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$1,000,000 NZ Prize for a Silent Lawnmower?

Christodoulos Moisa

Noise is any unwanted sound, and it is often heard that one person’s noise may be another person’s music. In the last year, there have been 2019 noise control call-outs recorded by the Whanganui District Council. This does not include dog barking complaints. Most of those complaints were for stereo's base noise.

Noise has been with us humans for thousands of years. The first noise complaint ordinance was introduced in 600 BC when the council of the province of Sylaris, a Greek colony in the Aegean Sea, ruled that: “potters, tinsmiths and other tradesmen must live outside the city wall because of the noise they make.”

In 44 BC Julius Ceasar declared an ordinance that “no one shall drive a wagon along the streets of Rome or along those streets in the suburbs where there is continuous housing after sunrise or before the tenth hour of the night.”

Since then people had to cope with noise and although laws have been introduced, our world has definitely become noisier. Eurostat reported last year that 17.9 percent of EU residents said they had suffered due to noisy neighbors or noise on the streets where they live. SWECO claims “75 million residents within EU are exposed to road traffic noise, causing an estimated 10,000 cases of premature deaths every year.”

In New Zealand noise is controlled under the Resource Management Act (RMA), which states that: people are not allowed to make “excessive” noise and must ensure that noise from their property does not reach an “unreasonable” level.

Unwanted sound is not just the noisy motorbikes that tear down the main street. It is also all the noise that emanates from home alarms, garden machines, DIY projects, aircraft, building sites, and traffic. Individually or collectively they can make peoples’ life unbearable causing them a variety of health problems. For example, the loud fluctuating noise in a city center can trigger heart problems, by disturbing normal cardiac rhythms.

The UK Daily Mail suggests that if noise really bothers you, it could be because you are a genius. Researchers at Northwestern University, Illinois, found a link between inability to shut out irrelevant audio stimuli, dubbed 'leaky' sensory gating, and creativity. Franz Kafka, Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Anton Chekhov all had problems with filtering unwanted noise. One of our most respected writers, the late Janet Frame, who lived in the Whanganui suburb of Gonville could not write without silence and needed a grant from the New Zealand Arts council to cork up her writing room. There are of course, as always, exceptions like novelist Patricia Grace who wrote many of her books in the kitchen surrounded by her noisy children. From personal experience, I remember, in Auckland, a neighbour who played loud music so she could sleep as she needed to get up early to go to the freezing works where she worked.

I am now absolutely convinced that humans lay down territories of noise much like a dogs mark their territory by spraying trees. This may be the revving of a car for attention, playing a Rolling Stones track to impress someone or to advertise their presence in a neighbourhood.

It is no surprise that noise has been developed by the military as a psychological and physical weapon. In the early seventies, John Zubeck a psychologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada was researching sensory deprivation. He discovered depriving humans of sensory input, by using among other elements white noise, can break them in a matter of days. Hebb suicided after it was made public in the British courts that his research had been handed by his government to the USA and the CIA. The CIA, in turn, passed it on to be used in Chile under Pinochet on political prisoners and in the United Kingdom on IRA suspects. This was exposed when the tortured IRA suspects were found to be innocent and the British Government had to pay them compensation. In 1974 after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus the Turkish military used loud music to unsettle and haress Greek Cypriot neighborhoods south of the Green Line in Nicosia. Loud rock music was also used to drive the Panamanian President Manuel Noriega from his Holy See sanctuary in 1990 so that he could be arrested. In the Old Testament, it is recorded that the incessant sound of trumpets and shouting brought down the walls of Jericho. That may well be a myth but now, sonic and ultrasonic weapons exist that can injure, incapacitate, or kill an opponent. Digital Trends reports that the USA Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Development Program (JNLWD) “is intended as a directed energy weapon that could be used in a range of different conflict scenarios. They have developed a weapon that fires a femtosecond laser to create a ball of plasma, which is then oscillated by a second nanolaser, causing it to produce sounds.” In some countries, police forces have used sound cannons against protesters, for example during the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protest in the USA. One device which emits an ultra-high-frequency blast (around 19-20 kHz) has been used to drive teenagers under 20 away from places where they are making a nuisance of themselves. Apparently, anyone older cannot hear the sound.

Many rock musicians are now suffering from early tinnitus and deafness due to exposure to loud music and there is a whole generation of concert-goers who will be heading to the hearing clinics for ear listening devices.

It is also now accepted that Post Dramatic Syndrome survivors can also suffer from the Exaggerated Startle Syndrome, with anxiety and actions in an extreme and irrational way too loud noises and bangs.

Recently a New Zealand supermarket in Marton has agreed to make available one hour of noise-free shopping for people who have autism.

And it is not just humans who are affected by noise. Even animals are susceptible to it. Noise pollution can make it harder for animals to reproduce, avoid predators, and live healthy lives. My own dog goes crazy when firecrackers are let off on the weeks up to and after Guy Fox night.

So what do we do? We can use the European’s solutions of novel building materials and barrier designs to envelop highway or railway noise, leaving the outside with little more than a quiet hum. We can insulate houses with double glazing and effective noise eliminating engineering designs. We can introduce sensible and practical laws that protect people at work and at home. We can demand that the Government and City Councils police those laws. We can try to educate people not to make too much noise such as on weekends when others are resting from a stressful week and introduce a covenant that if you are going to be noisy for a prolonged period, you should warn your neighbors so they can plan around it.

We can also celebrate International Noise Awareness Day on the last Wednesday of April of every year. Founded in 1996 by the Centre for Hearing and Communication (CHC), it aims to raise awareness of noise on the welfare and health of people.

Isn’t interesting that one of the noisiest devices in our country, the portable lawnmower, has not been replaced by a quieter machine? My dog hates lawnmowers and barks or attacks them every time one starts up. Maybe someone can offer a $1,000.000 prize for the first silent lawnmower.

For more information about NOISE visit:

Christodoulos Moisa is a Whanganui writer and artist.

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