A Concept Whose Time Has Come
by Peter Donnelly
Imagine that every time someone on your street mowed
the grass, or every time an airplane passed overhead, your yard
was filled with a nauseating smell. Suppose this same odor seeped
into your bedroom at 3 a.m. when a motorcycle went by, and again
at 6 when a building contractor started dropping bundles of rebar
on the street.
Suppose, indeed, that this stink was around you for 24 hours a day,
sometimes stronger, sometimes not so strong, but always there, making
your life unpleasant, destroying your ability to experience pleasant
aromas, and perhaps even making you ill.
Would our society tolerate activities that really did generate such
an odor? Of course not. Yet we show an amazing tolerance for a form
of pollution that is every bit as disturbing and harmful: noise.
Attention has recently been focused on the problem of seaplanes
taking off and landing in Victoria Harbor, to the acute discomfort
of nearby householders. But even if some mitigation is found for
that problem, it will be like taking a bucket of water out of the
Red River in flood. Airplane traffic is increasing by five percent
a year. Urban noise is doubling every eight to ten years. By air,
land, and sea we are facing an onslaught of noise that threatens
to make our world unlivable.
As a society we have chosen to make a tradeoff. We've been willing
to tolerate a certain amount of noise for the sake of having what
we see as benefits: things like motorized travel, labor-saving machines,
and amplified sound at community events. We have essentially granted
ourselves the right to make noise. But along with rights, as is
so often said, come responsibilities. Have we developed a sense
of acoustic responsibility in our society?
The evidence suggests that we have not. Surveys among high-school
students show that the majority believe they have an unlimited right
to make noise. Boom cars and chopper motorcycles indicate that this
attitude prevails among many adults as well. Jet skis and other
loud watercraft have turned our lakes, formerly pleasant refuges,
into places of misery for anyone who doesn't want to join in the
mechanized fun. Stereos with superamplified bass are turning houses
with common walls into torture chambers -- to such an extent that
Britain has had to pass a law precisely to protect tenants in council
housing from the nighttime music of their neighbors.
The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Scheduled aircraft flying
in and out of the Harbor may be seen as a necessary evil -- but
what about the unnecessary evils of banner-towing aircraft, or sightseers
flying in low circles over the city at midnight, or the scheduled
flights between the Harbour and Vancouver that fly directly over
the city many times a day, affecting tens of thousands of people,
in order to spare a dozen passengers the expense of a detour over
the water? I would suggest that all these abuses exist only because
we have not yet developed the awareness that we are responsible
for the noise we produce.
It's widely accepted that we have responsibility for our garbage.
Drop a candy wrapper on the ground and you are potentially liable
to a stiff fine. But haul out your gas-powered leafblower to clean
a little dust off the driveway, while spreading acoustic garbage
over a square mile or more, and you are applauded for keeping your
home tidy and presentable. Isn't there something wrong with our
Noise is garbage, and it is a particularly insidious form of garbage.
It destroys community life, pursues us into our homes, keeps us
from sleeping, and is a cause of many stress-related illnesses as
well as hearing loss.
The current destruction of silence in our world is an environmental
catastrophe. Yet even the environmental movement seems oblivious
to it, as evidenced by the huge speakers erected at Earth Day celebrations
across Canada, putting out music and speeches at literally deafening
volumes. Why? Because the organizers of these events -- along with
the people responsible for similar abuses in night clubs and at
concerts of all kinds -- do not recognize that with the power granted
by those huge sound systems comes the responsibility to use them
in a safe and courteous manner.
The soundscape, our acoustic environment, has been described as
a "commons" -- something that belongs to all of us. Everyone
has the right to use it, but no one has the right to abuse it. Let's
start using it responsibly.
About the Author - Peter
Donnelly is the founder of the Right to Quiet Society, and has graciously
given us permission to repost this essay. [WEBSITE]
The Big Picture -
Peruse more writings on soundscapes. [WEBPAGE]