The photo has been dedicated to the public domain

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 2015, Les Blomberg, director the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, joined a dozen other thought leaders to found The Quiet Coalition. Blomberg’s dedication and his organization’s incredible archives have kept noise pollution alive through the long dark period that began in 1981 when all funding for enforcement of the Nixon-era Noise Control Act (1972) and the Ford-Carter-era Quiet Communities Act (1978) was zeroed out in a deregulatory attack on the EPA at the direction of president Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman.

But it’s characteristic of Les Blomberg to be relentlessly forward-thinking. So his prescient paper “Noise in the 21st Century,” presented at an ASA meeting in 2014 and published by the ASA in 2017, is worth re-reading now in the early days of 2021 as the 117th US Congress convenes under a new U.S. president, one who has put the climate crisis at the top of his White House agenda.

In it, Blomberg asks, if we face a “dystopian future.” He writes:

Will the 21st century set a new record for noise, or begin a new era to bring back quiet? What noises will dominate the 21st century? How will we think about noise, and what, if anything, will we do about it?

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The first thing to note about the 21st century is that it will be the end of the Fossil Fuel Era of Noise. The electron will likely be the preferred source of noise-making power. In general, electric vehicles, tools, and appliances are quieter than gas-powered ones, so initially, lower noise levels are possible. But the speed of travel in the 21st century is likely to increase, which may lead to more noise.

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The most obvious candidates for the next noisy technologies are drones (unmanned aircraft) and some version of a flying car. It seems very likely that in the 21st century, we will do to the air what we did to the land in the 20th century, filling the sky with the modern day equivalent of free-ranging Harleys.

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This shift away from considering noise as only an annoyance will lead to a significant change in our definition and conception of noise. The 20th century definition of noise as unwanted sound describes noise that is annoying, but it utterly fails to describe noise that is harmful. Moreover, unwanted sound is one of the most unscientific definitions ever employed by scientists, and has never “really” been used in the acoustics field, in the sense that scientists have never bothered to invent a desire meter to measure the unwantedness of particular sounds. As the objective health effects of noise become clearer, people will begin to think of noise as sound that interferes with, or harms, health or well-being.

Congratulations to Les Blomberg for this thoughtful, prescient piece. We hope TQC’s followers enjoy re-reading it.