Acoustic Responsibility:
A Concept Whose Time Has Come

by Peter Donnelly

August 1997

Imagine that every time someone on your street mowed the grass, or every time an airplane passed overhead, your yard was filled with a nauseating smell. Suppose this same odor seeped into your bedroom at 3 a.m. when a motorcycle went by, and again at 6 when a building contractor started dropping bundles of rebar on the street. Suppose, indeed, that this stink was around you for 24 hours a day, sometimes stronger, sometimes not so strong, but always there, making your life unpleasant, destroying your ability to experience pleasant aromas, and perhaps even making you ill.

Would our society tolerate activities that really did generate such an odor? Of course not. Yet we show an amazing tolerance for a form of pollution that is every bit as disturbing and harmful: noise.

Attention has recently been focused on the problem of seaplanes taking off and landing in Victoria Harbor, to the acute discomfort of nearby householders. But even if some mitigation is found for that problem, it will be like taking a bucket of water out of the Red River in flood. Airplane traffic is increasing by five percent a year. Urban noise is doubling every eight to ten years. By air, land, and sea we are facing an onslaught of noise that threatens to make our world unlivable.

As a society we have chosen to make a tradeoff. We've been willing to tolerate a certain amount of noise for the sake of having what we see as benefits: things like motorized travel, labor-saving machines, and amplified sound at community events. We have essentially granted ourselves the right to make noise. But along with rights, as is so often said, come responsibilities. Have we developed a sense of acoustic responsibility in our society?

The evidence suggests that we have not. Surveys among high-school students show that the majority believe they have an unlimited right to make noise. Boom cars and chopper motorcycles indicate that this attitude prevails among many adults as well. Jet skis and other loud watercraft have turned our lakes, formerly pleasant refuges, into places of misery for anyone who doesn't want to join in the mechanized fun. Stereos with superamplified bass are turning houses with common walls into torture chambers -- to such an extent that Britain has had to pass a law precisely to protect tenants in council housing from the nighttime music of their neighbors.

The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Scheduled aircraft flying in and out of the Harbor may be seen as a necessary evil -- but what about the unnecessary evils of banner-towing aircraft, or sightseers flying in low circles over the city at midnight, or the scheduled flights between the Harbour and Vancouver that fly directly over the city many times a day, affecting tens of thousands of people, in order to spare a dozen passengers the expense of a detour over the water? I would suggest that all these abuses exist only because we have not yet developed the awareness that we are responsible for the noise we produce.

It's widely accepted that we have responsibility for our garbage. Drop a candy wrapper on the ground and you are potentially liable to a stiff fine. But haul out your gas-powered leafblower to clean a little dust off the driveway, while spreading acoustic garbage over a square mile or more, and you are applauded for keeping your home tidy and presentable. Isn't there something wrong with our values here?

Noise is garbage, and it is a particularly insidious form of garbage. It destroys community life, pursues us into our homes, keeps us from sleeping, and is a cause of many stress-related illnesses as well as hearing loss.

The current destruction of silence in our world is an environmental catastrophe. Yet even the environmental movement seems oblivious to it, as evidenced by the huge speakers erected at Earth Day celebrations across Canada, putting out music and speeches at literally deafening volumes. Why? Because the organizers of these events -- along with the people responsible for similar abuses in night clubs and at concerts of all kinds -- do not recognize that with the power granted by those huge sound systems comes the responsibility to use them in a safe and courteous manner.

The soundscape, our acoustic environment, has been described as a "commons" -- something that belongs to all of us. Everyone has the right to use it, but no one has the right to abuse it. Let's start using it responsibly.

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