Silence’s Loud Goodbye

Cries for turning down the volume on Earth grow louder, but can they be heard over the din of a noise-pollution epidemic?
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Cries for turning down the volume on Earth grow louder, but can they be heard over the din of a noise-pollution epidemic?

DON MCLEAN WAS WRONG; there was never a day the music died.

It was silence that departed, after a death by a thousand cuts—musical and otherwise. World population and its handmaidens of industrialization, from lawn mowers to airliners, Jet Skis to fracking, ensured its demise.

Efforts to revive silence, such as the U.S. government’s Noise Control Act of 1972, themselves passed away quietly; funding for that law ended in 1981. Local ordinances exist, but most attack errant leaf blowers rather than create comprehensive quiet.

Dispatches from around the world report ever-louder average volumes. In 2008, The New York Times found it noteworthy that the average daytime volume in Cairo was 85 decibels, with gusts to 95. But today in Pakistan's Rawalpindi, daytime averages are now 105 decibels (put your ear next to a leaf blower to replicate a visit). At that volume, if Rawalpindi were a U.S. workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would limit exposure to just an hour a day.

In 1905, the Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch wrote, “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.” His comparison to common pathologies came naturally; the word noise has its Latin root in the word nausea.

Humanity’s clamorous hand leads noise researchers to adopt the term anthropogenic—more often associated with climate change than rising decibels—to describe our manmade noise epidemic. And as with climate change, the first victims haven’t been people. Instead, squids and squirrels and harlequin ducks, among a longer list of species, suffer in a louder world. Having given up on cities, authors of a 2009 metastudy on chronic noise exposure glumly called for "immediate action to manage noise in protected natural areas."

At sea, communication between whales and dolphins is hammered by noise from shipping, oil exploration, military activities, and other sources; low-frequency noises from air guns actually may kill giant squid outright. At higher frequencies, radio astronomers grieve the obstacles to exploration created by what they term “electromagnetic smog.” So even sounds beyond human hearing that we beam to cellphones and radios to make their content audible ultimately add to the desecration.

Perhaps the ubiquity of noise can best be expressed by efforts to commemorate quiet. The officially quietest location in the U.S., in Washington state’s Olympic National Park, is ironically named One Square Inch: A Sanctuary for Silence. The spot is marked by a red stone nestled in the moss deep in the Hoh Rain Forest, where trees, ferns, and persistent mists muffle even the limited sounds of footsteps and whispered conversations.

One Square Inch could be seen as a sort of passenger pigeon, a museum exhibit recalling something extinct. But the research organization behind the project depicts it more as a seed that might respawn the species. The group explains, “The logic is simple; if a loud noise, such as the passing of an aircraft, can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100 percent noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles around it.”

Silence’s passing was more dramatic than the loss of outdoor quietude. The indoors—between the road noises and the buzzing of electrical gewgaws that most residents of industrialized nations don’t realize are there until power outages hint at real quiet—long ago ceased to offer sanctuary. And study after study show those levels of noise too have ill effects on learning, on stress, on healing. On living.

Which makes it ever more puzzling that in order to shut off from all the other noise, people wall themselves into their personal soundstages through tiny earbuds. Sales of iPods and iPhones, representing only Apple’s share of the world market, measure in the hundreds of millions a year.

The music lives on. It’s only the quiet between tracks that died.