The Sustainable Revolution will be …….sshhhhh…..Quiet

Thanks to the Brundtland Report of 1987, we should pretty much know what the common definition of sustainability is by now. Though the ‘the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of those in future generations‘ mantra has been widely accepted as the touch-stone of economic and social behaviour, the approaches to meeting this challenge and how we get there, are still contested. But one thing is for sure…the absolute unavoidable centrality of natural resources in these discussions and any future strategies. Though unavoidable, the protection of these natural resources remains difficult as many people and organisations simply do not value them or their intrinsic worth quite as much as they should.

Sticking it to Mother Nature…Since the beginning of human and industrial activity, the environment has been seen as something to be conquered, utilised and made to serve our interests. There are many explanations for this world view or value system; money-greed, ego and mans desire to foolishly equate conquest with progress. Though we may say we feel part of the world, it is apparent that many of us have lost ‘real‘ contact with the nature. Urban cityscapes, geographical proximity, transportation issues and private-affluence issues, all contribute to the difficulties of connecting with nature.

Childs play…X-Box style…The modern world offers lots of distractions…”I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are,” reports one child. According to the child advocacy expert Richard Louy, never before in history have children been so plugged in—and so out of touch with the natural world. He says that for one reason or another, by the 1990s the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970. This made me think of the Stephen King novel and great film of the same name, Stand By Me. Set in the 1950s, it depicts the exploits of four young, teenage boys spending the weekend in the woods and wilds, engaged in adventure…roaming beyond limits unimaginable today. Old enough to know, I certainly spent more time in nature, than watching it.

Listen up People….Whilst connecting with nature physically is one thing, hearing nature is another. Headphone-based IPod culture may not just be robbing many of making human connections but also natural ones too. Just as we listen to other people, our relationship with nature can be enhanced by listening to what it has to say. Natural spaces have a ‘voice’ of their own, formed from the geology, weather, flora, and fauna that are found in them. These natural sounds are often subtle, which means that making time to listen to them is all the more important. In 1935 the power of silence to illuminate nature, was captured beautifully by Edwin Muir, who describing his Scottish Journey suggested…

…the silence of such places is so complete that it sinks into one’s mind in waves, making it clearer and clearer, drenching it as with a potion concocted out of some positive life-giving essence, not out of the mere absence of sound. In that silence the moor was a living thing spreading its fleece of purple and brown and green to the sun.

Listening is absolutely fundamental to our relationship with nature. Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables, once wrote: ‘How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen’. We are still not listening enough. In 2009, Derrick Jensen wrote in the Orion magazine of our need to listen to nature…. as if our lives depended upon it! and echoed by Joseph Bharat Cornell, that listening to nature would help deepen our awareness of it. But this kind of listening to nature is often dressed as metaphor rather than a actual activity. The metaphor exhorts us to see the signs, warnings and indicators of environmental breakdown. This is listening through measurement and quantification. We would do this better and eventually understand more if we connect by being part of nature. This means using our human senses. Environmentalists of all kinds have long campaigned for a reduction in noise disturbance because of the barriers it creates between the environment and ourselves. Famously, Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 retreat to Walden saw his escape as a retreat to the rhythms of nature, avoiding the noise of commerce, trains and bells. Happy in the sounds of the owls and sparrows, Thoreau connects with nature in these moments of calm.

Noise has emerged as a leading environmental nuisance. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in the European Region the public complains about excessive noise more and more often. The physical and mental health impacts of noise is an underestimated threat that can cause a number of short and long-term health problems, which rather unsurprisingly impacts upon some neighbourhoods and some socio-economic groups more than others. The WHO has estimated around 40% of the population in EU countries is exposed to road traffic noise at levels exceeding 55 db(A); 20% is exposed to levels exceeding 65 dB(A) during the daytime; and more than 30% are exposed to levels exceeding 55 dB(A) at night. Children chronically exposed to loud noise show impairments in attention, memory, problem-solving ability and learning to read. Problems such as sleep disturbance, cardiovascular effects, poorer work and school performance and obviously, hearing impairment are well documented.

Though often ignored but similarly important is the impact contemporary noise-scapes have on our ability to connect with the natural environment. The National Park Service in the US puts it beautifully…

Our ability to see is a powerful tool for experiencing our world, but sound adds a richness that sight alone cannot provide. In many cases, hearing is the only option for experiencing certain aspects of our environment. The symphony of natural sounds within our national parks is an important natural resource and a critical component of the ecological communities that parks seek to preserve. Understanding the role of sound and acoustics in a healthy ecosystem is critical to their effective management and protection.

Interestingly, the International Dark Sky Association, a movement committed to the protection of darkness provide a template for the future of soundscapes. They say…

Once a source of wonder–and one half of the entire planet’s natural environment—the star-filled nights of just a few years ago are vanishing in a yellow haze. Human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars; poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms, and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2 billion per year in the U.S.
alone.

Revealingly the natural night they refer to as a disappearing resource. The same can be said of natural soundscapes. Maybe we should also do more to create quiet zones so we can listen to nature, connect with it and make sustainability even more meaningful for us all.

Postscript…
Though the are perhaps too many days of ‘calendared’ significance, World Listening Day is something worth making a noise about (quietly of course…). Organised by amongst others, the World Listening project, world listening day is scheduled for July 18th this year. A world listening day to encourage us to think about and preserve our natural sound scrapes may just help us understand them and make progress on the road to sustainability.

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