Screeching and honking cars. Jackhammers. Loud music. Sudden bangs.
They’re all forms of noise pollution. And if we’re jolted by them often enough, for long enough, they can take a deadly toll on our health.
In the workplace, noise stress increases accident rates while stimulating aggressive and anti-social behavior.
Roaring Cars Everywhere
Worldwide, the most ubiquitous cause of noise is the din of automobile traffic.
In Europe alone, excessive traffic noise afflicts 70 million people, with 20 million suffering serious health effects. Europe spends $46 billion annually treating noise-related maladies.
In developing nations, noise pollution has been studied less intensively — but it’s probably even worse there. Even a brief visit to cities such as Jakarta, Beijing, Nairobi, or Mexico City reveals that blaring traffic noise is a serious and growing menace.
And it’s only going to worsen in coming years. In 2010, we had about 1 billion motorized vehicles on Earth. By 2030, we’ll have 2 billion—twice as many noisy, vibrating, smoke-belching machines all around us.
And in a few decades we’ll have another 25 million kilometers of highways on Earth—enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times.
Roads and noise-belching vehicles will be almost everywhere.
Parks Under Assault
Even our national parks and protected areas—our last bastions for nature—are increasingly awash in noise pollution.
In the U.S., a study of 492 protected areas showed that in two-thirds of the locales studied, human-caused noises were at least twice as loud as natural sounds.
And in one fifth of the study sites, human noises were more than 10 times louder than natural sounds.
Wildlife is clearly suffering from this ceaseless din.
Many species need to be highly attuned to sounds to forage, locate mates, or detect predators.
Migrating birds, as they take their long perilous journeys, are more stressed and in worse body condition if they must feed near roads rather than in quieter places.
Many large animals — from grouse to wolves to elk — tend to avoid roads, most likely because of road noise.
For animals large and small, noisy roads and people are invisibly degrading their habitat.
The only answer — for the sanity and health of humanity and nature alike — it to save substantial areas as ‘sonic-free zones’, where the burble of a brook or a calling bird is fine, but the blaze of a chainsaw or roar of a four-wheel-drive vehicle is not.
The 18th-century American Philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once famously said that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation”.
Today, we may still be living in quiet desperation, but we're also desperately seeking a quiet place to live.