Leaf-blowers and the Gross Domestic Product

Reprinted by permission from the Globe and Mail, September 27, 1996

By Michael Valpy

On Tuesday at 9 p.m., CBC-TV's documentary program Witness opens its new season with an examination of noise, titled "Sound and Fury". The timing is au point, as the year turns from the use of personal watercraft to leaf-blowers.Personal watercraft and leaf-blowers are the two most wretched consumer products to be introduced to the final years of the millennium.

The documentary, produced and directed by Halya Kuchmij, offers an engaging presentation of New Yorkers' scholarly thoughts on noise, Torontonians' attempts to declare their neighbourhoods leaf-blower-free zones, and the interesting inclination of Britons to be driven by noise to kill themselves, murder others, smash cars and burn down houses.

But what I like most of all about the film is its look at an elderly Toronto couple who used to live above a sports bar. The sports bar was a furniture store when the couple moved into their apartment 37 years ago. The lines of conflict are crisply set out. Music from the bar pounds through the floor into the couple's apartment. The couple make 60 calls to police. The bar owner is fined a number of times. He turns down his music, and loses customers. The couple move anyway because they know that, against urban noise, battles may be won but the war is forever lost. 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."

Here we have a metaphor for the marketplace and materialist values. If the bar-owner can make a lot of noise, he will attract customers and earn money. The profits he makes will contribute to the gross domestic product and add black ink to Paul Martin's national accounts, giving the Finance Minister additional confidence to proclaim that his government's policies are successfully steering the country through economic health. The elderly couple's loss of peace and accompanying stress, however, do not show up as a national-accounts deficit. On the contrary, they too contribute to the GDP by paying moving costs and, most likely in Toronto, relocating to a new apartment where the rent is higher.

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.

The New York City official with the job of, somehow, abating noise in the metropolis says that research in 1996 into the relationship between noise and health is comparable to research, in 1952, into the relationship between cigarette-smoking and health. I have no idea where she gets that analogy, but it is something I want to believe. What else explains government tolerance of personal watercraft and leaf-blowers?

U.S. studies indicate that urban din now doubles every decade. Hearing loss has become the fastest-growing disability in North America, much of it attributed to excessive noise. Forty per cent of North Americans are said to be exposed to enough noise in their lives to cause hearing damage. Ten per cent of Britons say their home lives have been wrecked by noise. Norm MacKenzie in England became a national hero when he took a steel bar to a car whose anti-theft alarm went off every night. Ms. Kuchmij's film tells the peculiarly British story of a woman who died of pneumonia from sleeping on a park bench in order to escape the noise of loud music from a neighbour's apartment.

Anti-noise groups are springing up in cities throughout Britain, Canada and the U.S. The key organizer of one group, New Yorker John Dallas, has philosophically explored noise. "Noise says I don't care about you," he says. Noise is used by young men in general, and drug dealers and smalltime street mobsters in particular, to stake territory, comparable to dogs urinating on trees. "It is," says Mr. Dallas, "a form of empowerment -- a form of psychological terrorism."

This makes sense. Rarely do you see women driving along the street with car boom-boxes thumping out those pulsing beats. It's men. This summer I saw a young guy wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "If you think the noise is too loud, (expletive) yourself." It is male territory-staking -- on the road, on the water, at the beach, in apartments.

Leaf-blowing is different. Most leaf-blowers are operated by garden-servicing companies that come to houses whose owners are away at work and are thus liberated from having to listen to them. Where they are owner-operated, however, I've noticed they seem to be used by wussy-looking men in their 40s with bulgy tummies and shorts that come down to their knees and the appearance of being uncomfortable at being seen on the street. Leaf-blowers are not manly.

Mr. Martin should be embarrassed at including them in the national accounts.

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