sediment of the rebellion is settling — and we are developing a regenerative culture, where such settling and reflection is part of the activism — and if it settles well, it will be strong enough to stand upon in the future. If I I fight against it, perhaps it will stay stirred up, and will not solidify into a stronger base.

It did feel like this for me through the Rebellion. That I was gathering knowledge, learning, connections and relationships that would become part of my makeup, if I let it.

And now the new is here, of course, the old has to accommodate it.

I don’t know what that means for me, or for Animal Rebellion, yet. But speaking about it, sharing the story, may be a part of it.

And it has me writing again. If only it were a bit warmer, I’d go running too.

An activist feeling reflective outside a Farnborough slaughterhouse © Martin Pugh

Alex Lockwood

Written by

Author of The Chernobyl Privileges (out March 2019) and The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books, 2016). Working on a memoir of his missing father, due 2020.

Animal Rebellion

Demanding the government transition the UK to a plant-based food system, for the animals

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