This is the first in a series featuring those featured in The Octopus in the Parking Garage, a new book about climate resilience by Center for Progressive Reform President Rob Verchick. Read the second post in the series.
Dr. Syukoro Manabe, Nobel Prize winner in physics for his groundbreaking work on climate modeling, said that while climate modeling is difficult, “nothing is more difficult than what happens in politics and in society.” Social scientists, not surprisingly, cheered his words, having long argued that not only are social sciences not “soft” but also that numerous social disciplines — anthropology, sociology, economics, law, public policy, and more — are critical both to understand the consequences of climate change and to develop climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.
For all that it centers on a cephalopod, The Octopus in the Parking Garage, Rob Verchick’s new book about climate resilience, is a book about why social science is and must be at the heart of climate action.
Early in the book, Verchick sets the stage with Rousseau’s response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which he delivered an early version of the “no natural disasters” campaign by noting the very human drivers of risk: “It was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six of seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all…. For me, I see everywhere that the misfortunes nature imposes upon us are much less cruel than those that we please to add.”
This framing is central to Octopus: that it is human — social, cultural, and political — drivers that shape how climate change affects people and ecosystems. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, Verchick is a lawyer, and he draws on a wealth of legal, political, and teaching expertise to illustrate the ways in which a range of social systems interact to shape climate harms and to distribute those harms unfairly.
Verchick is also an optimist (or at least writes convincingly as one), so although the book provides a clear-eyed depiction of the harms of climate and injustice, the core of the book is about practical solutions: the “local and concrete” and “everyday” solutions you, I, anyone, and everyone can take (even when, as in my own cameo in the book, we have more enthusiasm than skill).
Tracing the ties between “climate and caste,” illustrating community-led advocacy and education and providing recommendations for federal and local policy is more than enough for one book to cover. But Verchick also hints at what might come next: What if the climate field welcomed not only natural and social scientists but also humanities scholars, artists, and alternative ways of knowing and connecting with place?
Love of Place and People
Amid the practical, everyday advice on how to engage, Octopus contains lyrical descriptions filled with love of place and people. Volunteering and time spent outdoors are ways to help young scientists and activists “fall in love with the ocean” and other environments because “few things get done in this world without sincere emotional attachment.”
As much as I want readers to engage in the tangible tasks Verchick lays out, it’s this deeper, in-between-the-lines message of love and creativity that I truly hope will stick. So far, human actions to address climate risk tend to be small — limited in scale and ambition. We turn on air conditioners when it gets hot, irrigate farms when water grows scarce, or dig up sand to rebuild beaches when storms wash them away — none of which is likely to be enough in the long run. Maybe it buys time to enjoy the last moments of a place. Or maybe it makes time to develop something more — more creative, more audacious, more like the octopus who finds new ways to “adapt and thrive.”
And if the field needs more creativity, why not involve more creative fields? Performance artists are communicating sea level risk through lights, painted lines, and an underwater homeowner’s association. Writers are creating fictional books and short stories to illustrate what the “shared socioeconomic pathways” developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change might look like. Heritage managers are using oral histories and light displays to memorialize storms and educate new generations about how society and nature combine to create risk. Video games now allow players to organize a bond measure to support community solar programs, navigate flooded towns and cities, experience life as a bee to understand the importance of habitat and pollinators, or engage in climate litigation against Big Oil (forthcoming).
Such creative endeavors visualize, communicate, and motivate. They also reflect a trait that is critical for both climate action and octopus resilience: play. Playfulness in octopus is a sign of the intelligence and creativity that help them rapidly adapt. And in the climate movement, it could be a crucial springboard for creativity and innovation.
The Octopus in the Parking Garage offers an important message on the need for intelligence, creativity, and, above all, hard work. After all, as Verchick writes: “Hope is alive, but time is running short.”