Why Nature is Quiet and the Built Environment is Noisy

Kim Kastens
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published Oct 15, 2009

Kim\'s Quiet Prius
Is this car too quiet?
The front page of yesterday's New York Times reports on a bill in Congress that would require a federal safety standard to "protect pedestrians from ultra-quiet cars," including plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. The perceived danger is that pedestrians would not hear the quiet cars coming and would be more likely to be hit. One proposed solution is to require that the cars make an artificial noise, a "fake vroom for safety."

This story highlights a profound difference between the built environment and the natural environment: We expect the built environment to be noisy, and we expect nature to be quiet. We expect airplanes to make noise when they fly, but we expect birds to fly silently. We expect cars and trucks and power boats to make a lot of noise, but we expect lions and snakes and fish to move silently.

The reason for this difference is that evolution selects for energy efficiency. Almost all that noise from the built environment is wasted energy, energy that is not contributing towards making the car move or the plane fly. In general, animals make sounds when they have something to communicate, and plants, fungi, protista, and prokaryotes don't make sounds at all. Waste noise, or noise-pollution, is very rare among non-human organisms.

Non-living parts of nature do make loud noises on occasion. Many, or perhaps most, natural loud noises contribute to maintaining the stability of Earth systems by dispersing and dissipating energy away from areas of excessively high energy concentration, in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. When waves crash loudly on the beach, the waves have carried excess energy away from storm centers out at sea and are distributing it around the periphery of the ocean. When a rockslide roars down a hill slope, it tears down the overaccumulation of potential energy in a tectonically uplifted terrain. Thunder, along with lightning, serves to redistribute a build-up of static electricity, yet another form of energy.

Even in its current noisy state, the automobile plays the role of predator in killing deer, birds and small mammals. The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 is trying to bell the cat.




Why Nature is Quiet and the Built Environment is Noisy --Discussion  

Hi Kim: When I'm doing back country field work, particularly in wilderness areas, I try to be hyper-alert to sensory signals that can truly save my life. I listen intently for rock fall above me, the distant roll of thunder warning of an impending storm, a grunting bear foraging for food (and hopefully not me)....This is not meant to be over-dramatic, but it is a daily reality for back country geology. And, this all has a tremendous affective impact on my ability to successfully do my work. When I was doing my dissertation in the high Beartooth Mountains of Montana, I mostly worked solo (not particularly safe) and would be in the back country for 5-7 days at a time. I enjoyed weeks of a life distilled to the simplest basics: up at dawn, consume enough calories to keep going for the day ahead, try to stay warm and dry, map and collect samples, do some fishing at the end of the day (time permitting), turn in at dusk and get some sleep, then do it again. I remember distinctly coming back to Seattle at the end of the field season and having to stay sequestered in my house for a few days because I couldn't handle the sensory overload of sounds and sights and smells of the city that were simply overwhelming after a summer of solitude.

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My husband, Bruce Odland, and fellow sound artist Sam Auinger, have explored the disconnect between the urban visual environment (designed, or at least intentional) and it's unintended sonic consequences. They, too, conclude that noise is the waste stream of energy inefficiency, tolerated because it is linked to economic activity. We have learned to tune noise out - at great mental effort - because our hunter gatherer senses would have us run screaming from these sounds of danger and distress. Hence young urban families clamor to live in expensive, gentrified warehouses in Brooklyn's DUMBO (down under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) with decibel levels so high that parents must shout at their children to be heard.

CBS followed Bruce and Sam around Brooklyn for a short feature on The Future of Noise:

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=5578344n

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