Noise, Sovereignty, and Civility
By Les Blomberg | Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly – Volume 25, Number 1 (2000)
Les Blomberg is the Director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse.
Noise is unwanted sound. It causes hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, sleep loss, lost productivity, and a general reduction in the quality of life and opportunity for personal and collective tranquility. Noise is caused by people and businesses claiming rights, usually property rights, to emit noise into the air, and by people who do not possess the civility to be good neighbors. While its effects are an environmental health issue, its causes are tied to the issues of sovereignty (who owns the air?) and civility (how should we treat our neighbors?).
Together, environmental health, sovereignty, and civility are the three pillars that support noise activism. Through the work of the Center for the Hard of Hearing, Arline Bronzaft, Gary Evans, Alice Suter, and many others, the public is starting to grasp the health issues related to noise. Noise activists, likewise, are starting to grasp the full implications of their work and the importance of sovereignty and civility. We are coming to the realization that combating noise requires addressing the underlying causes of the problem, of which sovereignty and civility are at the center.
Much of the noise pollution we experience results from individuals and businesses who believe that it is their right or freedom to make noise. The most common right claimed is a property right. They claim that they should be free to use their property as they see fit without interference from others. The second most common right cited is that of prior occupation. People often assume that if the noise source “was there” before the complainant, that the noise is permissible. Finally some people claim that they should be free to act as they wish without interference from others or the state, or they claim specific rights such as the freedom of speech.
Each of these claims shows a fundamental misunderstanding of noise, ownership, and the Western tradition of freedom. Persons making the first claim, that it is their property right, are wrongly assuming that they own the air over and around their neighbors. If the noise was limited to their property, their case would be slightly stronger. Even then, however, it is not an absolute right. Smoking, for example, is prohibited in many public places by the states, even though the pollution is limited to air within private property.
In the case of noise heard on public property or another’s private property, the noise maker has no claim to owning the air on which the noise travels. Therefore, they have no private property right to broadcast the noise.
Another version of the property rights argument claims that because the air is common property owned by everyone, everyone has the right to do as he or she pleases. This too is clearly a flawed argument. Roadways are also common property, but no one has the right to drive left of the yellow line or park their car in the middle of the street. Common property does not entail universal entitlement. In fact, such a policy leads to what is known as the “tragedy of the commons.”
The term “tragedy of the commons” comes from the experience on common grazing fields in England. If everyone acts in his or her own self interest on common property (in the common grazing fields, that meant grazing your cattle as much as possible), the common resource is degraded (the field is overgrazed and therefore supplies only a fraction of the feed it otherwise could have).
The antidote to the tragedy of the commons is an ethic of the commons: common property needs to be managed so that uses that do not degrade or detract from others’ use and enjoyment are encouraged, and uses that detract from others’ use and enjoyment are discouraged. With respect to noise, that means encouraging quieter uses and discouraging noisy ones.
The claim of prior occupation clearly does not provide justification for noise pollution. One way to see the weakness in this argument is to realize that the argument is not used in reverse. Communities do not give neighbors the right to prohibit the introduction of new noises in their neighborhood because the prior use was quiet. People lived near almost all major noise sources before those sources existed. Moreover, there were people living there before the source was expanded. At some point there were no motorized boats on lakes, no airports, no jets, yet there have always been people seeking quiet.
The claim of freedom from government interference seems to overlook the very nature and development of the concept of freedom in Western cultures. Even at the height of laissez-faire attitudes in the eighteenth century, philosopher John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest defenders of the freedoms of individuals, recognized that people ought to be free to do as they please so long as they do not harm others. This is a concept well understood in America today. My right or freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose. My right to make noise ought to end at your ear.
The effort to control noise is part of a greater effort to protect that which is held in common by the public from abuse and degradation. Other efforts to protect the commons are concerned with protecting our public lands and parks; air, airways, water, and waterways; habitat, species, and biodiversity. What these efforts share is the recognition that our well-being is enhanced when the commons is used to maximize opportunities for everyone, and degraded when the commons is used to maximize profits or opportunities for a few, or to maximize only a few opportunities.
Combating noise is part of a larger struggle to politically and legally establish sovereignty and control over common or public property. People working to reduce noise are environmentalists seeking an ethic of the commons. Our success is tied directly to other environmental causes. The battle against noise is strengthened when other environmentalists succeed, and weakened when they fail. As the term sovereignty suggests, it is inherently a political struggle. This has several implications for persons seeking to effectively control noise. In addition to the obvious one, supporting efforts to reduce noise, friends of quiet should:
- Support initiatives that treat noise as a pollutant (for example, efforts to reopen the EPA’s noise office, stronger regulation of transportation related noise, etc.).
- Join forces with environmentalists and build coalitions with environmentalists to educate them about noise.
- Support environmental causes unrelated to noise such as efforts to control global warming, acid rain, smog, etc.
- Support environmentally concerned candidates and initiatives.
- Work against property rights and “wise use” movement candidates and initiatives.
Noise, more than most pollutants, is closely related to manners. Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves; bad neighbors don’t.
Noisy neighbors do not care about their impact on others. They are the bullies in the schoolyard. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse receives more than 100 inquiries a week from people impacted by noise. The most common source of the noise is a business: a racetrack, grocery store with early morning garbage pickup, a building with very noisy refrigeration or air conditioning equipment, a bar, a gun range.
As director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, it has become obvious to me that the typical noise-making bully in America today is a business. Most people would have thought the “neighbor from hell” would be an intimidating bully who lives next door. While they exist, businesses eclipse individuals for the title of “neighbor from hell” by an order of magnitude.
The reason businesses are the worst offenders is that political power is on their side. Local governments are unwilling or unable to challenge them, while they do crack down on individuals. If the noise polluter were a teenager with a boom box playing half as loud as the noise of the business, the boom box would probably be confiscated. If the noise polluter were a college student hosting a late night party, the party would be shut down. But if the noise polluter is a business, nothing is done.
It is difficult to understand any justification for these differences, especially in the cases of the most egregious acts of incivility reported to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. It is not uncommon for people who call the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse to be kept awake for a couple hours at night, or to be awakened three times a night, five nights a week. The defining characteristic between the teen or college student who are dealt with swiftly and the business that is allowed to pollute is that the business is making money. It is absurd that just because someone is making money they can also make noise.
Businesses are not the only bullies in our communities. Sharing some of the claim to “worst noise polluter” is the average normal person. The two most common sources of noise pollution are highways and airports-places that most Americans use quite frequently. Normal people tend to noise pollute when they have some sense of anonymity and when they lack connection to their community-when they are literally zipping by. The same people who would never honk their horn at midnight in a residential community will fly over the same homes at midnight, to the very same effect: families can’t sleep.
Understanding just who the noise polluters are and that they include us is both enlightening and disturbing. It should not be surprising, however, that minorities and the poor are most often the noise polluted. Minorities and the poor have the highest exposure to many environmental pollutants, and this is clearly the case with noise. Low-income neighborhoods are much more likely than wealthier ones to suffer from excessive airport and aircraft noise. The U.S. Census reports that families who rent their homes are twice as likely to list noise as a major neighborhood problem as those who own their homes. Similarly, African Americans, Hispanics, and persons living below the poverty level are significantly more likely to list noise as a major neighborhood problem.
When some people choose not to be a good neighbor, laws must be passed to force neighborliness upon them. This is an unfortunate but all too common necessity in modern society. Laws forcing people to be good neighbors are much less desirable than people acting as good neighbors out of choice. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse has developed a “Good Neighbor Policy” to use as a guideline for respect within a community. Obviously, it can be modified for different communities depending on their needs.