Our new book, Why Noise Matters (Routledge, 2011) is the first major work to put the issue of noise pollution in the wider political context. It also makes a compelling case that noise pollution is not just hurting people – noise is the pollutant which disturbs more people in their daily lives than any other – but that it is threatening the planet’s natural sound systems in much the same way as climate change is threatening runaway global warming. It is estimated that over the past 40 years a third of the planet’s ecosystems have become aurally ‘extinct’ and that underwater noise has doubled for each of the past five decades.
It looks at noise not just in the United States and Great Britain. It spans the globe. It reveals that noise is as big a problem in Rio de Janeiro as it is New York. It dwarfs daily concerns about street crime, air pollution or waste disposal. It reveals that noise exacerbates social injustice. While noise can and does affect rich and poor alike, it is poorer communities across the globe that are most exposed to it and, as a rule, have the least opportunity to do anything about it. When governments fail to tackle noise, the biggest impact is on low-income and vulnerable people. The worst affected of all are poor communities in the poor world: there is no double-glazing in the shanty towns.
And yet this worldwide concern about noise is not reflected in government action. There are no summits on noise; no ministers being ferried in sleek black cars to high-level discussions; no hotly-contested action plans. Even amongst many environmentalists noise pollution is forgotten, downplayed, sometimes even dismissed.
What is utterly frustrating is that noise is not a problem without solutions, if the will was there to implement them. For example, it is estimated that, with the right measures in place, annoyance caused by traffic could be cut by 70 per cent. Governments would need to stand up to pressure from big business and, more positively, to incentivise the private sector to become part of the solution.
However the book contains examples of what can be done given the will power. There are the achievements of China and Hong Kong, for example. Some years ago both countries – then independent of each other – took the decision that noise was a growing problem and put in place a national strategy to deal with it. Although both places remain very noisy, significant progress has been made. For example, in China, despite a huge increase in the number of vehicles on its streets, the average noise from traffic in Beijing has gone down.
People and the planet need a quieter world. It is perfectly possible. Some of the solutions are simple. Others, such as tackling the worldwide growth in traffic, aircraft and ships, may require a change in lifestyles and a more localised economic system. Given the willpower, it can be done.