Calamine Lotion Won't Cut It:

Finding a Balance with the Environment

E-mail me:

For most of my life, I have resisted drawing a line between humans and the rest of the natural world, not wanting to imply that we are more worthwhile beings.  However, the standard distinction between humans and animals is not an arbitrary one.  As Ponting explains, four central traits-- abstract thought, our ability to walk upright, language, and our use of technology to solve problems we encounter-- clearly set us apart from other species (p.24).  Additionally, unlike all other organisms, we do not naturally achieve an equilibrium state with our surrounding environment.  Our panache for innovation and our self-awareness have allowed us to overcome constraints on the growth of our population.  The relationship between population growth and technological development can be represented by a positive feedback loop.  

             A positive feedback loop is a destabilizing cycle comprised of a series of positive couplings.  In each of these pairs, an increase in one factor causes an increase in the other factor (Kump, Kasting, and Crane, p.19).  When a disturbance occurs, a positive feedback loop will shift the system away from an equilibrium state by magnifying the effects.  Unless there is a subsequent interference, the situation will continue to intensify.  For instance, if a child (currently in an equilibrium, rash-free state) is hiking through the woods and accidentally brushes their leg against a poison ivy plant, a section of their calve will react and itchy white dots will appear.  Unconsciously the kid will scratch this area and the residue of the plant will remain on their hands.  If they then touch their face, the reaction will spread.  Eventually, with irritation leading to scratching leading to spreading leading to increased irritation, the child will become covered in hives.  If, however, the kid’s mom recognizes that the white dots and irritation are symptoms of a reaction to poison ivy, she will apply calamine lotion to the leg.  This additional element will stop the itch, and therefore keep the rash from spreading. 

            Unlike the child before his encounter with the poison ivy, humans have never been in equilibrium with the environment.  Ponting discusses strategies, such as infanticide, that were implemented by early humans to control population levels (p.23).  But, as the spread of humans around the globe proved, these attempts were not successful.  As our numbers grew, increasing numbers of people were pushed onto less productive areas and it became necessary to create more efficient ways to employ the harvestable land.  This necessity incited Ponting’s ratchet effect (a positive feedback mechanism), with population growth stimulating agricultural developments which allowed for further population increases (p.42). 

            If zebra populations are growing out of balance with their environment a stabilizing force will naturally kick into action in one of two ways.  Either the lion population will grow, since food has become plentiful, and kill off larger and larger numbers of zebras.  Or, zebra food will become so scarce that the population can no longer be maintained.  If sufficient food supplies persisted, however, and there were no pressure on survival, the zebra population would continue to grow. This is true for all species.  However, since humans have an awareness of resource depletion and other threats, we are able to counteract them with technological innovations.  This means that natural stabilizing effects do not work on us.  Each time resources have become scarce, new innovations have kept disaster from occurring. 

            There are two problems with this ability of ours.  First of all, there are negative side effects to our technological solutions which we are frequently not aware of. My discoveries from my visit to India provide an illustration of this.  Traffic is a nightmare.  Trucks, buses, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians all share one lane.  People move as fast as possible; shifting into oncoming traffic to pass one another with inches to spare.  At stop lights everyone gets as close to the intersection as possible, squeezing next to each other and ignoring the line separating the lanes.  Ditches along the sides of the road are turned into landfills with thousands of foil wrappers and other packaging debris.  The volume of non-biodegradable waste is many times larger than they have ever had to dispose of and therefore they do not have a trash collection procedure.  Electricity works intermittently sometimes shutting off for hours at a time. 

            The disorder I encountered in India seems indicative of two things: a lack of infrastructure and a lack of knowledge.  Since these technologies were not developed in India, they have not created a system for dealing with the side-effects.  India provides an intensified example of what is going on worldwide.  We do not know what to do with the problems caused by our innovations.  Often times we do not even know what these drawbacks are.               

            The second consequence of our continued use of quick technological solutions is the danger that a day will come when we will have no way out, when the “tech fix” will not exist.  Easter Island is a perfect example of this occurring (Ponting, p.7).  Despite their recognition of deforestation, the islanders were unable to stop using the trees and were unable to find an alternative.  They had exhausted all of their resources.   

            Today we find ourselves in a position where we need to generate a substitute energy source.  Switching over to renewable energy is not all that needs to be done.  We need to rethink our relationship to the environment, and find a way to maintain a balance. Simply finding a calamine lotion solution to our environmental problems will not solve them. 


Kump, Lee, Kasting, James, and Crane, Robert. The Earth System. New Jersey: Pearson

Education, Inc., 2004.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 1/25/06