Progress - or Paradise Lost?

About half a century ago, life in the village where I grew up was comparatively quiet. Yet, older people spoke of still quieter conditions only three to five decades earlier. After World War II was over, it was an exceptional occurrence to hear an aircraft, and we made an effort to spot it. There was only a narrow gravel road with little motor vehicle traffic. Noisy power tools were sparse and most work was very labour intensive. We had no TV, and on the radio, listeners were frequently asked to keep the volume at room level in consideration of their neighbours. Although amplifiers existed, they were seldom used. The pace of life was much more relaxed, and there were only about two and a half billion humans inhabiting this planet.

As a contemporary urban dweller I occasionally recall those days with a bit of nostalgia. Comparing those conditions with  modern ones, I try to fathom the changes and compelling forces involved. Considerable, even mind boggling change has occurred during a mere 50-year period at an ever accelerating pace. Many aspects of life are now very different. Particularly successful was the development of technological means to prolong human life and provide us with innumerable conveniences, making our tasks relatively easy and efficient. This affords us a lot of leisure time that we can now use for endeavours not necessary to merely sustain life. We can pursue hobbies, serious or trivial.

Most humans have an irresistable curiousity combined with a seemingly insatiable desire to "progress". There may be nothing wrong with curiousity and desire, though it depends on the direction and how far they are taken. It appears the general direction is to satisfy our ego's desires as best we can with the availalbe means. The danger lies in our lessening will to restrain these innate desires. We have also learned to largely eschew natural control mechanisms that other creatures are subject to. Consequently, there is little sense of boundaries left. Humankind on this planet collectively acts like a cancer grown out of control. In only 50 years the human population has grown to six billion. Humanity is destroying the Earth's indispensable life-supporting systems and thereby itself.

A slowly rising number of people has come to realise this problem and begun to act and protect the environment from this negative human activity. Many types of pollution have been recognised for their bad effects and action has been taken against them. Peculiarly, though, the soundscape, our sonic environment, has hardly received any such attention. It continues to be polluted by noise that is detrimental in various ways. Just how serious are we about protecting our soundscape? The prospects do not seem good. Of the more prominent environmental protection organisations, only the Sierra Club has a policy on noise. Of two other organisations whom we have contacted, one flatly refused to even consider implementing a noise policy, the other chose not to reply. Our governments are not doing much better. On the federal and provincial level there is almost no legislation for noise control. Municipal bylaws are largely inadequate, vague and poorly enforced.

There is yet a more disturbing aspect of this issue. In the soundscpae awareness movement we have long suspected that people can actually get addicted to noise. This hunch is supported by recent research. Amplified entertainment in particular falls into the category of addictive noise. In an article published in the Ottawa Citizen on December 14, 1998, Allison Hanes quoted from an American study that "people dependent on a high-decibel 'fix' may experience the same effects as alcohol, tobacco and drug addicts" and "this voracity for volume is surfacing as one of a number of new addictions linked to technological change, like addiction to gambling at video-lottery terminals and obsession with the internet."

Some advertisers, who have long realised this weakness in vulnerable people, are exploiting this pathetic situation with sales pitches that openly invite consumers to assault their neighbours with noise. They call it creative advertising because of its effectiveness in generating profits, regardless of what social costs it causes to society as a whole. The treatment of addicts is very costly, and so are all the other pathological effects of noise. In 1994 the German minister of environment released a report on the medical costs of heart, blood circulation and related illnesses that are attributable to noise as follows: road traffic noise, as much as 3.6 billion marks; aircraft noise, about 200 million; and workplace noise, up to 2.6 billion marks. These figures reveal that there is, indeed, a price to "progress".

Other psychological effects of sound can be tremendous, too. In a German experiment during the early nineties, a group of housewives was invited to a demonstration of vacuum cleaners. Three models were demonstrated, each of the same size and colour, and each with the same suction power. Only the sound was different: the second a bit louder than the first, and the third louder than the second. The women had to decide which of the three machines they found best. The verdict was almost unanimous: the loudest model sounded like the hardest working and was thus perceived to have done the best job. An experiment with men using electric shavers produced the same result.

It seems that it is typical of us humans to want to have all the progress possible without taking any responsibility for any negative consequences. All of this raises the question: what meaning are we to apply to the term "progress"?

- by Hans Schmid (Right to Quiet Society Newsletter, Spring 1999)
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