When other people’s stories can save the world

March 7, 2017

I write in various forms. The challenge interests me. Client Earth, out in May, had its challenge set by the McIntosh Foundation of Washington DC. They offered funding to buy me out of some university teaching, if I would write a maScreen Shot 2017-03-07 at 11.16.10instream book about the work of public interest environmental lawyers in Europe.

I took ‘mainstream’ as ‘pacy read for bright people’, a book they would buy as a break from a novel. It seemed an impossible ask. Still, I had been saying that writers should step from their comfort zones and into the likes of science. Here was a chance to walk the talk.

I presumed I would be shadowing lawyers. It turned out that most lawyers don’t have shadows because they like to live in them. That obstacle, a real bruiser when I first encountered it, turned out to be a boon. It meant working with those few lawyers who are alert to the power of story, and then broadening the sweep to include philanthropists and activists.

I crop up in the book as an occasional character, but my main role is to head out and meet new people in fresh places. Then readers encounter these situations for themselves. I presume a shared starting point for both readers and myself – intellectually inquisitive but curious. We will learn all we need along the way.

Client Earth’s tone is buoyant. That’s unusual for a book that faces ecological collapse. It came about because I met people with the determination and skillsets to address problems which are so huge and complex I thought they were hopeless. That is of course what good lawyers do; they wade in on our behalf in our moments of despair.

Artfully, I’ve roped in a lawyer to interleave my narrative with expertise. As CEO of ClientEarth, James Thornton has migrated the concept of bands of ecolawyers out of its starting point in the USA, and set it in place across Europe with outreach in Africa and China. His sections of lucid commentary follow each of my chapters.

Will the book find its readers? Agent Patrick Walsh took it on as a cause, and Philip Gwyn Jones decided it to champion it at Scribe. As a writer, I’ve long known how an occasional author gets the chance to pitch their new title to a publishing sales team. It’s what top writers do. That’s not my role, I’m no James Patterson, but in January there we were, James and myself, sharing Client Earth with the folk at Faber who head out and spread the word to booksellers. And then those booksellers can present the book to you.

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Billingsgate market early one morning, as I start to learn how lawyers work to save fisheries

I’ve written the narrative but it’s not my story. I’ve simply told it. The story itself belongs to James Thornton and the brazen activists who use law to save the planet. ‘The publication of this book couldn’t be more timely,’ Caroline Lucas has written. This book is an inspiration for those of us trying to build a sustainable future – and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know how and why we must deploy and enforce the law in the fight against ecological destruction.’  I’m chuffed to have had a hand in a book that can do that.

After five years of writing Client Earth I expected to lock myself back in fiction for a while. It’s seductive though, this sense that a nonfiction book can help put a world to rights. Life seems somewhat purposeless without such a challenge. The planet’s still in peril. And people are venturing out to apply a fix as best they can. Those are powerful stories to tell. Already I sense one out there, calling, and calling strong.

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