Was John Steinbeck the First Social Ecologist?

Image of jackrabbits fleeing Dust Bowl conditions described in The Grapes of WrathIn The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck explores social ecology—how individuals interact with each other within their natural, adopted, and built environments—in the crisis created by the Great Depression Dust Bowl. Social ecology recognizes the holistic connection of all elements and influences and how each affects the other in a social complex. Reading The Moon Is Down, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath helped me discover how the principles of social ecology can be applied in practice.

Steinbeck’s depiction of the Dust Bowl and its impact in The Grapes of Wrath clearly demonstrates his familiarity with the ecological disaster resulting from the failure to shift to dry land farming methods before drought conditions overtook large areas of America’s heartland in the 1930s. What is less apparent is the other side of the story, the social ecology disaster that occurred when Dust Bowl migrants tried to find paying work and a new home in California. In The Grapes of Wrath the author adroitly brings together both kinds of environment, social and physical.

The Phalanx in The Moon Is Down and on Cannery Row

My first exposure to John Steinbeck’s understanding of social ecology occurred when I read The Moon Is Down, the play-novelette he wrote for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. This work—which Steinbeck is believed to have based on the Nazi occupation of Norway—exerted significant influence on the development of my thinking about social ecology. Steinbeck’s story concerns the resistance by the residents of an unnamed coastal village in northern Europe to foreign-army occupiers who invade the town in order to seize its harbor and coal mine.

Their resistance through non-compliance rests on the concept of the informal network, an element of the broader idea behind Steinbeck’s phalanx theory. The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural; informal networks are the means by which information is disseminated, issues are resolved, and environments are managed in a particular community without using formal systems.

The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural.

A later example of the function of an informal network within a specific group occurs in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row reprise Sweet Thursday, where Doc’s Western Biological Laboratories, Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery, and Ida’s Bear Flag bordello are “bound by gossamer threads of steel to all the others—hurt one, and you aroused vengeance in all. Let sadness come to one, and all wept.” Here Steinbeck’s dramatization of human interconnectedness represents much more than the dynamics between these network nodes or the individuals who comprise them. Rather, it depicts a powerful unconscious influence on the life of the community that functions as its own entity—the phalanx.

(Interestingly, the writer Malcolm Gladwell alludes to the same concept in his 2008 book about super-achievers titled Outliers: The Story of Success.  In his introductory chapter Gladwell discusses the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community settled in the late 19th century by immigrants from the town of Roseto Valfortore in Italy. Noting a study 50 years earlier of the low incidence of illness in Roseto—where residents had fewer heart problems than those in towns nearby, no suicides, no alcoholism or drug addiction, little crime, and no one on welfare—Gladwell notes that ”these people were dying of old age, that is it.” When Dr. Stewart Wolfe, the author of this research, studied the health of the people of Roseto, he concluded that the “secret of Roseto was not diet or exercise or genes or location. It was Roseto itself.”)

How Owning The Moon Is Down Became a Capital Crime

In The Moon Is Down John Steinbeck describes his fictional town’s informal network system, the characters in that system and the roles they play, and the bewilderment and frustration of the invaders with the villagers, who don’t behave as expected. The following passage reflects the dramatic difference between a top-down authoritarian type in a position of power, Colonel Lanser, and the informal horizontal system represented by Mayor Orden, a community that is supposedly powerless:

Lanser: “Please co-operate with us for the good of all.” When Mayor Orden made no reply, “For the good of all,” Lanser repeated. “Will you?”
Orden:  “This is a little town. I don’t know. The people are confused and so am I.”
Lanser: “But will you try to co-operate?”
Orden shook his head. “I don’t know. When the town makes up its mind what it wants to do, I’ll probably do that.”
Lanser: “But you are the authority.”
Orden smiled. “You won’t believe this, but it is true: authority is in the town. I don’t know how or why, but it is so. This means we cannot act as quickly as you can, but when a direction is set, we all act together.  I am confused.  I don’t know yet.”
Lanser said wearily, “I hope we can get along together. It will be so much easier for everyone. I hope we can trust you. I don’t like to think of the means the military will take to keep order.”
Orden was silent.
“I hope we can trust you,” Lanser repeated.
Orden put his finger in his ear and wiggled his hand. “I don’t know,” he said.

Steinbeck’s statement about the “authority being in the town” is profound. To Lanser’s amazement, power resides not in a person but in the phalanx. Without analyzing its nature or origin, Orden articulates the insight that something beyond himself exists in the community that would make the silent decision to resist rather than capitulate. Steinbeck’s fictional representation of the power of the phalanx had political consequences. European translations of The Moon Is Down ultimately became operational handbooks for French, Italian, Norwegian, and other resistance movements during World War II. The Germans understood the book’s power. Possessing a copy was punishable by death.

“Threads of Steel” in Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath

The use of such informal networks—“the gossamer threads of steel”—as a means of empowerment and survival occurs in other works by Steinbeck as well. As noted, Mack and the Boys in Cannery Row provide a good example. So do Danny and his paisanos in Tortilla Flat. In The Grapes of Wrath the power of informal networks is described by Tom Joad’s speech about injustice in the work camps and the need to build a movement—a phalanx—that is as invisible to the formal powers that control the field workers as that of the occupied villagers in The Moon Is Down. Tom expresses this promise to his mother:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Here Steinbeck defines what we now call a community organizer, a person using informal networks to mobilize people in the worlds of social welfare, social justice, political empowerment, and institutional change. But Tom is also referring to a power beyond himself. Even when he could no longer “be around,” his influence would continue in the power of the phalanx of which he had become a part.

Migrant Camp and Cannery Row “Gathering Places”

As far as I am concerned, John Steinbeck was our first social ecologist. In addition to understanding the power of informal networks, the writer realized that an informal network needs somewhere to call home—and that home is found in “gathering places” like Danny’s house in Tortilla Flat and Doc’s lab in Cannery Row, where Mack and the Boys drop in and out at will, reinforcing the importance of having a place where everyone is equal, humor presides, information changes hands, and issues are discussed and resolved in a safe setting. Steinbeck’s relationship with the real-life marine biologist Ed Ricketts, with whom the writer learned to view the world through the lens of ecology, provided the inspiration for Mack and the vocabulary for the writer to translate the principles of marine ecology into the framework of social ecology—but that is a story for another time.

For now it is important to remember that in writing The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck knew he had to learn through observation and experience about the challenges faced by Dust Bowl migrants, how they dealt with these issues, and how they related to the new environment in which found themselves. In other words, Steinbeck needed a “discovery process”—yet  another aspect of social ecology.

In addition to understanding the power of informal networks, the writer realized that an informal network needs somewhere to call home.

The writer’s mentor and guide in this process was Tom Collins, the administrator of Weedpatch, the model migrant camp built by the Farm Security Administration to which Steinbeck gained access. Here and in other outposts where migrants clustered, Steinbeck was seeking more than setting and background for his story; he became intimately involved in understanding the social organization of the people he was writing about. In the process he discovered their survival mechanisms: how they communicated, took care of one other, and managed conflicts internally, even as they appeared powerless to the outside world—like the townspeople in The Moon Is Down.

Steinbeck transforms this knowledge into a fictional migrant labor camp managed by the non-fictional Federal Resettlement Administration. This imaginary camp provides readers of The Grapes of Wrath with an opportunity to observe the migrants’ progression from the social-ecological chaos perpetrated by the Associated Farmers to the creation of social harmony, however fleeting, for families like the Joads. The camp becomes a haven where the Joads and their fellow migrants can predict, participate in, and control their environment in a way that offers stability and protection, however temporary.

Visiting Cannery Row and Applying Social Ecology

In classic “us-versus-them” tradition, Steinbeck uses the camp boundary as a way to illustrate the concept of internal control versus external threat.  Inside the camp the migrants are empowered to make decisions about how it is operated. As demonstrated when outside goons try to create a disturbance at a dance, the camp’s residents understand the importance of maintaining and protecting the camp’s boundary. Outside the perimeter they are threatened, exploited, and without power. Inside they exercise control. Preventing or absorbing boundary intrusion is essential to maintaining predictability and control of one’s environment.

Image of Joan Rensick, James Kent, and Kevin visiting Cannery RowAs with The Moon Is Down, reading The Grapes of Wrath nudged me down the path of social ecology, leading me to discover the role of “gathering places” and the importance of creating human geographic boundaries. Both concepts reflect the human need to feel secure; the recognition of how boundaries function, where they are placed, and what they mean in everyday life has become a key element of my writing about social ecology and my work as a consultant. The connection has also occasioned several visits to the current Cannery Row. (On one trip, shown here, I was photographed standing between Joan Resnick and Kevin Preister, director of the Center for Ecology and Public Policy.)

As noted, Steinbeck used the concepts of phalanx, “gathering place,” and boundaries—physical, social, and psychological—in books from Tortilla Flat to Sweet Thursday, a space of 20 years. In each he examines and employs the most basic elements of the human condition to make great stories from which I built the framework of a social ecology theory of my own: the human desire to gather together, to communicate, to feel safe, to care for one another, and to be empowered by using one’s environment creatively. This alone is sufficient cause for me to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath.

James Kent About James Kent

James A. Kent is a consultant and writer about social ecology and John Steinbeck who was featured in the book Doc’s Lab: Myth & Legends of Cannery Row by the late Ed B. Larsh. His pioneering application of Steinbeck’s insights into social ecology includes work with the International Right of Way Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University.


  1. Providing education to our stakeholders in Social Ecology is revolutionizing the way right of way acquisition is being conducted. Community engagement at the front end of a right of way project saves significant time, dollars, and undue stress on the project and the people involved. Treating people ethically and fairly is a cornerstone of the work we do and social ecology celebrates that- and truly as Jim and Kevin teach us- the public meeting now becomes the public celebration. We piloted Social Ecology with an infrastructure project with Jim and Kevin in Pablo, Montana this fall and are continuing a 3 part journey with them- we couldn’t be more please-our next stop Karo, Michigan. It is life-changing for IRWA- as we strive to build a better world together everyday.
    Deidre Alves M.Ed. Vice President of Professional Development at The International Right of Way Association (IRWA)

    • How refreshing to see another article on the practical or utilitarian understanding of Steinbeck like this one from my friend Jim Kent. I am pleased to have contributed to the article preparation with suggestions and corrections. I hope my book’s chapter 10 provided some valuable information on the concept of phalanx. My chapter goes into much greater detail on phalanx as it played out in Steinbeck’s “The Moon Is Down”. Steinbeck scholars may find the description of the social parabolic reflector and the phalanx particularly interesting.

      Given the misunderstandings of the concept of phalanx even among Steinbeck scholars I have just one criticism. The article said, “The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural.” In fact, the phalanx does NOT emcompass the entire environment. It is a specific autonymous object that may, at its own discretion, utilize or otherwise influence elements of the individual and collective psychological environment to achieve its goals. It may have goals that contrast quite dramatically against those of the individuals and/or group leaders. The phalanx does not encompass the entire environment at all and such a use of the term will only serve to promote continuing misunderstandings.

      Other than the objection, I really enjoyed the article and helping in its development.

      “Right!” said Mac. “People think a mob is wasteful, but I’ve seen plenty; and I tell you, a mob with some¬thing it wants to do is just about as efficient as trained soldiers, but tricky. They’ll knock that barricade, but then what? They’ll want to do something else before they cool off.” And he went on, “That’s right, what you said. It is a big animal. It’s different from the men in it. And it’s stronger than all the men put together. It doesn’t want the same things men want—it’s like Doc said—and we don’t know what it’ll do.” “It’ll get that barricade,” said Jim. “That’s not what I mean. The animal don’t want the barricade. I don’t know what it wants. Trouble is, guys that study people always think it’s men, and it isn’t men. It’s a different kind of animal. It’s as different from men as dogs are. Jim, it’s swell when we can use it, but we don’t know enough. When it gets started it might do anything.” His face was alive and excited, and slightly fearful.” (In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck, Pg: 328. Pub. Penquin)

    • I began writing a column 4 years ago for the 10,000+ membership in the International Right of Way Association’s (IRWA) magazine called Right of Way. These 20 columns are published under the title: “Social Ecology
      ]: A Special collection on the Art and Science of Social Ecology–An Anthology.” This Anthology is used as the text book for our experiential learning program with the IRWA. It has been a wonderful trip with the individuals in this organization.

  2. John D Farr says:

    Jim Kent is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met and he can tell you more about your own community and their collective thoughts than any man I know. I am a product and a student of the Intermountain west and I know the territory. After meeting and getting to know Jim a number of years ago, I came away with an entirely new appreciation for community and leadership of this region.
    Social Ecology is as real as animal and plant ecology and more fascinating.. His approach is logical and explains natural boundaries more effectively than politicians. Grasping this view makes everything easier to understand and find consensus to work together.

  3. This expertly written article by Jim Kent with references to Steinbeck’s many illustrations of social interactions and reactions, did, in 10 minutes of reading, give me the most practical understanding of Social Ecology I have ever had. Thank you, Jim!

  4. Erik Tilkemeier says:

    Another insightful description of Social Ecology, and its connection to Steinbeck. Jim Kent is THE pioneer in the modern field of Social Ecology and his study, understanding, and interpretation of Steinbeck’s works as they relate to social culture and community are impressive.

  5. Glenn Winfree says:

    ‘Social Ecology’ is beginning to be more widely recognized globally as an important contribution to the topic of man’s understanding of human life. As we better understand the world we live in, we can see that while neither Steinbeck nor Kent invented the subject matter about which they write so well—the actions and interactions of people, they do us an invaluable service. They contribute insights that assists us in opening our eyes to see for ourselves what has been there all along. Their gift is the understanding that opens us up to the opportunities laid plain before us to better the world we live in….once we understand.

  6. Susan Jessie says:

    Wow, I’ll never understand Steinbeck in the same way again. This piece has opened up his writings in a new way–to understand support networks, gathering places, and the power of community. Thanks to Jim Kent!

  7. Kent and Steinbeck

    Thank you Jim for taking us back to Steinbeck and the sources of your “social ecology” framework for understanding and interacting with people in community.

    As you recall I was associated with a different “academic phalanx” of anthropologists and allied social scientists at the East West Center in Honolulu where we met in 1981. That was when I first got introduced to your concept of “horizontal” network relations as opposed to “vertical” or top-down control . . . to the notion of “gathering places” . . . of “boundaries” that safeguard people’s ability to predict, participate, and control their environment, that offer stability and protection etc.

    These abstract concepts became grounded and real for me when I started reading Steinbeck’s works myself, following a visit with you to Doc’s Lab on Cannery Row. Later I made several follow-up visits and additional reading while teaching at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. My encounter with your social ecology opened a whole new world for me, by connecting the dots in my own exploration into anthropology, philosophy, and cybernetics.

    Across Monterey Bay, in Santa Cruz University, Gregory Bateson, another famous biologist/anthropologist, was pioneering a different way of thinking of causality and teleology. He called this cybernetic understanding, where cause and effect are linked by feedback loops. I was really pleasantly surprised to encounter this mode of thinking illustrated in Steinbeck’s fiction and Ed Ricketts’s marine biology studies where it is called “non-teleological” metaphysics.

    Recent anthropological works have a robust literature on nationalism and ethnic separatist movements. They talk about “cultural hegemony” and “resistance. ” After reading The Moon is Down I can appreciate the strategy the villagers used to frustrate the military intruders as an instance of James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of resistance. And there is also the work of Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. He says, “The nation is imagined as a community because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

    The resonance between social ecology and social anthropology, for me, is encouraging and empowering.
    Thanks for a wonderful reflection on Steinbeck’s impact on us all.

  8. The Quest
    It was the thrilling sport of downhill skiing—skiing in Colorado–that was the backdrop for my first meeting with Jim Kent in 1973. More specifically, it was the planned expansion of the Vail ski area into the neighboring mountain (which eventually became the Beaver Creek Resort) that started our informal partnership that has now lasted 40+ years.
    At that time, Jim Kent was consulting with Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts, Inc.), the ski area operator and the developer of the proposed ski area expansion in the Beaver Creek area. There were many issues that Vail Associates had to address in planning for what was to become essentially a new town in and around the Beaver Creek Resort. The single issue that seemed most critical to Jim was what was going to be the impact on the near 500 souls who were living in the nearby, adjoining towns of Minturn and Red Cliff.
    Both of these very small towns had a history in agriculture and mining, but Minturn was also known as a railroad town because of the maintenance facilities located there by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG). Both towns had a substantial Hispanic population. Both were situated between the Vail Mountain ski area and the proposed Beaver Creek Resort. The Town of Vail, itself, about 10 miles away to the east, was by no means finished building out at that time. With the addition of a new ski area to the west of Minturn, one, possible development scenario was that Minturn and Red Cliff could have been largely bought out for real estate development. The land might have been developed as the new base for the ski area with ski lifts or gondolas leading right into Minturn and surrounded by new commercial space, restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and condos.
    That did not happen thanks to the residents of Red Cliff and Minturn who were assisted and organized by Jim and his team to work to save their villages. They continued to live in their homes, developed family businesses and provided a dependable source of labor for the construction and maintenance of the new facilities and infrastructure to accommodate the summer and winter visitors to a major American resort area. For more about this resort development and how Steinbeck’s writings helped Jim Kent formulate and implement a plan to save these two communities from a near total makeover that would have displaced the people, see Ed Larsh’s book: Doc’s Lab: Myths and Legends of Cannery Row. Jim’s chapter is called Mack and the Boys as Consultants. (http://www.jkagroup.com/Docs/MackAndTheBoys.pdf)
    At that time, my consulting in regional economics was limited to two types of projects: 1) performing financial feasibility studies for developers who needed financing, equity or debt; and, 2) performing economic impact analyses, primarily on the financial impacts to local governments.
    During the following several years of the writing of the environmental assessment for Beaver Creek and its subsequent, very thorough review by the State of Colorado, Jim and I had numerous opportunities to be working on related issues and projects in the same locale. We talked about combining our complimentary capabilities in order to present a more comprehensive approach. For example, we teamed together to conduct the first “Cultural Attachment“ assessment ever done in the US Forest Service. An electric power company intended to put a 100-mile power line (765 kV) through several Scotch-Irish villages in a geographic area called Peters Mountain in West Virginia. Our major finding, after interacting and networking with the citizens in their homes, gathering places, and on their land (of these 300-year-old settlements) was that “Cultural Attachment to Place, Kinship and Land” could not be replicated through re-settlement. The customary practice of governments or utilities exercising the power of eminent domain to take possession of land and awarding the landowner just compensation will not work and is inappropriate for people who are culturally attached to the land. These people need to stay in their settlements—there is no other place like this place-as Doc would have said it just “is”. Cultural Attachment was not transferable to another place—even if it were comparable or greater in value. This is the first project that we know of that treated the people of a specific culture as an endangered species. Destruction of their environment can destruct their lives. (Ed Ricketts would have been very pleased.) The final decision by the Regional Supervisor of the US Forest Service turned down the request for routing the power line through this specific corridor.
    For some time, Jim had wanted to take on the issues of the people in Hawaii who were being impacted by rapid development. He thought that from our perspective, Steinbeck’s insights on informal networks, gathering places, human geography and the phalanx were ideal for assisting Hawaiians to take control of their lives and environments—to deal with intrusions into their way of life.
    With a marketing approach based more on perseverance than finding easily-won agreement, he secured a near-two year contract with the City and County Council of Honolulu to develop a social component for its General Plan. He suggested to the chair of the Honolulu City Council’s Planning Committee that General Plans usually have a transportation component, a housing component, a recreation component, etc. Jim argued that Honolulu should have a social component, as well. It should especially have one that requires a social impact assessment and a mitigation plan for significant, proposed projects that might adversely affect their sub-geographic areas. At that time, the City and County of Honolulu, which is coterminous with the Island of O`ahu, had a population of about 800,000. Our project that we named a Social Impact Management System-Honolulu (SIMS-Honolulu), called for newly approved projects having to show how they would be able to enhance and build on the strength of the local cultures, instead of disrupting them.
    Because of our cultural focus, other Hawaiian Projects that we both worked on began to fall into place.
    • By performing our normal field work in the community, in its gathering places, and by tracking its local issues, we were able to recommend to the commanding general of the U.S. Marine Corps base on O`ahu a strategy to secure local approvals for a site to practice amphibious landings at Makua Beach on the northern side of a less-populated area of O`ahu.
    • In the approval process for an ocean-front residential development plan that normally would have been exclusively for a couple of hundred luxury home sites, Jim was able to convince the developer to change his project plan to be a combination of high-end 2nd homes and a substantial amount of much-needed affordable housing at O`oma Beach on the Big Island. It was acceptable to the developer because it would improve the chances of receiving local government approval, still be profitable, and afford him a way of giving something back to the community.
    • And in another Hawaiian project, JKA provided a way for the Mayor of the Big Island to determine whether to support a controversial issue for a proposed hotel resort in the Ka`u District of the Big Island by relying on the findings of a JKA-guided, citizen-engagement process.
    Over the years, as Jim refined, through application, his social ecology theory (now called the Discovery Process), we went on to do several more first-of-a-kind projects together—an economist and a sociologist in a spiritual partnership with John Steinbeck in a quest for social justice, sustainability, citizen empowerment and economic stability.

  9. Reading Steinbeck was rich for me because it mirrored my own experiences growing up in small town America. My Dad visiting with store owners when he delivered bread, my Mom talking with the neighbor women about what was going on nearby, efforts to get a park going, meeting my pals at the swimming pool. What was considered normal, everyday life was elevated by Steinbeck to the essence, to something really important, and he thereby enriched us all.
    Jim Kent’s genius has been to embody the importance of community life into government and corporate practice and policy. To develop a framework that made “doing the right thing” eminently sensible from a business and government standpoint. Kent used Steinbeck’s perspective to predict the outcomes of unresponsive policy and to demonstrate the multiple ripples of positive effects from responsive social policy.
    I have used these concepts from Steinbeck and Kent my whole career and they have always served me well. I have watched them awaken a reminder in my clients of their basic humanity, their desire to improve human conditions and to be intentional in their understanding and support of community life. What could be better than that?
    Kevin Preister
    Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy
    Ashland, Oregon

  10. I just downloaded your Steinbeck article and printed it for enjoyment over the weekend. I have followed the e-mails coming out of the “gang”, but currently have little spare time for regular engagement. But man-o-man do I ever use everything we learned and shared and preached out on the Community Based Stewardship circuit on a daily basis. The principles and methods translate remarkably well both in my internal management, community outreach and ecosystem stewardship responsibilities. Time will come when I step down and have time to process these experiences with you and the “gang” via John Steinbeck.

    Michael Preston
    Executive Director
    Delores Water Conservation District
    Durango, Colorado


  1. […] resolve an issue of survival for the community of Minturn, Colorado. Kent’s recent post on John Steinbeck’s social ecology stimulated so much interest that we wanted to share Larsh’s chapter on Kent’s methods as well. […]

  2. […] frequent Cannery Row visitor who applies Steinbeck and Ricketts’s insights in his consulting business flew from Colorado for the symposium. Asked for his reaction, Jim Kent […]

  3. […] time at various stages in his California career. What I learned there helped me understand the social ecology of Steinbeck’s gathering places, knowledge that I have applied in my continuing work as a consultant to government and business […]

Speak Your Mind