Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Two speakers taped to trees in woods

Silence’s Loud Goodbye

• July 03, 2012 • 4:00 AM

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.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.


December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.