Main content start

‘The Ecology of Humans:’ Scholars Discuss Steinbeck’s Environmental Legacy

As part of its ArtsWest Great Writers of the West program, the Bill Lane Center for the American West hosted the symposium “Steinbeck and The Environment” at Stanford on May 10.  

Bruce Cain speaks at the podium
Bruce Cain welcomed participants to the Steinbeck and the Environment symposium on May 10. Photo: Ron Pritipaul

By Tia Schwab

Scientists tell us that we now live in the age of the “anthropocene,” an epoch defined by humans’ impact on the natural world. The need for such a label did not emerge recently, however; scientists and environmentalists have cautioned of the ecological consequences of human activities for years. One such voice during the mid twentieth century was the writer John Steinbeck, whose work explored the relationship between people and the natural world.

As part of its ArtsWest Great Writers of the West program, the Bill Lane Center for the American West hosted the symposium “Steinbeck and The Environment” at Stanford on May 10.  

The program, envisioned by Stanford University professor Gavin Jones and the science and environment writer Mary Ellen Hannibal, featured presentations from six Steinbeck scholars who reflected upon the author’s environmental legacy. In addition to Jones and Hannibal, these speakers included Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, University of Oregon Professor Sarah Wald, former director of the National Steinbeck Center, Susan Shillinglaw, and the writer William Souder.

At the event, panelists discussed Steinbeck’s personal life, the historical context of his stories, and his diverse literary contributions. The conversation seemed to converge on Steinbeck’s theories about the relationship between people and place.

Steinbeck and Social Ecology

William Souder. Photo: Ron Pritipaul

According to the writer William Souder, Steinbeck was not alone in contributing to the development of modern environmental writing. In the mid-1900s, authors like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold were popularizing the concepts of ecology and conservation.

At that time, “ecology was the recognition that all living things were linked to each other and the environment that they lived in,” said Souder.

But Steinbeck was unique, said Souder, in establishing the idea of “the ecology of humans,” or social ecology.

Steinbeck’s definition of social ecology was based in his ‘phalanx theory,’ which proposed that “when people are grouped together, they form a superorganism… that has its own consciousness, history, instincts… the whole becomes an entity onto itself.”

Social ecology, therefore, described the interactions of this superorganisms with its environment, or more simply, people and place.

People and Place in Steinbeck’s Work

Mary Ellen Hannibal. Photo: Ron Pritipaul

Mary Ellen Hannibal is a journalist and the author of the book Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. Hannibal said the relationship between people and place was especially apparent on Steinbeck’s six-week marine specimen-collecting expedition to the Gulf of California, which he chronicled in The Sea of Cortez. The book was a collaboration between Steinbeck and his close friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts.

In The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck writes:

It is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying, which is one of the prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricable to all reality, known and unknowable.

Steinbeck convinced his publisher to include a specimen catalogue at the end of The Sea of Cortez. To this day, scientists use as the catalogue a baseline record to measure species loss. According to Hannibal, the catalogue demonstrates the importance of documenting a place over time.

“We can’t just take one snapshot of [a place] in time and expect that that expresses what it is,” said Hannibal. “The only way to really understand what place is is to observe it over time.”

Gavin Jones, top, and Susan Shillinglaw. Photo: Ron Pritipaul

Gavin Jones, a professor of English at Stanford University, said that Steinbeck was unique in considering humans a species in his exploration of people and place.

By “considering humans as a species,” Jones said, Steinbeck explored “forms of power beyond the human subject.” In the novella The Red Pony, for example, Steinbeck explores the animal consciousness; in the short story “Chrysanthemums,” he imagines the thoughts of a plant.

Similarly, in The Sea of Cortez, Jones theorizes that Steinbeck even attempts “to imagine a planetary consciousness… the consciousness of the largest rock in the world, that is, the one on which we live.”

“Steinbeck is attempting to cross an inter-species divide,” said Jones.

Susan Shillinglaw, the director of the National Steinbeck Center, said that Steinbeck interpreted people and place through a theory of ‘ecological holism,’ that suggested people and their environment should be viewed as one whole.

Each figure is a population and the stones—the trees the muscled mountains are the world—but not the world apart from man—the world and man—the one inseparable unit man and his environment. Why they should ever have been understood as being separate I do not know.
- John Steinbeck, 1932

“This way of understanding what ecology means for Steinbeck through ecological holism,” Shillinglaw said, “suggests that he wants to have a vision of place that includes not just texture, not just characters living in place, not just historical resonance in place, but also something larger.”

Consequences of Steinbeck’s Work

Valentin Lopez, left, and Sarah Wald. Photo: Ron Pritipaul

While Steinbeck’s humanism was notable for its time, speakers like Sarah Wald and Valentin Lopez found that his definition of ‘people and place’––when viewed through a contemporary lens –– did not include all peoples.

Wald, a scholar of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, said that this exclusion is especially apparent in Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, which follows a group of white migrant workers as they escape the Dust Bowl to California.

In the novel, Wald said that Steinbeck creates a vision of ‘the people’ that “doesn’t include the black, Asian, and Latinx farmers and farmworkers that he encounters while doing his research.”  As a result, she says, Steinbeck equates a collective American identity with whiteness and land ownership.

Lopez, the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Salinas Valley and Monterey area, provided a Native perspective on farm labor as it was depicted in The Grapes of Wrath. According to Lopez, Native peoples face the very same challenges as other migrant farm laborers from white and minority backgrounds, a narrative that Steinbeck largely excluded from his work.

“We need to ask ourselves,” said Wald, “When we’re not explicit about who we’re including in the ‘we’, who are we excluding? And what is the consequence of that exclusion?”.

Looking to the Future

Steinbeck’s message about the inextricable link between humans and their environment has important implications today.

As Gavin Jones said, Steinbeck worked “to highlight the dangers of our speciesism”––our tendency to privilege our species above others. One such danger is environmental degradation, evidenced by climate change, species extinction and resource depletion.

To many of the scholars, Steinbeck was successful in employing environmental writing to challenge humans’ biases, pushing humans out of the narrative to focus intensely on the natural world.

In these moments, “the possibility of differentiation between species collapses,” said Jones. In these moments, “we feel the vibrant interconnection of life.”

Watch the Complete Symposium

Recent Center News

Heat’s worsening impact on Californians; pollution in Vancouver’s once-pristine waters; the invasive plant spreading like wildfire across Arizona; local governments rushing for climate funding; documenting biodiversity on both sides of the border wall, and other recent environmental news from around the West.
Across the American West, influencers— both people in search of the ultimate selfie and promoters of park landscapes—broadcast their experiences to tens of thousands of followers. But at what cost to parks?
Stanford economist Paul Milgrom won a Nobel Prize in part for his role in enabling today’s mobile world. Now he’s tackling a different 21st century challenge: water scarcity.