The world’s most endangered sound

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“When we look at the healthiest ecosystems that exist today on our planet, we’re finding they’re also the quietest places,” Hempton said. “They are the places taking carbon out of the environment, producing oxygen for us to breathe and where endangered species aren’t endangered.” When Hempton says that by saving quiet, you wind up saving everything else, this is exactly what he means – healthy soundscapes sustain healthy environments, and if we were to start treating noise as the soundtrack of climate change and noise pollution as pollution, it would have resounding effects on every living thing, including ourselves.

Quiet has long helped humans find their voice. Like nature, it calms us, grounds and even heals us. But despite the heaps of evidence that quiet makes us healthier and nature makes us happier, Hempton warns that the number of naturally quiet places are “on the road to extinction that far exceeds the extinction of species”. Consider this: In the last 50 years, the global population has more than doubled, air traffic increased nearly sixfold between 1980 and 2019, the rise in shipping has effectively drowned out the ocean’s soundscape, and it’s estimated there will be more than 2 billion cars on the road by 2030.

BBC Travel · Gordon Hempton: Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka

“In 1900, you had a good chance of finding peace and quiet in roughly 75% of the continental US. By 2010, that number was 2%, and it’s a similar phenomenon almost everywhere,” said Les Blomberg, the executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a Vermont-based organisation that studies and raises awareness about the negative effects of unwanted noise. “What I really worry is that, in the 21st Century we’re going to do to the air what we did the land in the 20th Century and turn every neighbourhood into an airport and every street into a runway for our drones. The noise threat is coming from above us, and it’s not God.”

Were it not for an act of God, Hempton says he may never have learned how to listen. While driving from his Seattle home back to his university in Wisconsin one summer, the then-27-year-old graduate school student pulled over in a rural road somewhere in Iowa. Too broke to afford a motel, Hempton parked the car, walked into a corn field and laid down to rest. As a thunderstorm rolled in, Hempton stayed put and listened – really listened – for the first time in his life. “I could hear the crickets chirping away in rhythm, and as each thunderclap echoed, it revealed a clear image of the entire valley to me,” he said. “I was so floored by that experience that I got up, drove on to grad school and dropped out.”

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