by David Schimke

Utne Magazine

July 1, 2005

Is your world getting noisier? Pealing cell phones, blaring personal stereos, constant chatter — sometimes it can be difficult to endure the relentless drone of modern life. But beneath the racket, there’s still a creative and natural soundscape all around you — the music of nature, the laughter of friends and neighbors, even the sound of your own inner voice. Perhaps listening to what really matters will soothe your soul. — The Editors

I blame it on my parents.

When I was 10 years old my father built a bedroom in the basement of our family’s split-level ranch house in small-town Wisconsin. I can’t recall what expression was most popular with my sixth-grade friends the day I moved into that 12- by 14-foot space — hot, sweet, cool, awesome, or rad — but it was all that: red shag carpet, faux brick paneling, and custom-made shelves for my beer can collection and baseball cards. In the winter, a small furnace in the basement kept the space cozy. After running up a summer sweat, I could seek relief in the cool, cellarlike damp.

Best of all, it was downstairs, a peaceful distance from my pestering younger brother and totally annoying older sister. At night it was always pitch black save for a night-light in the bathroom and, since my father believed in the money-saving properties of sturdy insulation, as quiet as a tomb.

I lived in that room until I graduated from high school in 1985. I haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep since.

The privileged son of silence, I entered the noisy wild an acoustic innocent. I knew living in Minneapolis as a cash-strapped college student would mean close quarters, older buildings, and a more communal atmosphere. I didn’t know that cheaper housing was statistically linked to mind-numbing noise pollution: that city planners insensitive to the needs of lower-middle-class citizens typically build two-lane highways through neighborhoods designed for the horse and buggy, or that airport runways literally begin and end in people’s backyards. I didn’t expect that construction crews and street sweepers would rattle and hum before sunup, while schoolchildren and working families tried in vain to rest.

I was astonished to discover that people let their dogs bark all day and howl all night, that motorcycle mufflers are optional, and that some people don’t just watch television, they use the remote control to calibrate their hearing aids. Since my family would usually forgo the cinema to attend performances at the college where Dad taught music, I didn’t realize how much and how often people talked at the movies — with each other, to themselves, at the screen.

To top it off, my upstairs neighbors would regularly crank their stereo between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m., put on their Doc Martens, and dance around on the hardwood floors. (I’m also pretty sure they had a bowling alley up there, though I never actually saw the pins.)

In the years since, I’ve been on an endless quest to recapture the silent nights of my youth. Every time I make a move, however, circumstance conspires against me: When my partner and I moved into our first apartment, the guy next door serenaded us through the walls with his Stratocaster. Our first house functioned as both route marker for the airline industry and, after the city put a stoplight on the corner, a weekend destination for bullet bike enthusiasts. Our second house, purchased because I literally hadn’t slept through the night in two years, was Shangri-la until a teenager down the street decided to start working on a vintage drag racer. I’m not joking.

With the support of friends and family, I’m finally learning to adapt (“Hi, my name is Dave and I’m a light sleeper”). There’s an iPod on the bed stand, a white noise machine on the dresser, and when those don’t work there are always sleeping pills. I’m not alone in my pain, of course. During the 2001 Census Survey, 11.6 million households reported that street or traffic noise was bothersome, and an additional 4.5 million said it was so bad they wanted to move. And, hey, I’m big enough to admit that I make my fair share of racket, sometimes crave the bustling din of a city at work or play, and love all kinds of music — even, when it’s appropriate, at ear-piercing decibels.

Still, when night falls and I’m alone with my thoughts and the sound of that German shepherd two doors down, I can’t help but fantasize about getting my hands on society’s collective volume control, just so I could figure out what’s broken. Just so, every now and then, I could turn up the quiet.

“First, people must understand the difference between sound and noise,” says Arline L. Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist and professor emeritus at the City University of New York. “Noise is simply unwanted, uncontrollable, unpredictable sound. It does not have to be loud to make you angry or keep you awake. It may be music to one person’s ear, but it’s noise to yours.”

Some might say the world — a world ravaged by wars, environmental degradation, and disease, by the way — is not only bound to be noisy, it’s supposed to be. Noise is natural. Noise means progress. Noise reminds us we’re alive.

“I call it the noise industrial complex,” says Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America. “A lot of people get off on noise and think that there’s something wrong with peace and quiet. We’re still fighting a public perception that this is a trivial issue and anyone who’s concerned or interested in curbing noise is a crank.”

Headquartered in Indianapolis, Rueter’s organization, which he founded while he was teaching political activism at UCLA, now has chapters in 25 states. Members conduct petition drives, host informational meetings, and buttonhole local cops and city council members. Their hope is to pass ordinances aimed at auditory assault weapons such as car alarms, gas-powered leaf blowers, motorcycles, and boom cars (a term used to describe vehicles armed with just enough supersonic sound equipment to make your gums bleed). Besides lobbying for state laws that would impose stiffer fines for window-rattling music, time limits on construction projects, and stricter regulations for ATVs and Jet Skis (known by noise activists as “thrill craft”), Rueter says he has two long-term goals. First, he wants to see the Environmental Protection Agency re-establish its Office of Noise Abatement and Control, created by President Richard Nixon in 1972 and de-funded by President Reagan some 10 years later (ironic, given his hearing loss, which was caused when a gun accidentally went off near his ear on a film set).

The EPA was making progress working with manufacturers to make quieter products and with communities to pass noise ordinances, Rueter says. The agency was also on the brink of creating a consumer-friendly labeling system so that people would know which lawn mower or car engine or refrigerator was the quietest.

Rueter also dreams of the day when a forward-thinking class action attorney decides to take offending manufacturers to court. “It would be a monumental case — much stronger than anything you could throw at the fast food industry,” he muses. “No one is being forced to go to McDonald’s.”

Bronzaft, who chairs the noise committee for the Council for the Environment of New York City, says the evidence concerning noise pollution is so compelling that if any other contaminant were the culprit, not only would the courts be clogged with plaintiffs, the surgeon general already would have issued a public health warning.

Of the 40 million cases of hearing loss in the United States, 10 million are attributable to excess noise. Besides contributing to deafness at just 85 decibels (a human voice averages 65 decibels, while a hair dryer clocks in at 95), high sound levels lead to stress (the human pain threshold is 120 decibels), indigestion, high blood pressure, weakening of the immune system, and hypertension. In studies Bronzaft has conducted over the past 25 years, grade school kids exposed to excess noise in the classroom — from nearby train tracks, for instance — have been shown to learn to read at a slower rate. Data also indicate that those who grow up in a noisy household have a harder time developing language and cognitive skills.

Those who work for Noise Free America and organizations such as the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit based in Vermont, believe that before people start treating excess noise as a serious health risk, they must first be conditioned to think of it the way kids were taught to think about litter in the early 1970s (remember Woodsy Owl?). “It’s aural debris, audible trash,” Clearinghouse director Les Blomberg says. “Noise is to the soundscape what litter is to the landscape, and we have to get people to understand that. We need to create a new ethic.”

It won’t be easy. As urban areas become more crowded with cell phones (100 decibels), boom cars (up to 150 decibels), and aging methods of mass transit, people and institutions have become increasingly insensitive to the environmental consequences. In the outer-ring suburbs, created by exurbanites who wanted to escape the hustle-bustle of city life, major highway construction (125 decibels), gas-powered lawn equipment (115 decibels), and constant development have simply caused people to trade in their patio chairs for fully furnished, air-conditioned basements, where surround sound serves as the new, virtual picket fence.

“Whenever we get more impersonal and anonymous, we tend to create more noise pollution,” Blomberg says. “That’s because we’re no longer community oriented. We no longer know our neighbors, and we don’t think about their wants or needs.”

In other words, those folks with the Doc Martens who lived above me for four miserable years weren’t trying to keep me awake. They just didn’t care.

A FEW MONTHS AGO, after being awakened at 4:00 a.m. by the paper delivery guy, who looks to be an aspiring big league pitcher, I decided to leaf through the April 25 issue of The New Yorker. A piece by Ian Frazier about the marauding Mongol tribes of the early 13th century caught my eye and perked up my still-ringing ears.

Frazier quotes a contemporary Russian annal describing the Mongol army approaching Kiev: “The rattling of their innumerable carts, the bellowing of camels and cattle, the neighing of horses, and the wild battle cry, were so overwhelming as to render inaudible the conversation of the people inside the city.”

One could cite this passage to establish that dissonance is inherent in the human condition. I choose to read it as anecdotal proof that, at least when it comes to noise, modern civilization is regressing.

To add further historical perspective, Bronzaft points out that when the founding fathers were writing the Constitution, they had extra dirt packed into the cobblestone streets outside Independence Hall to reduce traffic noise and enhance concentration. “It’s just too bad that after they finished the Bill of Rights they didn’t work on a Bill of Responsibility,” she says.

The tools and toys that generate the highest decibels are ultimately a by-product of the industrial revolution, which the framers did not anticipate. Yet, as noisy and raw as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — especially in urban areas, where people were literally living and working on top of one another — Rueter and Bronzaft argue that there was a sense of community that somehow made noise less impersonal and more bearable. (Rueter says, for example, that if I actually talked to the paper delivery guy, he might drop the speed of his pitch, or, if I put a face to the noise, I might not mind as much if he didn’t.)

What’s more, there seems to be nearly universal agreement among activists that in the past decade, as sound amplification in public spaces has increased, courtesy in the commons has suffered. “What has really changed in the past 20 years is civility,” Bronzaft says. “It’s people simply believing they can do whatever they damn well please.”

P.M. Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s, 2002), believes that civility, like love, is rooted in awareness and that many of the noisemaking gadgets we’ve started using in the past decade — some of them in an effort to muffle the world’s roar — have dulled that awareness and made us less considerate. “The risk of the unrestrained use of noise-producing devices is that they disengage us from the now and here,” he says. “It’s an easy way out, in a space of detachment, of disengagement from what’s immediately around us.

“It’s all part of a phenomenon expressed in ancient Latin as horrovacui, which is abhorrence of the void, fear of emptiness, horror of nothingness. I believe that we often overuse electronic gadgets for the same reason that we spend innumerable hours shopping: We do not want to be left alone with our thoughts.

“One of the most disquieting phenomena of our time is the flight from thinking, meditating, and ruminating. When was the last time we followed a thought where it will take us without our eyes or ears being pulled away by a screen or an artificial sound? In order to do this we need to rediscover silence. We have to stop creating fillers to counter our horrovacui.”

Forni agrees that the first collective step toward aural enlightenment is to categorize unwanted noise as pollution, which will be difficult since it can’t be seen — it doesn’t gather in the gutter, for instance. He also holds out hope that as we catch up with our technological advancements, we will develop new forms of deference and respect to replace those that are obsolete. In Japan, for instance, it’s becoming customary for cell phone users to engage in a practice called “knock knock”: sending a silent text message in advance of calling. “People have long known not to walk through your front door without announcing themselves. This is the virtual equivalent,” Forni says. “We have to apply ageless principles to our new technologies.”

Not a fan of legislative action or lawsuits, Forni says that people who are bothered by noise must engage with their surroundings, not just close the shutters and fume. Instead of calling the police to complain about the beastie next door, offer to take it for a walk. If your upstairs neighbor is unconsciously doing a tap dance, offer to buy her a pair of slippers. If someone is talking during a movie, turn around and politely ask him to be quiet.

Finally, if you’re like me — so sensitive to sound that it’s disrupting your sense of balance — Richard Adams, a Minneapolis-based therapist, suggests that it might be time to sit down and have a quiet talk — with yourself. “Setting aside the physiological impact, an acute sensitivity in a particular range, you also have to look at what the external stimulus is triggering internally,” he says. “For instance, is there some sort of fear lying in wait internally that’s being unleashed by that barking dog or blaring stereo?

“Facing those fears, finding a truly fearless place is hard work. So while there are a number of nefarious reasons society has created so much stuff to distract us, we must also take some responsibility for the clamor.”

If only my parents hadn’t put me in the basement . . .

David Schimke is a senior editor at Utne.