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Mufflers, Sirens and Loud Music
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The Issue Of Noise Pollution

By James Donahue

I lived not long ago in what was supposed to be a “quiet” Midwestern American town of about 4,000 people. The word quiet, when used to identify this place, however, is a misnomer. This town, like nearly every community throughout the world, is a very noisy place.

It is the county seat. In Michigan that meant we had three police departments stationed there. They included the town police, the county Sheriff’s Department, and the State Police Post. All three have more officers than were needed, and they spend a lot of time racing through the streets and roads surrounding the town with their sirens turned on. We used to joke that they were rushing to the next town to get their doughnuts.

There also seemed to be a lot of ambulances. Or at least the few ambulances they had were operating frequently, with sirens blaring. We also had a very active volunteer fire department. I found it hard to believe a town that size could generate enough “emergencies” to justify so many sirens and keep so many emergency personnel racing hither and yon. I worked for the town’s newspaper and knew how many serious emergencies really occurred. We were lucky if we got one major police story or structure fire to write about in a week.

This particular town is located in the heart of a rural farming area. There are several other towns of relatively similar size in the area. The one we lived in is about as large as they came. A peculiar thing about all of these little towns is that there are sirens mounted on towers in the center of every one of them. The sirens are a spin-off from the old days, before there were personal electronic notification devices, when town fire fighters had to be called from their jobs, sometimes on nearby farms, when fires broke out. Now, even though they are no longer needed, the sirens are still being used as some kind of “town crier.” You canhear them from miles away and literally set your clocks by them.

In Bad Axe the fire siren is blown four times daily. It goes off at 7 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. every day except Sunday. No matter that some people might work nights and wish to sleep during the day. The whistle is blown faithfully. I worked for a while in a nearby town where I knew for sure the fire whistle was blown every day at noon. I once lived in a third small coastal town in that county that also sounded a fire siren at noon every day. I don’t know about the other times of the day.

I once attended a town council meeting and asked why the whistle was blown. My question was rewarded with blank stares. “We’ve always done it,” was about the only answer I could muster. It apparently never occurred to them that the sirens could be turned off. When the mechanism that controlled the siren broke and the siren was out of commission one month, long-time members of the town complained to the mayor that they missed hearing it. Thus the siren was fixed and as far as I know, it is blown to this day.

The noise is not limited to sirens. It seems to come with the trappings of modern civilization. The streets are filled with vehicles that either have no mufflers, or the mufflers are modified to make a lot of noise. Noisy vehicles seem to be connected with male virility. Young men enjoyed tromping the gas pedal at every corner, making their engines roar and our windows rattle as they passed. If they could “burn some rubber” by making the tires scream, it was all the better.

The young people don’t seem to be satisfied with loud mufflers, engines and tires. They also have stereos blaring in their cars and in their homes. They enjoy their screaming rock music so much they want to share it with the world. Loud speakers are cranked up to the max, and every car has its windows down, sometimes even on cold winter days. The ground sometimes vibrates as these vehicles pass. Dishes rattled in our cupboards.

The older set also gets to make a lot of noise. There are gas powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, trucks with loud back-up beepers, chain saws, and noisy garbage trucks.

The noise pollution followed me to my job. There I worked against the sounds of humming computers, chattering workers, ringing telephones, running motors, more community sirens and a variety of other sounds that cluttered the mind.

Studies have shown that too much noise in the work place affects performance of employees. Their ability to do mathematical calculations drops and reduces short-term memory capabilities. The noise affects people both mentally and physically. High blood pressure, heart disease and various other illnesses have been linked to noise pollution.

In the apartment where we lived were numerous electronic devices that make noise. The refrigerator, for example, had an extremely loud motor that is constantly clicking on and off. The television emitted a constant assault on the senses. As an experiment, try turning away from the television for a few moments, or shutting the eyes and listen. . . listen not to what is being said, but to the noise in general. The sounds that come out of that box can be very annoying after only a few moments. Radios are no better.   Nor are little cassette players with headphones that you can snap on your belt.

There also is a human and animal element as well. We have towns full of barking dogs, shouting couples, and crying children. People attend athletic events where they scream and shout for their team. We also like to have parades with marching bands, vehicles with sirens blaring, and lots of other noise. We also have grand holidays when towns shoot off lots of loud fireworks.

There was a time, before steam engines were invented and before electricity was created from wired generators, when people enjoyed a more tranquil way of living. As we moved through the industrial and more recently the electronic age, the noises intensified..

Noise pollution crept into our environment slowly. The change was so gradual we didn’t notice its effect. People welcomed the light bulb when it arrived. They couldn’t wait to get their homes wired for electric power. They loved the Edison phonographs, the radio, the telephones and later the televisions. Each new invention seemed to make our daily lives more wonderful. We welcomed the noises that came with these new inventions, never realizing what it was doing to us on a spiritual level.

Now we can’t escape noise pollution. My wife and I recently lived for a while with a Navajo medicine man in a remote high desert area of northeast Arizona, where you can drive for miles and never see a house. There were few neighbors, but there was noise pollution. The Navajo had electric wires strung all over the reservation. The government built homes for the younger families contained television sets, radios, microwaves, water pumps, refrigerators and all of the other trappings of modern life. Every household kept several dogs that liked to bark at every moving thing. When I would go for a walk down one of the lonely dirt trails leading across the reservation, my senses were assaulted by passing pickup trucks, and jet aircraft flying overhead.

The tragedy of all this is that the human race has inadvertently found a way to go into self-destruct. Humans no longer have the ability, the will, or even the thought of seeking a moment of peace for purposes of meditation and personal reflection. Without this, it is impossible for us to ever look within ourselves and find the real God.

Much easier to fall prey to the addictive trap of loud music and fast paced living, letting the senses be constantly excited for personal gratification on every level. Easier to ignore the nagging warnings from the subconscious that we need to stop and get our bearings. Let the church, with its false promise of an ever-loving external god who watches over us, voluntarily take care of our spiritual needs. Heaven forbid that we might be expected to do the work on our own.

Most societies, and especially the Christian church, share a belief in a pending judgment on the human race. The Christians call it a seven-year tribulation, during which two-thirds of the people in the world will be destroyed. As the last millennium drew to a close, talk of a possible world calamity made the daily news. People worried about what they called Y2K. When nothing happened at 2,000, the concern turned to sun flares, global warming, and the chances of a meteor striking the planet. Now as the planet warms, folks look with alarm at the growing number of serious storms, extreme climate changes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. They reason that doomsday may be right around the corner.

The FBI, in a recent report to police agencies, predicts trouble from religious extremist groups because of their belief in an apocalypse. Conspiracy theorists point to a possible plot by the United States government to plunge the world into a New World Order. The police appear to be making plans to handle anarchy. As more and more people believe in an impending doomsday scenario, the chances increase that such a disaster will really happen. Everybody is expecting something to happen. Because they believe it, they probably will not be disappointed.

Will there be any survivors? An important first step toward spiritual preparation is simply turning off the noise and spending time in solitude. We shouldn't have to climb a mountain to do it. And even there,  we would probably be buzzed by a low flying jet filled with people wondering what we are doing up there.