Why Noise Matters

A Worldwide Perspective on the Problems, Policies and Solutions
By John Stewart with Arline Bronzaft, Francis McManus, Nigel Rodgers and Val Weedon      Order Here

Is noise the most neglected green issue of our age? This book argues compellingly that it is, and tells you all you need to know about noise as a social, cultural, environmental and health issue.

Across the world, more people are disturbed by noise in their day-today lives than by any other pollutant on Earth. From the shanty towns of Mumbai to the smart boulevards of Paris, noise is a problem. It is damaging people’s health, costing billions, and threatening the world’s natural sound systems in the same way that climate change is altering its eco-systems.

Drawing on evidence from all over the world, this book showcases policies and strategies that have worked to decrease noise pollution, and offers lessons for policymakers and environmental health professionals, campaigners and any individual affected by noise.

Written by a renowned noise campaigner and experts in law and health, this book tells you all you need to know about noise as a social, cultural and environmental issue and how we can act to build a more peaceful world.

This is the first book to place noise in a political, cultural and societal context.

The book argues compellingly that noise has become the most neglected green issue of our age.

“Noise is threatening the planet’s natural sound systems in much the same way as climate change is threatening runaway global warming. It is estimated that over the past 40 years a third of the planet’s ecosystems have become aurally ‘extinct’ and that underwater noise has doubled for each of the past five decades.”

“The natural sounds of the ocean are magnificent in their range, beautiful in their delivery and stunningly varied. But these sounds are in danger of being overwhelmed by human noises and vibrations such as never before in recorded history”.

“The sounds of the jungle rival those of the ocean. They are at once beautiful and frightening, awesome and awe-inspiring. But they are under threat. As the jungle is chopped down or invaded, its natural noise rhythms are disappearing”.

I commend Why Noise Matters.  After reading it you’ll never again dismiss noise as a pollutant that has little relevance to people or the planet”.  Caroline Lucas MP, Leader of Green Party

The book spells out the links between the globalised economy and noise.

“The hardest task will be tackling those areas where noise levels can only be brought down by challenging the travelling habits many of us enjoy or through changing current globalized trading patterns. We suggest both may be necessary.”

“To solve key noise problems would not require shutting down the world, more telling it to shut-up! Technology may well surprise us – it has a habit of doing so – but on the available evidence, our current patterns of growth, trade and movement are not compatible with a less noisy world.”

“Globalisation creates pressure to produce goods as cheaply as possible, meaning many employers fail to invest in noise-reducing devices, particularly in the industrializing countries, where 75 per cent of the world’s workforce is employed.”

“Globalisation can, though, create  pressure for quieter products.  India would argue it is globalization that has forced it to take noise more seriously. To compete in the globalized market, it has had to manufacturer quieter products in order to meet the higher standards required by industrialized countries.”

The book assesses the role of the private sector in tackling noise

The private sector has a role to play. At the most basic level, private firms need to find money to pay for the installation of effective noise protection measures in their factories and on their construction sites. Although there has been noticeable progress in cutting workplace noise in the industrialized world over the past few decades, often as a result of trade union pressure, it is a very different picture in the industrializing world.”

“More positively, a properly incentivized private sector can help drive the market for quieter products. With the right regulatory framework in place, it can provide some of the creative energy necessary for innovation. That would bring a new generation of quieter products onto the market-place.”

“The State has an important role in developing a broad strategy and setting an effective, overarching regulatory framework but governments are never good at micro-managing the economy. When they try to do so, it tends to lead to sterility and bureaucracy.”

The book argues the consumer society has made some people more tolerant towards noise

A growing number of people not only accept noise but see it as something positive because it is associated with the consumer goods they value. It is not noise which disturbs them, but silence.2

“When a culture accepts loudness as being a legitimate right in recreational sound venues, that acceptance tends to legitimise all forms of noise pollution.”

“What we are beginning to see are two worlds colliding: those people who embrace loud and constant noise, who see no real problem with it; and those who are increasingly disturbed and in some cases utterly distressed by the noise around them.  It is sending mixed messages to governments and local authorities.”

The book carries a devastating critique of New Labour: “the political face of material man and material woman”

“New Labour was the government that championed the consumer society more than any other in UK history.   It had little time for the peace and quiet so many yearned for. It tended to see those who complained about the noise created by modern consumer goods – cars, planes, sound systems, and so on – as ‘elitist’; people who were putting their own selfish interests before the right of ‘hard-working British families’ to acquire the latest gadget or go on a cheap flight abroad.  New Labour, in its blind determination to allow people to buy into the consumer dream, refused to take noise seriously.”

The book argues that noise is an environmental and social justice issue

“If governments fail to tackle noise, the biggest impact will be on low-income and vulnerable people. The worst affected of all will be poor communities in the poor world: there is no double-glazing in the shanty towns.”

“Excessive noise runs like a loud thread through many of the UK’s most broken communities.”

The book spans the globe, assessing noise worldwide, written for a worldwide audience

“Across the world more people are disturbed by noise on a daily basis than by any other pollutant on Earth”.

It has a fascinating section on the Global South where noise is a mega-problem

“Despite its poverty, crime and shanty towns, it is noise which regularly tops the list of complaints in Rio de Janeiro”.

It highlights the severe noise problems workers can experience in industrializing countries, arguing,

“The main barrier to improvement of noise in the work place in industrializing countries is political rather than technical.  We know how to protect workers from the worst excesses of noise.  The problem in the poorer countries lies in the race to industrialize … on the cheap.  The pressure of the global market is forcing this race to the bottom.”

But it also highlights industrialising countries which have put in place ambitious strategies to tackle noise:

“Noise is a big problem in Hong Kong. More than a million people are affected by traffic noise alone. That is nothing unusual for a mega-city, but where Hong Kong is different is in its response to the problem. It has put a strategy in place that is among the most comprehensive in the world.”

“China has developed one of the most comprehensive strategies to tackle noise in the world.  Remarkably, despite a huge increase in the number of vehicles on its streets, the average noise from traffic in Beijing decreased between 1976 and 2004”.

The book doesn’t shy away from wind farms and noise

“It argues that, if wind farms are properly sited noise need not be a show-stopper but it is critical of wind farm enthusiasts who brush aside noise problems, calling the ‘noise deniers’.”

The book stresses the value of silence

“The great religions of the world have stressed the importance for personal renewal of retreating into the silence of the natural world.”

“The value of silence lies not just in the absence of noise. Silence, she says, has positive qualities of its own.”

The book includes chapters written by experts in their own fields:

Noise and Health

“Noise is not just an annoyance or an inconvenience that must be tolerated, it is a health hazard.”

Dr Arline Bronzaft, one ofAmerica’s most respected noise experts, has written the chapter on noise and health and contributed to two other chapters – writing both the American section in the chapter assessing noise worldwide and section on American law in the law chapter.  A prolific author and broadcaster, she is the Professor Emerita,LehmanCollege, City University of New York.

Noise and the Law

“Some of the laws are useful; others do not seem to be adequate. But all law is only as good as its enforcement.”

Francis McManus is the Emeritus Professor of Law atNapierUniversity.  A specialist in Environmental Law, the author of a number of specialist books noise and the law, he has written the bulk of the law chapter.

Neighbour and Neighbourhood Noise

“We need a national programme of investment in good sound insulation in homes and to constantly look at ways to change attitudes and improve behaviour. There is no doubt that, where tough action has been taken, the noise climate and people’s behaviour has improved. In order for this to happen on a consistent basis, there needs to be a shift in attitudes towards emphasizing responsibility rather than the over-emphasis on rights that has become dominant over the past 50 years.”

Val Weedon MBE is the leading noise campaigner of her generation, she is a specialist in neighbour noise.  She founded the Peace and Quiet Campaign in the 1990s and then the UK Noise Association in 2000.

Piped Music – the music you cannot turn off

“According to one survey, piped music is the third most hated thing in modern life”

“’Heaven please hear me and let my end come without music or TV!’  This cry of anguish comes not from someone being tortured by loud music in a Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib-like prison but from a patient in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital.”

Nigel Rodgers is the Secretary of Pipedown.  A writer by profession he has written the chapter on piped music.

It is a positive book, brimming with solutions

“There are practical and realistic steps that can be taken to transform the noisy world in which we live. They need, though, to be preceded by a change of attitude. Without a real understanding of the impact noise is having on millions of people, and on the planet, it is unlikely we will see the radical and urgent action that is required. Noise will continue be regarded as an inevitable by-product of growth, globalization, mobility and the consumer society. But things can be different. It is not difficult to make significant cuts in noise levels, certainly in the richer countries of the world. Even in poorer countries much can be done. Some noise problems, such as those caused by international sea travel, are more challenging but they should not act as a barrier to what could be done relatively simply.”

Some examples of what can be done:

“Traffic noise annoyance could be cut by 70 per cent.

 Rail noise could be cut by at least 50 per cent

Neighbour noise can be dealt with. It is largely caused by poorly-insulated properties and bad behaviour by the noise-maker. Both problems can be sorted.

Piped music can be controlled. There is no public clamour for it. In particular, legislation is needed to protect people trapped by piped music in places such as workplaces and hospitals.”

4 thoughts on “Why Noise Matters

  1. Shhhh … Listen to the crickets, the frogs in spring, the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. Or are your ears ringing from the neighbour’s boom box, loud mufflers on passing motorcycles, aircraft flying overhead? Find a quiet place to contemplate how you could make your neighbourhood a quieter place and then make it happen.

  2. My neighbourhood is currently tranquil in the evening. We can sit on our back deck and listen to the spring peepers (?) in the nearby marsh. They’ve been getting louder with every passing evening. Unfortunately, as it gets warmer our back-yard neighbours’ air conditioners will soon be cycling on and off quite loudly and at irregular intervals. Sitting outside will no longer be tranquil and enjoyable.

    While this experience is nothing compared to the hardships described in the piece above – or among those with IWT’s nearby – it goes to show you that society is not yet at a point of awareness – where the creation of excessive noise (and other irritants such as shadow flicker, etc.) is frowned upon and curtailed, either voluntarily or through regulation.

  3. If anyone would like to read a book that opens your eyes (and ears) to reveal how widespread noise pollution has become, I highly recommend ” One Square Inch of Silence” by Emmy-award winning acoustic ecologist Gorden Hempton. It should be available at your local library.

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