Noise pollution: Why we fight


I’ve written quite a bit about the noise pollution issue — especially in New Orleans — over the last couple of years. It’s an important topic, and often the devil is in the details. In seeking the broader goal of more livable neighborhoods throughout the Crescent City, I’ve written about decibel limits and enforcement funding, and efforts to change the city’s noise ordinance. At times, I’ve mentioned the latest research into the debilitating long-term health effects of overexposure to sound. But rarely do I get a chance to step back and focus on the broader issue, on the spiritual importance of curbing unwanted noise.

This week, an author named George Protchnik did all all a favor by publishing a splendid op-ed in the New York Times, quite possibly the best article about noise pollution I have ever read. It truly explains why we fight. It is called “I’m Thinking. Please. Be Quiet.”

SLAMMING doors, banging walls, bellowing strangers and whistling neighbors were the bane of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s existence. But it was only in later middle age, after he had moved with his beloved poodle to the commercial hub of Frankfurt, that his sense of being tortured by loud, often superfluous blasts of sound ripened into a philosophical diatribe. Then, around 1850, Schopenhauer pronounced noise to be the supreme archenemy of any serious thinker.

His argument against noise was simple: A great mind can have great thoughts only if all its powers of concentration are brought to bear on one subject, in the same way that a concave mirror focuses light on one point. Just as a mighty army becomes useless if its soldiers are scattered helter-skelter, a great mind becomes ordinary the moment its energies are dispersed.

And nothing disrupts thought the way noise does, Schopenhauer declared, adding that even people who are not philosophers lose whatever ideas their brains can carry in consequence of brutish jolts of sound.

From the vantage point of our own auditory world, with its jets, jackhammers, HVAC systems, truck traffic, cellphones, horns, decibel-bloated restaurants and gyms on acoustical steroids, Schopenhauer’s mid-19th century complaints sound almost quaint. His biggest gripe of all was the “infernal cracking” of coachmen’s whips. (If you think a snapping line of rawhide’s a problem, buddy, try the Rumbler Siren.) But if noise did shatter thought in the past, has more noise in more places further diffused our cognitive activity?

Protchnik goes on in the piece to make several highly relevant points about the broader importance of noise pollution. It notes: “A recent World Health Organization report on the burden of disease from environmental noise conservatively estimates that Western Europeans lose more than one million healthy life years annually as a consequence of noise-related disability and disease. Among environmental hazards, only air pollution causes more damage.” It also notes a study showing how noise can increase blood pressure, pulse rates and levels of stress hormones — even when a person is asleep.

But the piece also goes beyond the science to make the much more important argument, that what matters most is the right of everyone to live free from from unsolicited noise, if they so desire. Protchnik reminds us that it is not the obligation of a citizen to flee from or avoid noise, but it is the obligation of society not to bombard that person with unmodulated waves of sound. That is not only a matter of health, but it is an issue of personal freedom. And it is why I will continue to speak to you about noise in this space.

Please read the entire New York Times op-ed at:

Check out coverage of this month’s New Orleans City Council noise hearing from at:

Here is the response to the council’s Woolworth report by consultant Arno Bommer:

The Arno Bommer Powerpoint presentation is in this blog post:

Read a list of the “Seven Essential Items” on noise pollution supported by New Orleans neighborhood groups:

Read coverage of the report from the Advocate:

Read about the residents’ proposals to control noise pollution in New Orleans at:

Read about the city’s 2012 nuisance bar enforcement in Hollygrove at:

To keep informed about the battle for balance in New Orleans, visit the “Hear The Music Stop the Noise” website – and sign our petition:

Please visit and “like” our Facebook page:

You can read my April 17 blog post about the city’s failure to enforce noise laws at:

You can learn more about the noise assault on New Orleans neighborhoods from the BUKU Festival in my March 20, 2013 post:

To read my Aug. 3, 2012, blog post about noise pollution from New Orleans to New York, please check out:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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