Sounds That Matter

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though it may be hard to notice, the world is quickly getting louder, and the soundscape is turning into something it has never been before. R. Murray Schafer observes this in his book The Soundscape and implies a connection with this change in the earth’s sounds to the Anthropocene, and human activity in general. The dawn choruses of birds and the many sounds of forests are falling, while the sounds of machines and human influence are getting louder (I suppose this is somewhat contestable; Toyota Priuses are pretty quiet, for example). Schafer argues that this noisiness is detracting from are ability to truly appreciate the sounds which the world provides us with. Because the definition of music has shifted in recent decades to pretty much mean “a collection of sounds,” Schafer implores us to treat the sounds from the earth as music, because ignoring these sounds, as we have become accustomed to doing, can only make things worse. 

But these sounds nature provides us, which Schafer wants us to listen to, are gradually getting quieter. This is happening for a few notable reasons. For one thing, humanity’s implementation of machines and other such technology block out other sounds, and causing new, metallic sounds. Also, since humans are the primary cause of that is being called the “sixth extinction,” the sounds which we once enjoyed have literally disappeared, due to our elimination of entire species. Perhaps this is a reason in itself why Schafer wants us to listen for the sounds; we can try to preserve what’s still here.

Through all of the sounds, says Schafer, we are able to study and analyze the moods and events of various time periods, with political upheaval causing musicians to create emotional and angry music (not unlike what we see today), while times of peace produce calmer music. I assume there are ways to refute this claim, but I have noticed a significant change in tone and subject matter in music from the last few years. But listening to the sounds of our planet (that we produce and that exist whether or not we’re here) can give us insight into things bigger than ourselves, which we can use to hopefully create change in our behaviors and our ideas.

Nature and Society

In The Great Animal Orchestra, author Bernie Krause describe his attempts to recapture the “true” sounds of nature.  Much of the piece was Krause’s valorization of the beauty found in the “undisturbed” sounds of nature. Although Krause’s vivid and elegant description is very interesting, I think he might be mistaken about the “undisturbed” nature of these sounds. First of all, Krause uses sensitive microphones to pick up the sounds. Microphones which are more sensitive than the human ear. Besides that, Krause also need to use various microphones to record multiple samples and later uses “sound editing software to combine all the samples” (18). Krause writes about the sounds of nature as if they were a discovery. His travels across the world has led him to unearth the hidden sounds of nature. However, Krause is not discovering new sounds, he is creating them. Similar to a music producer, Krause is sampling different sounds together to create the “organic” whole of natural soundscapes.

What Krause and most of us forgets, is that our concepts of nature is socially constructed. It represents a society’s relationship with the natural world around it. When most of us live in dense urban centers, surrounded by nothing but concrete and asphalt, nature can appear as an exotic and alien thing, wholly separate from the artificially produced human world. As the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht correctly points out “the population of a city […] have been brutally torn from the natural mother soil on which mankind flourished” (par. 4). To understand nature as something which have been robbed from us implies a struggle for freedom. It implies a struggle not merely for survival, as much of the apocalyptic discourse surrounding climate change suggests, but also a struggle to freely define our own social relations and through it our relationship with nature. In short, our historic task continues to be the emancipation of human kind.  

1. Liebknect, Karl. “Speech on ‘Environmental Protections’.” MR Online, Monthly Review, 9 Oct. 2019, https://mronline.org/2019/10/09/speech-on-environmental-protections-by-karl-liebknecht/. 

drowning in Predictable chaos

Songs I listened to while writing this:
Everything – Healy
Birds, Pt. 1 – Chassol
Morning Dew – Matt Quentin

“Everything has melody, that’s the crazy thing. It has some sort of melody; it may be dissonant at times. But everything has tone if it has energy.” – Healy, from “Everything”

As I sat in Dream on Monroe late Tuesday evening, reading these articles, I couldn’t help but be distracted by cheerful laughter from the bar, the high pitch ringings of the multiple electronic signs, the faint mumbling from two separate tv channels, the clanking of metal oven doors and draws slamming closed, “Everything” by Healy playing in the headphones I had playing into my right ear only, and the crunch of thin crust resonating through my skull. As I started the Murray Schafer paper, the silent sound of the words I read passing through my mind only added to the chaos of sounds I was attempting to intake all at once. This has been a resounding depiction of my life for the past several weeks, one seeking out silence and solitude in order to focus but surrounding myself with noise to drown out the true distraction, human voices.
Just a few months ago, all the work I was invested in led me to the backcountry of Yosemite National Park where I found a unique silence. More than anything, I found peace of mind in the chaotic soundscape of nature where little is predictably cued, yet all sounds seem familiar and expected. In this chaotic soundscape, I found the ability to focus. Chaos created clarity.
As I sat in Dream, I couldn’t help but notice a stark difference in the chaotic soundscape I found myself in. While the sum of all things was unpredictable, each aspect was rhythmic, harmonic, and repetitive. Laughs were every few seconds, the high pitch electronic humming was constant, the commentators were high paces and relentlessly rhythmic, cars passed at a droning beat, and the clock ticked by, reminding me of the seconds I was wasting trying to read in the midst of this predictable chaos. Everything that ran through my ears was man-made. There was no wind, no water running, no rockfall or melting ice, no sound of silence. It was then I realized both how easy it had become for me to rely on this chaotic soundscape to drown out so many other distractions, yet how hard this soundscape has made it for me to find clarity of mind beyond time I spend working.

The natural soundscape, the undisturbed way of life provides dissonant beauty. It is inherently unpredictable, yet if soothes so easily. It has been human nature to create rhythm, order, and predictability, not only in sound and music, but in all aspects of life. These developments have led us to stray from the beauty of chaos, as we are not inherently comfortable not having control and understanding of our future. If there is a need to tie this all back to climate change, that is the notion. We are making the climate trajectory predictable, structured, and rhythmic. We have chosen to sacrifice a dissonant melody for one that is clear, despite its unpleasantness.

Nature’s Decrescendo

In Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world, the author begins to postulate how changing sounds affect human life. The study of this was explained in a way I hadn’t before considered. Though I knew that daily life and images of the past were studied through first-hand accounts from that era, either through written or artistic works, I had not previously considered that the sounds of the time needed first-hand accounts. The author mentions knowing “the ambient sound level” at the time of a diary entry from the amount of miles away Niagra Falls could be heard. The increased ambient sound level is–at least for me–a seldom considered effect of industrialization. Though this increase may not be as negative as increased carbon emissions, it still harms human’s relations with the environment. As electronic noises increase, we are increasingly detached from nature and can picture with greater ease a world with less nature. Our norm becomes traffic rather than birds, leading us further down a path of industrialization.

The author also argues that the health of the community can be discerned from the tone of their music: rigid music in a time of stability, chaotic music in a time of unrest, and so on. This idea can be applied both to the ambient sounds of the modern world and to modern music. With increased congestion in cities, ambient noise worldwide has increased to a frantic pace, mirroring the increased rush of modern life. Instead of waking up to soothing bird calls, we are awoken to blaring horns reminding us to get a move on. This is also mirrored in our music in the increased use of electronically produced sounds. Instead of invoking images of nature, most modern songs reflect the chaos of daily life. Harsh drum beats of rock’n’roll has replaced the soothing tones of cellos for most modern music enthusiasts. These changes have both reflected and encouraged a more human-centric lifestyle; our separation from the sounds of nature has pushed nature to a lower priority than humans as we are increasingly less reminded of its existence.

Listen and learn

Picture found on Pixabay
By: Christian Birkholz

Reading “Voices from the Land” reminded me that there are so many ways in which we take for granted the environment around us. We assume it will always be there and we rarely give it a second chance. One section in the chapter really stood out to me though, the story about the Wy-am tribe and their sacred waterfall. Their lives for generations had revolved around this one waterfall. They not only fished in this specific area but they considered it a sacred voice where divine messages were conveyed to them. Unfortunately on the morning of March 10th, 1957 US Army Corps of Engineers had the steel gates of the Dalles Dam to shut tight which in turn submerged the sacred water and fishing site for the Wy-am tribe. 

This story reminds me about how a great deal of our conversations in class have emphasized the fact that minorities and the most vulnerable people in our population will be the first ones to feel the effects of climate change. The indigenous tribes in the US treat the land with more care and compassion than we have as a whole and they respect the earth in a way that we have yet to learn and put into practice. 

Fragmented Solutions

Image result for broken ecosystem
Forest fragmentation. Photo from takepart.com by Ellen Damschen.

A soundscape, like an ecosystem, cannot be evaluated on the basis of a single organism. As discussed by Bernie Kraus, sound fragmentation takes noise out of context where it can be manipulated for other purposes. Listening to a fragment of a soundscape removes meaning and value of the sound; the power of sound stems from its interactions with other sounds. This idea of fragmentation is similar to how we are approaching climate change solutions.

The global climate is a complex and deeply interconnected system. Currently, many approaches to climate solutions are unilateral and fragmented, only dealing with one issue or one side of an issue. There are local regimes put into place to try and address with deforestation, but they don’t deal with the root cause of deforestation. We have sustainable energy systems dispersed to some, but nowhere near all, locations on earth while the rest of the population relies on fossil fuels. There exist laws and regulations on fishing and poaching to regulate species population, but these address one species and often fail to explain the importance of species’ larger ecologic impact (although they do often focus on the economic impact). These fragmented actions, while beneficial for their own sector, often lose sight of the intrinsic interconnectedness of ecosystems. Regimes, laws, and individual states strive to regulate one aspect of the global ecosystem, and similar to sound fragmentation, neglect to account for the interactions among the varying components. Instead of approaching solutions from a case to case basis, we would benefit from stepping back and evaluating the environmental crisis as a whole. This would allow for better understanding of the complexities and nuances that so intimately bind together our planet. Similarly, states would benefit from working together to build international regimes to manage international resources and issues, as opposed to focusing on resources within their own borders. Nature does not adhere to political borders, and neither should we.

The Beauty of Our Soundscape May Not Last Forever

“The general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (Schafer, 7). As the acoustics of our environment change, it is clear that our society is trending towards destruction of the natural Earth. Because of our relentless extraction and depletion of the Earth’s resources, we are forcing landscapes and our environments to change in ways that have the potential to damage life beyond repair. The acoustic environment around us, may never be the same either. As Schafer puts it in The Tuning of the World, there may be no earwitnesses left who have borne witness to the sounds of nature untouched by humankind. Further, the powerful sounds of wind, water, forests and more result in a world that is distinctly impoverished (Shafer, 10). This is a convincing sentiment, but one that almost seems like a privileged thought when compared to the myriad of maladies climate change has and will cause.

Shafer’s discussion of the power of soundscapes bears similarity to, but also stark contrast, to that of Krause’s awe and fascination. As she puts it in chapter 2 of her book, The Great Animal Orchestra, the world is “abounding with life.” Krause discusses the animals of nature, “performing their unified chorus as they have each day and night since the beginning” (Krause, 11). Cynically, I can not help but think, ‘not for long.’ I could not help but grow saddened as Krause describes the inherent value found in wild sounds and how integral they are to life. If we aren’t careful, we might never understand this information before it’s gone. I think for too long, we have been hearing without truly listening. We can stand in awe of the power and beauty of the music of nature, yet we do nothing to understand, nor preserve.

A Small Tangent: while I deeply agree with the significance of wild sounds, I think some thought on this topic must be given for those who are deaf. This argument for the value of the sounds of nature is strong, to be sure, but how the value is imparted unto others should not be weighted the same. I do not think I have the tools to discuss this concept in full, but I wanted to bring awareness to a concept that I think is important.

Can We Listen to the Climate?

As I read through “Soundscape- The Tuning of the World,” by R. Murray Schafer, I had one primary question in mind: how does this topic relate to the Anthropocene and the climate crisis? By the end of the chapter, I feel that I was able to logically connect previous readings and the excerpt by R. Murray Schafer.

R. Murray Schafer describes a soundscape as “any acoustic field of study.” To elaborate further on a soundscape, R. Murray Schafer provides three examples of soundscapes: a musical composition, a radio program, or an acoustic environment. A soundscape is created as a result of the climate and the features and organisms within it. R. Murray Schafer also describes the function of a soundscape and its interaction with man and society. R. Murray Schafer describes the tone of the soundscape as being indicative of the “health” of the environment or government. For example, the grace and sophistication of the works of Mozart were created during the reign of Maria Teresa. Additionally, R. Murray Schafer relates this to tribalized and detribalized areas, where tribalized areas have structured music (community controlled), while detribalized areas often have individuals signing sentimental songs. 

R. Murray Schafer briefly touches on the importance of the ears versus the eyes. Before the Renaissance Era and the creation of the printing press, the ears were the most vital sense. Before the Renaissance Era, R. Murray Schafer describes God as heard, not seen. In most African communities, the ears are still the most dominant feature, yet this has changed for the developed world. In Western Europe and the United States, sight has become the most vital sense, where “seeing is believing.” Noises are often filtered out, with only warning signals creeping through. 

These descriptors of what a soundscape is, and how the soundscape interacts with man and society brought me to the conclusion as to why this excerpt from R. Murray Schafer was relevant and how it related to the Anthropocene and the climate crisis. As described above, the soundscape reflects the “health” of the environment and government and during Maria Teresa’s reign, Mozart was the most influential musician. The dominant genre or type of music isn’t classical, it’s hip hop, R&B, and rap (some would argue country as well). These songs often aren’t soothing, and many of the popular songs are written about death and tragedy and judgement. Today, the United States government is arguably falling apart, with resignations occurring weekly. The entirety of the United Kingdom is arguing about Brexit. And the world faces the threat of Islamic Extremism and terrorism. This both indicates a social/political and ecological crisis. When our governments aren’t healthy or productive (cohesive and working together), how are they supposed to combat the climate crisis and humanitarian issues? 

R. Murray Schafer brings up the concept of noise pollution, quite literally how construction and cars and other human made sounds cover up/ block the natural soundscape. Humans have also become skilled at filtering out noise, with sight being the most dominant of the five senses. Yet, even though humans in Western countries have become so good at ignoring sounds, we recognize noise pollution. And through it we recognize the failing health of our environment and the failing health of our government. Humans recognize the ecological crisis and have a desire to put an end to it. Humans (some) are listening to the planet and working to find a solution.

A Slippery Slope

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters, at least from what we’ve seen from a few selected chapters, illustrates the multifaceted issue surrounding the viability and ethics of geo-engineering as a way to reverse impacts from climate change. He displays a broad assortment of proposed geo-engineering technology ideas, showing the potential benefits and consequences of each of them. For instance, he describes carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation manipulation/management as the primary methods, and then goes on to list a few other lesser known proposals, such as the deforestation of Siberia and Canada in order to increase the albedo from the ground below. 

One of the core arguments in favor of implementing geo-engineering technology is that the amount of effort we would have to put in to persuade people in power to significantly reduce carbon emissions seems close to impossible, and therefore geo-engineering is a quick and economically efficient way to mitigate the issue. The primary argument against this is that geo-engineering does absolutely nothing to solve climate change (assuming there is such a thing as “solving” such a problem) because the fossil fuel industries are completely excused of responsibility for their actions, making it so they continue production like any other day. In some ways, this actually helps the industries, because the extraction techniques used to create energy out of fossil fuels is being utilized directly for geo-engineering technology, which has been demonstrated through the movement to begin usage of so-called “clean coal”. 

Another key argument is that many of the proposed geo-engineering technologies don’t even do anything about carbon emissions, but instead focus on re-engineering other parts of the earth, such as reflecting sunlight away from the earth in order to reduce heat radiation.

Geo-engineering, in my opinion, is quite possibly the worst available solution for mitigating climate change. It plays no part in addressing the reasons we got to this point in the first place, and is in fact a continuation of our anthropogenic impact. Also, many scientists who advocate for geo-engineering technology don’t seem to prioritize the safety of the people who would likely be affected by it, primarily in underdeveloped countries. Not only is it merely a band-aid for a systemic issue, but it could have dire impacts which are possibly worse than some effects of climate change itself. I’m not really sure what the best way forward is; there are a lot of ideas out in the open which seem equally viable and risky, and maybe even impractical. But I do know that geo-engineering technology is not the solution.

Geoengineering: Do the Pros Exceed the Cons?

To geoengineer, or to not geoengineer; that is the question. There are many pros and cons to possible solutions to climate change involving geoengineering. The real question is: do the pros outweigh the possible risks? I personally do not think that we should rely so heavily on the possibilities of geoengineering being successful.

I believe that the risks far exceed the possible success. The fact that the plans for fixing the environment could majorly backfire and cause even more damage than was already there originally is too big of a consequence to think about utilizing geoengineering techniques to prevent the destruction of our ecosystem. Geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert discloses that if, for example, sulfur aerosols were chosen to be the method of choice for reversing climate change, they “would cool the planet, but we’d risk calamity the moment we stopped pumping: the aerosols would rain down and years’ worth of accumulated carbon would make temperatures surge” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/re-engineering-the-earth/307552/) which would cause more harm than good and be worse for the planet than what it is currently suffering from today. 

Not to mention the fact that the nations would have to find a way to split the cost if the solution is to impact the entire planet, not just one country, or one continent. Although geoengineering solutions are cheap and affordable by a singular country, I feel that it is important that everyone share the cost if the method of choice is capable of affecting the whole world. This raises more questions: how should the cost be distributed? Should the region with the most blame for climate crisis pay for it? Should everyone pay the same amount? Should countries with a higher carbon footprint in relation to everyone else have to pay more than those with a smaller carbon footprint?

In all honesty, I feel as though geoengineering should be a last resort. The possible negative side effects should serve as motivation for people to find better solutions with the technology we have currently at our disposal. However, if awareness is not brought to those who support geoengineering as a primary method of fixing the destruction of the environment, then they will be less inspired to help the planet now and increase the risk for increased climate crisis.

The Risk of Innovation

In Graeme Wood’s article, “Re-Engineering the Earth” on the Atlantic, they discuss the possibilities of solving the climate crisis from a Geo-engineering prospective. The main argument for this, is that it it much more cost effective. Wood claims that “$100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum would suffice.” Wood follows that up with “To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly.”

Wood follows this claim by discussing many of the Geo-engineering ideas proposed to solve this problem. Some of them are quite out there, like shooting 840 trillion Frisbee-sized ceramic disks in-between us and the sun. While some are much more reasonable, like building ships that propel sea water in the air to create whiter and fluffier clouds, they still all raise a concern with me.

At some point in the future if we rely on Geo-engineering, we will have to make a very costly decision on what the best method to do so is. Funding any one of the projects discussed would take a very large sum of money and we would only be able to test them on small scales before deciding on one. This small amount of evidence would be what we rely on to solve a global issue and any number of factors could go wrong when scaling up the project.

To me, this is why it seems much smarter to take a route that we have proven works, and instead of geo-engineering a sort of “third state” of the world, we should do our best to revert it back to its first state. Sure the decision could be much more costly, but it is also a much more guaranteed way of solving the climate crisis and has much less possible ramifications on us as a species if something does go wrong when solving it with a geo-engineering solution.

ephemeral

The article Re-Engineering the Earth by Graeme Wood outlined several different options considered by scientists for “geoengineering” or artificially altering the earth’s climate system in an attempt to mitigate global warming. These solutions ranged from pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to planting genetically engineered forests to blocking sunlight by launching ceramic disks into the sky. Wood then gave her take on these options, describing their dangerous ramifications and the sad potential that they might someday become a realistic last resort, or worse, that wealthy individuals might take matters into their own hands without considering the repercussions. The article, in my opinion, was powerfully written and did a good job summarizing the topic of geoengineering. It left me with a stark awareness of the reality that what seems like science fiction now might not be for much longer.

For me, this awareness was more scary than hopeful. My personal take is that the only realistic solution to global warming is to reduce carbon emissions. Most of the options presented in the article seemed like an attempt to band-aid the issue. This tendance to ignore the root of problems and think they can be solved with superficial means is something that our culture has done too well throughout history, and one would think that we would have learned our lesson by now. Will the pros outweigh the cons? Is acid rain, species devastation, and “radical shifts in the global climate” a fair price to pay for some temporary cooling? To quote Pierrehumbert, “‘it’s like taking aspirin for cancer.’” The warming would still be there, only delayed until we could no longer pump sulfur dioxide fast enough to keep up. 

Furthermore, even if we do further research into solutions like this one, I think it’s unlikely that we will ever come to a thorough enough understanding of our climate system to predict all of their potential repercussions. We are talking about artificially altering a system that is in a delicate balance, a balance which happens to give us just the right conditions to support life. In thinking that we can alter this system for our own benefit with a simple, cheap fix, we take for granted the delicacy of this balance, the ephemeral nature of the universe, and the extreme luck that allows us to exist in the first place. It’s time we took a step back, found a little humility, and considered that maybe the only way out of this mess is to look at what got us here in the first place. 

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities