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Editorial


To: dtodd@vancouversun.com

Sent: Friday, October 29, 2010 12:21 PM

Subject: Comments on your Quiet Revolution

Dear Mr. Todd,

I read with interest your October 23 article in the Vancouver Sun about your proposed "Quiet Revolution" and feel compelled to respond. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend any quiet restaurants in Vancouver because we generally avoid eating out anymore: the volume and style of "music" in most establishments is simply too objectionable. However, I would like to point out that the issue of force-fed noise in commercial establishments and public spaces is only one aspect of the serious problem of noise pollution that permeates every part of our lives. Even a cursory amount of research on this topic unearths vast amounts of information, both scientific and general interest, confirming that unwanted noise is not simply a nuisance and a conversation killer, but an acoustic contaminant with profound implications for human health.

The physiological and psychological harm caused by noise has long been established by the World Health Organization and other groups. In addition to the hearing loss caused by loud noise, unwanted sound at any level can interfere with sleep (and still affect you even when it doesn't actually wake you), raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, increase the risk of heart disease, impair concentration and productivity, increase stress, affect mental health, and overall reduce your quality of life. At its extreme, unwanted noise can result in violence and murder.

Anti-noise pollution groups exist all over the world, including here in Vancouver. The mainstream media is full of articles and investigative reports (including a 2001 CBC Marketplace documentary observing the relentless increase in noise pollution in our society and the harm it causes, and asking what can be done about it. (Over the past several months, I have managed to compile a list of information links that I can send if you are interested and have a few weekends to kill.)

Given the indisputable evidence that unwanted noise is harmful to human health, and the extensive amount of readily accessible information on the subject, the question is why initiatives like your proposed "quiet revolution" did not already occur years ago, and even now may be unlikely to get off the ground.

My own observations, which are nothing new and have been better articulated by others, are that the continued acceptance of noise pollution is linked to the increasing trend in our (un)civil society towards selfish and inconsiderate behaviour, and the obsessive focus on the perceived rights of the individual over the common good. The utter indifference that many individuals and businesses show towards their neighbours and visitors when they choose to pollute the acoustic environment - our common soundscape - and impose their noise on others is a typical example. This attitude also feeds on the overwhelming messages our society projects by tolerating and encouraging the kinds of aural assaults you describe in your article: noise is essential (and silence is to be avoided at all costs), the louder the better, and go elsewhere if you don't like it.

Our local Right to Quiet Society website contains some thoughtful essays in its Readings/Editorials section which, although written over a decade ago, resonate just as strongly today, and mirror many of the concerns reflected in your recent article: the concept of acoustic responsibility, the ways in which our society has become hooked on visual and acoustic stimulation, and the inescapable presence of music in virtually every place of public assembly. In 1998 the Society published the excellent handbook "What You Can Do About Noise in British Columbia," which is available in all public libraries.

Their website also has reprinted a 1996 Globe and Mail article by Michael Valpy observing how money is a driving factor behind noise-related antisocial behaviour. In "Leaf Blowers and the GDP" Valpy discusses the battle between an elderly couple and the owner of a sports bar beneath their apartment that kept them awake with its pounding music (as related in a 1996 CBC Witness documentary, "Sound and Fury"). Valpy states: "But it is the bar owner who faces the camera and says, in uncomprehending frustration: 'The most he (the man upstairs) can lose is a couple of hours of sleep. Me? I lose money. I've got to make money to stay alive.' ... What is so numbing is the bar-owner's absolute certainty in a market economy that he has the authority of Higher Purpose to make money at the expense of someone else's quality of life."

Whether attitudes towards noise have become more enlightened since 1996 is questionable. The City of Vancouver, for example, created an Urban Noise Task Force in 1996, which produced a 1997 report with recommendations for improving Vancouver's soundscape. The City went on to publish a series of materials in 2005 concerning noise awareness and noise control called SoundSmart available in 3 formats (manual, booklet, brochure). SoundSmart promotes all the right things, such as taking individual responsibility towards noise and the need to avoid disturbing one's neighbours and community. But Vancouverites I have spoken with who even know about SoundSmart think it is only so much window dressing. The political will to put theory into practice through effective and consistent enforcement of the noise bylaw - since obviously the awareness message, as evidenced by your own article, has failed to reached a large segment of the population - has yet to materialize.

I think it is only a matter of time until noise pollution, and its profound impairment of human health and quality of life, captures the serious attention it deserves in the wider public consciousness and on the political agenda. But I'm not optimistic that a lot of us of us will live long enough to see that happen.

Finally, now that I think of it, I can in fact recommend one establishment whose absence of blaring music took me completely by surprise some weeks ago: Costco, perhaps the ultimate shrine to mass retail consumption. Maybe Costco doesn't qualify as a proper eating establishment - and I was in the Langley store, not Vancouver - but I distinctly remember the pleasant shock of realizing, while I munched on my hot dog in the food court, that all I could hear was the bustle of human activity and hum of voices, miraculously free of the obnoxious musical accompaniment we have unfortunately come to expect everywhere we go.
Thank you for reading and kind regards,

A concerned member of the Right to Quiet Society