Can You Keep It Down?

No one should shut their eyes to the fact that the ears, as opposed to their visual sensory counterparts, do not have lids. In order to protect ourselves from unwelcome sound waves, we must resort to using hands, earplugs, earphones, pillows, or whatever else is available to produce a dampening effect. Strictly speaking, our ears are open around the clock, even at night, and there is no doorman to prevent unwanted guests (also known as noise) from gaining access to our consciousness at any given time. Noise is generally defined as something undesirable – disturbing noise is unwanted sound.

Noise pollution is everywhere

Of course, there is any number of sounds that we would gladly forego, but which are unfortunately indispensable for general communication between people. We certainly don’t want to make any snap judgments about those constantly loud talking, slightly befuddled looking people one encounters in the subway, although it would be fascinating to ascertain a name for the auditory equivalent of the well-known phenomenon of tunnel vision. There is, however, the justifiable need to subject the ear to sounds that warn or inform us that something is about to begin or end. We have all experienced the merciless racket that accompanies important activities (construction noise, police sirens, market criers, garbage collection). In addition, such activities give rise to what in all moderation could be referred to as visual pollution. But to an even stronger extent, due to the unconscious degree of penetration, we are endlessly subject to acoustic pollution. Noise pollution is everywhere!

What about leaf blowers, for instance?

When, however, the benefits of an activity or the effectiveness of a work process are out of all proportion to the background noise thereby produced, the question arises: Couldn’t things be kept a bit quieter? And what kind of noise is that anyway, which loudly and self-confidently banishes the already scarce moments of relative urban silence in order to thoroughly rattle our nerves?

What about leaf blowers, for instance? They could easily condemn me to a demented existence, like that portrayed by Tim Robbins in the fantastic film Noise. Granted, the leaves in autumn have to be taken away, but must this really be accompanied by what feels like ten thousand decibels radiating from a gasoline-powered machine from hell, that for all intents and purposes resembles a flamethrower? When this maximally aggressive noise, akin to a dentist’s drill that intermittently convulses our consciousness in fits and starts, drones through the neighborhood, one can be assured that within just a few hours leaves will be blown half a meter from left to right and back again at a double-digit height.

By employing only four to five leaf blowers to sweep through a few square meters of streets and courtyards two to three times a week starting at 6 in the morning or during the lunch break, it is possible to complete the task within a scant number of months, just on time to welcome the spring. And then they can begin to clear the rest of the debris left after winter with just as much ceremony, leisurely blowing it all over the place. And I say leisurely, as the workers – thank God – wear hearing protection, the kind that is otherwise normally worn during jackhammer work or when driving a typical tank.

Regardless of whether or not it would really be that much more cumbersome to attack the foliage with rakes and brooms, it would certainly not only be quieter and cheaper but would also produce a pleasant (!) sound, perhaps easing the high level of suffering among urban neurotics. Although we, if need be, can temporarily submerge ourselves in our bathtubs in order to hear only ourselves, a countless number of inhabitants of the planet earth face completely different and potentially deadly acoustic pollution.

Taking into consideration the fact that sound waves travel five times faster in water than through the air, one can imagine how much more severe noise pollution affects the inhabitants of the sea.

As it stands, the anthropocentric concept ‘planet earth’ is simply false. We actually live on ‘planet sea.’ Some 70 percent of the planet is covered by water and we know very little or absolutely nothing about the creatures who live there. What we do know, for instance, is that there have been no sea creatures ever discovered that are deaf. In the far depths of the oceans, where no light can penetrate, eyesight alone is of no use. Communication, orientation, the pursuit of food, reproduction, and life itself are all dependent on the sense of hearing. Taking into consideration the fact that sound waves travel five times faster in water than through the air, one can imagine how much more severe noise pollution affects the inhabitants of the sea.

Whether noise originates from the steadily increasing worldwide traffic in container ships, from the platforms and oil rigs belonging to the fossil fuel industry that convulsively stamp and drill through the sea floor, or from military ship and submarine maneuvers – it all contributes to the destruction of a world that we hardly know, but which has already met our worst side. Whales, in particular, are known to suffer greatly from all this. As such, recent efforts in the development of technologies to decrease noise pollution under water are to be welcomed.

Against this backdrop, it is with peculiar irony that a newly discovered deep-sea creature has been named after the mainstream rock band Metallica. In my humble opinion, it would be far more appropriate to assign Arvo Pärt as a name donating sponsor for a quiet soul of the sea. But the musical taste of marine biologists remains a matter of contention.

Every sensitization of our own perception, every conscious feeling of ALL senses, not only the visual ones, can help us to perceive and deal with sources of audio stress, and thereby increase awareness not only for our own well-being but that of others. It is not a matter of getting discouraged by the magnitude of this problematic phenomenon or to lose ourselves in an alternative ‘listening post,” but rather to recognize how important it is to locate and avoid unnecessary air pollution (remember, sound flies) in an ever louder world.

Just as it would be mindless to lay waste to a wonderful site of relative tranquility, such as crashing through a public library with trumpets and trombones (including amplifiers!), so is it completely unnecessary to cruise around a nearby lake on a speedboat. An air mattress is more than adequate. Resting on its surface, one can personally apologize to small aquatic creatures for disturbing their afternoon siesta.