Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Problem of Noise (1966)

From the March 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

The advance of capitalism has everywhere depended upon industrialisation. An essential of industrialisation is the substitution of the machine for manual labour in the processes of production, and its introduction as the universal motive power for transport. Herein lies the root cause of one of (he evils of modern society: increasing noise. Noise is not only increasing in intensity; it is becoming more widespread. Some of its effects will be discussed in this article, but first we may ask the question: “Is it just a minority of oversensitive people who are troubled by noise; is it really a serious problem?”

Up to quite recently the answer to this question would have been in doubt. But in 1961 a survey was made in London in which a sample of 1,400 people were asked this question: “If you could change just one of the things you don’t like about living around here, which would you choose?” The question was obviously framed to avoid any suggestion of its possible answer, the direct opposite of what lawyers would call a leading question. When the answers were analysed it was found that noise shared second place among the list of things to which these people objected. It even look precedence over slums, dirt and smoke. In the same survey the origin of the noises which disturbed people in their homes were examined. The figures show that 61 per cent of these sources of noise were attributable to the mechanisation of transport, production and services.

The above information is taken from a Government report (Noise, H.M.S.O., 1963), the publication of which is in itself some indication that the problem has now gone beyond the concern of voluntary societies and minority pressure groups.

Why should mechanisation result in noise? The short answer is that machines produce a lot of energy (this is the object of the exercise) and some of it is wasted in the form of sound. Unfortunately, a very small amount of energy will produce a great deal of noise; the efficiency of the machine is hardly affected. While mechanical efficiency remains the criterion, manufacturers have little incentive to reduce noise. If the question had been: “Need machines produce noise?” the answer, as we shall see, would have been very different.

The Effect of Noise on Health
The effect of noise on human beings is both physiological and psychological (if we can accept this arbitrary distinction). Noise can damage the physical mechanism of hearing and it can cause psychological disturbance which, in turn, affects physical well-being.

The direct physical effects of noise have been known for a long time. It is common knowledge that workers in certain industries (such as boiler-rivetters) have become permanently deaf well before the time has come for them to “enjoy their retirement.”

There are many other industries in which high levels of noise involve a risk of permanent impairment of hearing. The official report we have mentioned, after referring to those cases where management has taken steps to reduce the risk of aural damage, concludes by stating: “However, there is little doubt that the noise environment in many other industries is hazardous, but that little is being done at present in these industries to investigate the degree of hazard and to minimise it.” This is a very frank admission, resulting from the fact that only in recent years has it been discovered that the noise levels which cause deafness (over an extended period) are much less than was previously thought.

The most important indirect effect on health is probably the interference with sleep caused by road, rail and air-traffic noise. It is not until people are literally awakened by traffic noise that they begin to associate tiredness, ill-health and irritability with loss of sleep. However, if we can believe the advertisements for powdered milk drinks, depth of sleep is no less important than mere unconsciousness. Depth of sleep is certainly reduced by noises not loud enough to wake us up.

In some localities it is not a question of how soundly one can sleep, but whether one can sleep at all. The conditions near airports have received much publicity in the press and there is no need to enlarge on the matter here. It is perhaps only necessary to mention that most authorities expect conditions to get worse and more widespread.

Noise affects us in many other ways, most of which can reduce physical and mental well-being. Frustration is now generally recognised as having harmful physical side-effects and nothing can be more frustrating than trying to concentrate one’s attention on one thing whilst having it distracted by something else. Office workers, students, teachers and the like are constantly fighting a losing battle against the increasing noise of the urban environment. When they return home they cannot be sure of a respite. The increasing congestion of traffic in towns has brought noise to what were once quiet residential areas. Some people live under air routes or beside railway lines, some near factories which operate night shifts in the race for increased production. Reading, listening to the radio, conversation or just relaxing from the day’s effort may be disturbed by the noise which penetrates the inadequate defences of the average worker's home.

Reform and Legislation
As in the case of most of the ills of modern society, the noise problem has produced its body of reformers. The Noise Abatement Society was founded in 1959 (a similar society was in existence before the war), but it is doubtful whether any of its supporters would claim that the advancing tide of noise had been materially checked by years of propaganda. It is true that the law now provides for legal action against individuals who cause unnecessary noise disturbance, and Local Authorities are empowered to intervene in cases which are referred to them. But this barely touches the fringe of the problem. Legal action is expensive and slow to take effect but, what is more important, most of the noise is outside the scope of any legal action. Because they are statutory undertakings, the operation of railways and aircraft is exempt from the provisions of the Noise Abatement Act and, quite obviously, no legal action can be taken to reduce road traffic noise.

The report Noise made recommendations to the Government in respect of each of eight categories of noise, but not in all cases is further legislation considered practical. Where positive action is recommended, it seems half-hearted. Often only appeals for voluntary action, on the part of those making the noise, is suggested.

The Cost of Noise Reduction
In the case of road traffic noise, the report suggested legislation, binding on manufacturers, to limit the noise produced by cars, lorries and motor-cycles to certain stated maximum levels. The report commented on its own proposal in these words: “These values are significantly higher than those which would be fixed purely on the basis of ‘acceptability’ . . . The choice of limits at any level is, however, a compromise between what is desired by the public and what is technically possible, at a reasonable cost, at any point in time” (our italics). At a point in time when it seems technically possible to get to the moon, whatever the cost, this statement may puzzle the non-socialist reader.

On aircraft noise the report suggested two things: that efforts should be made in the future design and operation of aircraft to reduce the output of noise, and that grants should be available to the occupiers of houses near airports towards the provision of double windows to keep out the noise.

On the first point, the report referred to new types of civil aircraft which are potentially quieter than present ones, but expressed the opinion that “unless the airlines gain some economic advantage from the new types they will not buy them.” It also pointed out the need for international agreement, since English airports are used for foreign operators.

On grants for the insulation of houses, the authors of the report were again concerned with cost and accordingly recommend “that the grant should never be the whole of the cost” and that grants should be “on a scale varying from a high proportion of the total cost where noise exposure is greatest to a small proportion at the boundary of the area within which the grant is payable.” One might imagine from this that the cost involved was potentially astronomical. It is therefore surprising to discover that the expenditure the authors had in mind in the case of London Airport is around two million pounds—about the cost of one air-liner.

Can Capitalism Produce a Solution?
It will be seen from the above, and a more general reading of the report, that the cost involved in reducing noise is an ever-present consideration in the minds of people who undoubtedly think in terms of the perpetuation of capitalism. The preservation of adequate profit margins is an essential to production under capitalism.

Capitalist governments need to provide for the protection of overseas territory, concessions and markets by military preparedness. In the field of aircraft this has resulted in a race to produce faster and faster machines, with a consequent increase in noise. Moreover, in the competition for foreign markets, the civil aircraft industry is involved in the same race.

As in the case of so many problems thrown up by capitalism a solution to the noise problem cannot be found in terms of reform measures. Only when the economic pressures of capitalist competition are removed will the “cost of noise reduction” be no longer a barrier to the attainment of a peaceful environment.
John Moore

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