Time to listen closely and hear the footprint

August 3, 2007

Noise is the forgotten pollutant, 'inimical to rational thought and action'. Stuart Sim wants a quiet word in your ear

Carbon footprints are not the only kind of footprint about which we should be concerned. Heathrow airport's "noise footprint" causes considerable distress to many Londoners. And, according to a report commissioned by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, it extends across the whole city. The airport authorities are conducting investigations as to how the footprint might be minimised, but one suspects this will be a long-term problem - yet another unfortunate side-effect of the massive expansion of carbon emissions in our time.

Noise is still so often, as John Connell, the founder of the Noise Abatement Society, noted back in the 1950s, "the forgotten pollutant". But it is a pollutant that increasingly we cannot afford to ignore. It is an environmental problem that urgently needs to be addressed for the sake of our collective physical and mental health. Even New York, famously the "city that never sleeps", recently passed bylaws to crack down on persistent offenders. Various medical studies have demonstrated how excessive noise has a damaging effect on our health, and not just on our hearing: the risk of heart attack is far greater when exposed to prolonged loud noise.

The ability to withdraw into quiet is an essential part of wellbeing, as religions have understood over the centuries in cultivating silence for spiritual reflection. Creative artists, too, traditionally have drawn inspiration from it as a concept, theme, and symbol. Susan Sontag even devised an aesthetics of silence to highlight its importance to creativity. Communing with silence in a society where decibel levels all too frequently soar past the pain threshold (generally reckoned to be around the 120 mark) is, however, increasingly an exercise in frustration.

We are all culpable. We are the passengers on the planes; the audience at open-air music festivals; the drivers whose cars clog the roads; the avid consumers of the products that require juggernaut lorries to ferry them around the country. Even marine wildlife, studies report, is suffering from the underwater vibrations caused by increased shipping, so it really is a global environmental problem we are facing. We live in what Aldous Huxley called the "Age of Noise"; although it is now magnified to an extent well beyond anything that thinker would have experienced in the mid-20th century.

Noise is not only a pollutant. It is also a weapon. Music played at ear splitting levels is routinely used in torture - both by terrorist groups and democratic regimes. The Pentagon is an enthusiastic buyer of "sonic bullets" a product that incapacitates anyone caught in its beam, which projects noise at well above the pain threshold. Included in the available catalogue of sounds is a baby's cry played backwards, incessantly, at 140 decibels.

So-called sound bombs, created when planes fly very low to the ground unleashing sonic booms, have become a favoured weapon of the Israeli Air Force. United Nations agencies report sharp rises in heart attacks and stress related complaints among the young and vulnerable in the aftermath of such attacks in the Gaza Strip, swamping local casualty wards.

Unmanned aerial vehicles - basically cameras with small motors attached - are another technique for terrorising civilians by means of noise and have become a standard part of the Israeli military's reconaissance programme. The commercial possibilities of UAVs are currently being explored in the UK, so they are likely to become another addition to our noise footprint from the skies. Add to such worrying developments noise's role as a marketing tool, constantly bombarding us from the media and in shopping centres, and it can come to seem that there is no escape.

Excessive noise makes the quality of life worse for all of us, so to reduce our own individual imprint would be to improve the environment. The Noise Abatement Society led the way in raising consciousness about this issue in the 1960s, but the case for lowering the level in everyday life needs continual restatement. Shanghai City Council has since 2006 licensed 24-hour construction in the city in order to keep pace with China's booming economy, which indicates just how easily noise becomes the forgotten pollutant. Such a decision can hardly have improved the quality of life there.

Sleeplessness, irritability and general fatigue are the regularly noted effects of excessive noise among the urban population, and these are inimical to rational thought and action.

Anything that has such a provably negative effect on our health, thought processes and environment surely calls for remedial action. Reducing our noise footprint ought to be one of our cultural priorities.

Stuart Sim is professor of critical theory at Sunderland University and author of Manifesto for Silence: Confronting the Politics and Culture of Noise , published by Edinburgh University Press, £15.99.

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