The good news, and the bad news, both circulated recently. The good news: Hybrid cars are so much quieter than ordinary ones, and becoming so prevalent, that the long-hoped-for dream of less automotive noise pollution is actually becoming a reality. The bad news? Consumer advocates are already agitating for noise-making machines to be installed in these vehicles, and car companies are researching them.
Hold on a sec. I remember learning in the 1970s that "noise pollution" was one of the evils of industrial society. Cacophonous city streets, the alienating whirr of interstate highways — and who hasn't had a pleasant day of fishing or hiking ruined by the buzz of cars on a nearby road? I remember when I bought my new Prius in 2003, I thought the quietness of the thing was at least as impressive as its gas mileage.
But now, as reported by MNN's Jim Motavalli, safety experts are worried that kids and other folks won't hear hybrid cars coming, and more injuries and even fatalities may result. Hence the seemingly bizarre task of making cars run louder, with fake "vrooms" provided by Hollywood special effects companies.
Well, count me out. Not that I'll have the choice — I'm sure, as soon as these gadgets become available, they'll become mandatory, just like the infuriating beep-beep-beep of reversing construction vehicles (which can be heard 8.3 miles away, according to my unscientific estimate ... OK, I made that up) and the no-less-annoying beeping my car makes as it reminds me that I'm in reverse.
And I don't appreciate it. I think people can figure out that a car is coming the old-fashioned way: Stop, look and listen. Last I checked, looking was still on the list, and hybrids do not yet come with cloaking devices. Have we grown so paternalistic as a society that we must burden everyone with noise so that a careless few don't get run over by quieter cars?
This, long-term greens like myself know, is a familiar trade-off in the world of government regulation. Seat-belt laws are one example. Childproof caps are another. In these and thousands of other cases, we as a society choose to restrict individual freedom in order to protect people. It's nothing new.
What is new, I think, is the nature of the trade-off. Usually, environmental advocates are on the protectionist side. No, we say, you can't drain the wetland on your property, because it provides benefits to all of us. No, you can't put asbestos in your building, because someone will get cancer. Normally, green values are on the side of restricting individual behavior — usually something that someone wants to do to make money or have fun — in the name of a common good.
But not this time. Now, it's good versus good: the good of quieter roads, and the good of preventing accidents. And so now, we greens need to take a side we're not accustomed to taking: the one with less paternalism, and more liberty. This feels icky to me, because normally it's the "property rights" advocates who make this argument, in the name of cutting down more trees or polluting more rivers. But if it does feel uncomfortable — well, we need to get over it.
First, let's take noise pollution seriously. Yes, it is primarily an aesthetic problem, unlike air pollution and water pollution, which actually kill things (and people) and harm entire ecosystems. No one ever died from annoyance. But noise pollution changes how we live. It stresses us out on a moment-to-moment basis. (I lived in New York City for six years before moving out to the country, in large part to escape the noise.) It places us at a further remove from nature, that much more inside the fake-plastic-tree-lined box of 21st century America. Noise pollution isn't just annoying — it's alienating.
And this alienation has consequences: The less we feel connected to nature, the less likely we are to protect it. When a truck barrels down my country road, I notice — and, for a moment, reflect on how we humans interact with our fellow creatures. When it happened every two seconds in New York, I didn't. Hearing the stream that flows across the road from my house changes how I think, and reminds me of the values I hold dear.
Second, let's reflect seriously on whether our society really needs to protect everyone from everything that is potentially harmful. For example, ought we to require hikers to carry jingle-jangling "bear-sticks" to protect them from the threat of bears in the wilderness? After all, many places require backpackers to carry bear canisters, to keep the critters away from food. So why not extend the rule to cover an array of bear-repellant devices? Hell, why not ban back-country hiking altogether, given the multitude of threats that exist? Put Velcro on slippery rocks! Guard rails on cliffs! Let's pave the trails, so that no one slips and falls!
Obviously, we engage in balancing costs and benefits all the time, even in cases of life and death. We know, for example, that more people will get into accidents if the speed limit is 65 miles per hour, instead of 55. This includes not just reckless drivers, but also their completely innocent victims who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet Americans responded very positively when speed limits were lifted a decade ago. Driving is risky. If you get on the road, you assume some risk.
The critical factors — and I've studied risk since my law school days — are what kind of values are being balanced. In the case of seat belt laws, a very minor incursion upon freedom is tolerated in the name of saving lives — and, of course, if you violate the law, the penalty is slight. In the case of paving the hiking trails, important green values like experiencing nature are deemed more important than the risk some people will be injured — especially since the people are voluntarily engaging in the risky activity.
Same with the other examples. Prohibiting asbestos costs the industry billions of dollars a year, but that purely financial cost is justified by the benefit of saving thousands of lives. The balancing of money vs. lives-of-innocents is different from the balancing of important values against the lives of people who should know better. (If not the child playing in the street, of course, then her parents.)
Peace and quiet
So, greens like me shouldn't worry about opposing these new noisy developments. Yes, we're unaccustomed to opposing regulation that could save lives. But the values on which we are doing so are important, and very different from mere profit motive or convenience.
Do we have a chance? That's another story. Consumer safety advocates have groups to represent them, and they care about this issue. Those of us who value peace and quiet are diffuse, and may not care as much. Environmental groups have pressing battles on their priority list, and may not want to spend resources on this one. So, as with the insidious beeping of bulldozers, I feel like quiet may be destined to lose.
I hope not, though. I hope that with the increase in environmental consciousness that's taken place over the last few years — this Web site being one example of it — comes an increased valuing of connection with nature, the opportunity to get away from the din of civilization, and the importance of peace and quiet. Silence is golden, but in a plugged-in, wired-up, turned-on age in which kids have trouble distinguishing real reality from virtual, silence is green as well.
Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the "Forward" newspaper, the Huffington Post, and "Reality Sandwich" magazine. Jay holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and is completing his Ph.D. in religious studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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