The Soundscapes of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene can be defined as the current geological age which is viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. This blog post aims to discuss the key propositions of the Anthropocene as shown in the prescribed readings, as well as a soundscape of the Anthropocene as told by my own experience, as well as from my parent’s experience when they were growing up.

The Anthropocene is upon us and there is a narrowing window for opportunities to reverse our effects on the environment around us (Gisli et al, 2013: 4). It is vital that we take action sooner rather than later. Since the Industrial Revolution (Steffen et al, 2011: 847), human activity has increased to a point where it has had a greater influence on climate and the environment as far as destruction is concerned, compared to natural destruction (influences from forces that are completely out of human control). Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century (Waters et al, 2016:138), these are cycles which effect the fauna and flora of the environment and various ecosystems- if there is change in these cycles there will be a change in the environment effected (fauna, flora, and ecosystems).

I kept sound journal over two days  in which I recorded the sounds which I was surrounded by. I noticed through this sound journal that I heard sounds of nature more during the morning, whereas I heard more ‘man made’ sounds throughout the day. In the mornings, I heard birds chirping when I woke up, although this sound seemed to fade out as the morning progressed, and was completely gone by afternoon. The days that I kept my sound journal were particularly windy, so I heard a lot of sounds such as branches swaying as the wind travelled through them, and wind rushing past buildings creating a sound that could almost be described as white noise. The bird sounds that I heard were from only a small number of bird species- mainly pigeons, doves, sparrows and weavers. As history has shown, there used to be a much larger number of bird species in the area in which I live.

The ‘manmade’ sounds that I heard were constant throughout the day. Firstly, when I woke up each morning I heard the noise from my ceiling fan- a sound which is constant for me because it is the very reason that I put on my ceiling fan each night (I find it to be a comforting sound). As I moved throughout my house each morning I heard more and more man-made sounds from household appliances and cars driving by. Something that I noticed about these sounds was that they dominated the bird sounds as they were much louder. Throughout my days I heard more sounds related to electronics and appliances(computer fans, projectors in lecture halls, coffee machines, and construction vehicles and machines). I also heard more low key sounds which are man-made such as the sound of footsteps, sweeping, and the placement of cutlery on a table. The most dominant of all of these sounds was of cars and a man-made white noise which comes from most electronics and appliances.

As seen in the sound journal that I kept, it is very apparent that man’s sounds were far more dominant and constant than the birds and nature’s sounds. These dominant sounds can be regarded as a soundscape of the Anthropocene. The soundscape of the Anthropocene can be described as (much like the definition of the Anthropocene itself) when man-made sounds are more dominant than nature’s sounds. My sound journal shows that nature’s sounds are completely drowned in man-made sounds.

Whitehouse (2015:53) describes listening to birds in the Anthropocene as being an anxious experience, which is something that I found to be true. I found myself having to make an attempted effort to hear the bird’s chirping in my garden. It has become such an anxious experience for most because bird’s chirps are drained out by all of the man-made sounds that are much louder and more dominating compared to the soft melodic sounds of the birds. The anxiety of this comes about because humans are not used to hearing birds as the dominant sound, and so they feel very eager to notice the birds chirping.

In the reading by Whitehouse (2015:54) there is a section which the writer speaks of the sound of birds in the spring. It is well known that birds fly away from home in the winter and return in the spring, and so, the sound of birds chirping after the winter months is the sign that spring is arriving. Human activity has impacted this sign to a point where there is no longer a dominant sound of birds chirping in the spring because it is drained out by other man-made sounds. This is an example of which shows that humans have heavily influenced the mix of sounds that can be heard in the Anthropocene.

I interviewed my parents in order to gain an account of the animals and bird life that existed in their home areas while they were growing up. My mother lived on a farm in Rhodesia, and so, she experienced much more with animals and birds. She lived on a farm which had cows, which brought about more bird and insect species. She heard birds throughout the day in her garden, and sometimes even owls through the night. My father grew up in a suburb in Pretoria less than 5 kilometres away from where I am currently living. Even though he did not live on a farm like my mother, he too witnessed far more bird and animal species on a daily basis than I do today. He said that heard a great variety of birds chirping throughout the day, as well as the occasional owl at night. He also encountered a lot of frogs and rodents in his garden on a regular basis.

If I compare mine and my parents’ different accounts of soundscape I can clearly see that the soundscape are completely different. There has definitely been a deceleration in encounters with greater species of bird and animal life as time has gone on- especially considering that my father lived so close to where I live now. This is proof that we are currently in the Anthropocene soundscape. I can tell from my own primary school days that there has been a distinct difference in the soundscape’s that experienced then compared to what I experience now. I used hear far more variety in the animal and bird sounds that I heard back then.

In conclusion, it can be said that our soundscape reveals that we are living in the Anthropocene because the man-made sounds that we hear on a daily basis dominate the sounds of nature. And in discovering this, we can prove that the Anthropocene is evidenced by the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity- as we have entered the Anthropocene, there has been an apparent decline in variety of ‘nature’ sounds in our daily lives (as proven when comparing mine and my parents’ accounts of soudscapes).

Sources consulted     

Gisli, P et al. 2013. Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environmental Science & Policy 28:3-13.

Steffen, W et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369:842-867.

Waters, CN et al. 2016. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351(6269):[sp].

Whitehouse, A. 2015.Listening to birds in the Anthropocene: the anxious semiotics of sound in a human-dominated world.Environmental Humanities 6:53-71.

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