Why Noise Matters explores noise pollution, an important but often ignored environmental problem, both intertwined with consumer capitalism, and a class issue.

John Stewart, with Arline L. Bronzaft, Francis McManus, Nigel Rodgers and Val Weedon, Why Noise Matters: A Worldwide Perspective on the Problems, Policies and Solutions (Earthscan 2011), x, 174pp.

At home, the upstairs neighbours have a row that can be heard (their floor is wood, not carpet) until 3am. Tired at work the next morning, academic staff discuss walking out when music from the new university radio station, put in downstairs to aid student recruitment (and where academic offices used to be), is turned up for the fifth time that day. Later at the airport, they walk past screaming jet engines as they board their flight to Cornwall, to join friends for New Year, air travel being much cheaper than going by rail. In the valley below the farmhouse, droning from the dairy factory, producing lactose night and day, means all attempts to sell the family home have failed (when the parents moved in, the Estate Agent promised them the factory was closing).

This litany of experiences is not the product of a condensed timeline, nor of the imagination. They all took place within a 24-hour period as I began reading John Stewart’s Why Noise Matters (other experiences have been left out, such as screaming kids on the plane — we were all wailers once). Many of the authors in Why Noise Matters have experiences with noise pollution, which, in some cases, has led to lifelong campaigning roles against the blight. The overall editor, John Stewart, is a leading figure in the campaign against the third Heathrow runway. According to the World Health Organisation, noise is the pollutant which disturbs more people in their daily lives than any other. Such disturbance can lead to poor health outcomes, fractured community cohesion, and, as American noise scholar Arline L. Bronzaft notes, is implicated in violent behaviour and even murder.

As numerous studies show, including the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health’s annual Noise Survey, things are only getting worse. Yet there are few countries with a strategy on tackling noise. The authors are particularly critical of New Labour, who both early on in their government and again in 2006, made promises to tackle noise pollution, but never delivered. As Stewart writes, for most of the world’s policy-makers, noise is ‘the forgotten pollutant’. So when does sound become noise? The question seems simple enough, but contributes to the difficulty in tackling noise pollution: while sound is a measurable entity, noise is a subjective experience of that same manifestation, and subjective experiences are notoriously difficult to legislate.

There are, however, general guidelines and studies that identify thresholds. At around 50 decibels people begin to get annoyed with daytime noise (at night, it is 30 decibels). At around 55 decibels (a 10 decibel increase represents a doubling of sound levels) people become extremely annoyed. Above 130dbs is the human threshold of pain, although the gradual loss of hearing from continuous noise is a greater worldwide problem. One of the strengths of Why Noise Matters is that it offers up noise pollution as a global phenomenon. While its research is not (and does not claim to be) comprehensive, this global approach highlights the inequities in experiences of noise pollution between rich and poor, industrialised and industrialising, and asks why more is not being done to tackle noise as a social injustice. Noise is, as are other forms of pollution, a class issue.

For example, a MORI survey (2003) revealed that almost 20% of people in the UK, with a household income of less than £17,500, regularly hear noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants. In contrast only 12% of people with an income of more than £30,000 could hear their neighbours. Looked at globally, the divide between the peaceful rich and harried poor gets bigger according to where people live. In nearly all countries, from industrialised nations such as the UK, through to India, Thailand and across Africa, because poor people are more likely to live closer to major sources of noise pollution (roads, airports, industry), they suffer disproportionately more annoyance. Noise is not only the forgotten pollutant, but is increasingly what Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearing House, calls ‘second hand noise’. More and more, it is not created by those who suffer from it.

While being ‘annoyed’ may not seem serious enough to legislate for, there is increasing evidence, as research now shows, to suggest that noise has an adverse impact on individuals’ health, with the strongest links made to cardiovascular and circulatory disorders. In a study from eight European countries, noise-induced annoyance was linked to death rates. Noise is not only bad for your health, but because of the learned helplessness of noise pollution, the feeling that one can do little or nothing about it,  it can, argues Bronzaft, lead to an early grave.

Noise also affects achievement and socialisation. In a U.S. study that looked at the reading age of two classes of children taught on different sides of the same school, where one class was constantly interrupted by passing trains and the other class was left to read in peace, the peaceful class were about eleven months ahead in their ability. A reduction in noise levels has meant that the Quiet Garden movement, which puts peaceful outdoor space into prison settings, has seen the number of prisoners on constant watch, due to stress and mental health issues, reduced, benefiting those individuals and the costs of maintaining the UK’s prisons.

One of the key aims of the authors for this book is to make noise as serious as other environmental and social issues; the example they most often cite is climate change. While the issue of noise, and the research they draw on, is inarguable, the attempt to find an answer to the dilemma (‘why is noise not a bigger issue?’) leads the authors to base some of their argument on only partially developed theories. Much of this is to do with the broader cultural question of who produces noise, for what, and what impact it has, in the context of a capitalist consumer society.

For example, the authors write that there are ‘fascinating signs [that] where the consumer society has become embedded… a growing number of people not only accept noise but see it as something positive because it is associated with the consumer goods they value. It is not noise that disturbs them, but silence’ (p.9). The authors rely on Michael Bull’s 2000 Sounding out the City, where Bull conducted a number of interviews with people about the attachment to their iPod, as well as on works such as Oliver James’ Affluenza, and the contention (not new) that we define ourselves through our possessions. The authors could have given more time to following these lines of enquiry, particularly those offered by Stuart Sim (2007) in his Manifesto for Silence, who argues that noise is a key commodity in the culture of business, and again benefits the rich rather than the poor. Sim shows how noise/sound is used to sell food and drinks in restaurants and supermarkets, employed as a marketing tool. ‘Noise sells’ says Sims. But why? And who does it benefit most?

While all of this feels right, the argument is not robust (yet). What are the reasons that people have become scared of silence, and turn to consumer products to remove that fear? And which people? Where does this fit within broader critiques of consumerism and class divide? The authors do move forward with the caveat of “if this is correct” and the book is a timely, insightful and careful approach to a globally significant and yet poorly-addressed problem; the link between consumerism and pollution is critical. This is one area in the book where there is room for further thought and debate.

The book is in the end a call to action, and offers both broad and specific responses to the problem of noise pollution. Most easily tackled are the key problems of traffic noise annoyance, which could be cut by 70% through investment in electric and hybrid vehicles; rail noise (through polishing and better engines); and, more problematically, neighbour noise, through governments defining it in terms of anti-social behaviour and as a health issue. More difficult areas to tackle are aircraft noise (due to continued expansion), shipping, wind farm noise, and, most challenging of all, industrial noise in the industrialising countries of Asia, Africa and South America. However, the authors warn, the total amount of new cars being built globally could outstrip all improvements made in these areas.

But there is hope. Of all the countries that have taken the issue of noise pollution seriously, China and Hong Kong, who have implemented intelligent legislation on, for example, new road building projects, are possible models for the rest of the world to follow. Whether our more industrialised and ‘sophisticated’ governments will follow suit remains a challenge for noise campaigners and those of us who, quite simply, want a quieter and more peaceful life.