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Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Sound Commons for All Living Beings

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904): Orchids, Nesting Hummingbirds, and a Butterfly
     Human beings should attempt to manage the soundscape as a sound commons to permit all creatures to communicate with one another in their acoustic niches. That is my thesis, but it requires elaborating and defending. Besides, these questions regarding the sound environment are part of a larger public discourse concerning whether and how to manage the natural environment, a discourse that historically has been bound up with economics in a variety of important ways. Recall that ecology and economics come from the same Greek root, oikos, meaning household.
    Elaborating this argument requires discussion of several concepts and resolution of a number of questions and objections. For example, while the law recognizes that you and I can own and exchange the fruits of our labor, whether goods or ideas, what sense can it possibly make to say that the chickadees that visit your bird feeder own their songs? Yet without song they could not signal one another and without communication they could not live. Commons, animal communication, soundscape, sound-world, acoustic niche, sound interference, biophony, geophony, anthrophony, soundscape ecology, property, cultural, intellectual, and natural property rights, ownership, stewardship, commodification, exchange, biodiversity, deep ecology, exploitation, regulation, management, wilderness, resources, set-asides, non-use—these are only some of the concepts that need to be explored and put into relation. In addition, of course, as the subject of this blog is music and sustainability, it’s important to locate the place of music (humanly organized sound) in soundscapes and sound-worlds.
    Among the questions and objections to a sound commons for all living beings are these: Must a commons be regarded as a resource to be used, propertized, regulated and, eventually, commodified? If “nature” is unknowable to us except through historically changing human constructions of it, is there a verifiably true basis for claiming a relationship between sound, communication, biodiversity, and a resilient planet? And why are all creatures, not just humans, entitled to their acoustic spaces, bats and snakes and locusts as well as you and I? In such a case, what would it mean to model management of the sound commons on nature’s economy? And why have any confidence in human ability to manage at all, when humans have gotten us into this predicament in the first place? I’ve been exploring many of these concepts and questions in this blog since 2008, and now it is time to run a bit of order through them and place them in relation to make the larger argument.
    In my previous entry I suggested that while the acoustic ecology movement’s efforts to eliminate noise pollution from the soundscape were laudable, the human-centeredness of this approach was too narrow. Those of us who exclaim “I can’t hear myself think!” are responding to sound pollution. But noise interference affects all creatures who communicate using sound, whether humans, whales, or spadefoot toads. Communication is basic to life, but like many other aspects of the environment it is under threat, chiefly from human activity. The helicopter noise impacts communication among caribou which in turn impacts the Innu way of life. A more dramatic example of interdependence among all living creatures would be difficult to find. Developing this argument will not be simple, but summary of the argument is clear enough: human beings should do what we can to manage, not damage, the soundscape, and do so to enable all creatures, not just humans, to communicate in their acoustic niches. If we are able to do so, the music of all living beings will flourish, and sound communication will contribute to sustaining a healthy, biodiverse planet.

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