Creating global prosperity without economic growth

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The Long Lost Sound of Silence

by Sharon Ede on 15th March 2010

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cartoon of The Thinker shhhing The Scream in an art gallery

sssSSHHHHSSSShh!

Cartoon reproduced with the kind permission of Brazillian cartoonist Marcelo Rampazzo

I admit it. I’ve become one of them. Those anti-social people who get about, particularly on transit, wearing iPod/Phone/mp3 player buds in their ears and isolating themselves from their fellow citizens with their own auditory niche. I’ve always thought that choosing to disengage from society was almost selfish, yet another behaviour that contributes to the atomisation of our society into its smallest unit – ‘me’. 

That was until I discovered that blocking out the whine of the bus/roar of train, the incessant yacking of people on mobile phones and screeching of kids was pure and utter bliss. A shot of tranquillity - controlling my own sound environment through my choice of music or relaxation sounds, and a chance to opt out of unwanted noise.

I did think about why it bothered me so much – after all, people talking, rumbling buses and grizzly babies are just everyday urban sounds, right? Why am I so sensitive to them? Its because my brain can’t deal with it along with everything else I do in a work day, and after work, especially if its on insufficient sleep.

This started me thinking about the hyper culture that demands our attention with ever more messages, ads and interference in our inner environment in order to sustain the growth culture. 

Adbusters recently called for ‘an insurrection of the mental environment’, a rebellion against the incessant pollution of our mental space with messages and ads:

The interjection of advertising and other info-toxins into our mindscape neutralizes our attempts to construct an alternate future because from a poisoned mind spring only poisoned deeds…The future of activism is as an insurrection of the mental environment – a movement that appropriates tactics reserved for physical battles and applies them to the battle to protect our mental environment.

This mental noise is not just those trying to sell us something, but the influx of information through email, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. 

And blogs, of course. How ironic.

But we choose to use social media, and there are myriad ways – including self discipline – to screen out what is superfluous [see Scott's post 'Filter Failure']. 

We don’t choose to be assailed by a cacophany of different soundtracks while walking through our local shopping precinct. We don’t choose to be subjected to ads or news while we are waiting for – or while we are in – a lift.

I can’t even find a local library that is quiet! I don’t know if this has changed everywhere, but where I live these days, they are less about stern librarians hushing you and more about community hubs with people talking at normal levels, keyboards clacking and – at my local library recently – a child upending a bag of blocks almost as large as he was onto the floor in the kids’ play area with an horrendous crash! Children have every right to be in the library – but could there be *one* area where people who do want quiet can work? I’ve found the only quiet spot in a library is in our State Library, which means a 40 minute bus trip each way to get to the city.

In Britain, they have a sufficient transit economy of scale that they can offer ‘quiet carriages’ in which commuters can read – or just be - in silence. No loud conversations [especially ones with the word 'like' used, like, heaps of times]. No mp3s. No mobile phone chatter. Oh PLEASE can we have it here?

Why is both visual and auditory quiet so hard to find? 

Everywhere you turn, there are sandwich boards, billboards, ads on the sides of buses and trams, and even worse is when the ads are designed for car drivers zooming past – then they have to be twice as big to cater for the speed of movement.

We are probably the most exposed generations ever to a tsunami of signs, sounds, ads, jingles, catalogues, and electronic messages via an ever-expanding variety of means. What is wrong with us? Are our egos so big that we can’t contemplate the value of just shutting up?!

No wonder we are so exhausted – not only because of less sleep, but because our brains are constantly having to process the stuff we DON’T want as well as the stuff we HAVE to, in the hope that there will be some capacity for the stuff we WANT to!

More people and more choices means more messages and more noise and more stress and more mental health problems and more sleeping pills and more conflict – and less silence and stillness. We don’t want to go to the other extreme and be dull either, but there has to be an optimal point between dull and hyper – where is it?

  • How often do you experience true silence – no noise, no talking, no TV, no reading? No thinking even?
  • So often we are not even aware of noise – what kind of visual/auditory/mental noise do you encounter in your day?
  • How can we quieten the physical environment around us to enable our mental environment to process incoming signals at a rate we can absorb?

They did it in Sao Paulo, Brazil: São Paulo: The City That Said No To Advertising [Business Week, 2007]

In the meantime, I will continue to inoculate myself against the racket of hyper/growth culture by any means necessary, including the use of that icon of consumer culture the iPod/Phone. How ironic.

Now – please let me introduce you to my favourite Tweeter ever: http://twitter.com/theMime

Ahhhhh…silence!

Listen

This post was written by

avatar Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

Sharon has written 36 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Sharon

{ 5 comments }

avatar 1 Joshua March 16, 2010 at 08:25

Sharon,

I love the perspective of this post! Well-done! I am one of the luck few who (just recently moved and now) live across from a park in a quite area of town. The difference from our last apartment – in a busy, loud neighborhood with neighbors above – is unbelievable. The silence when I sleep, eat, hang around the house, is so peaceful that I am sure my health is benefiting.

Herman Daly actually suggests that advertising should be “taxed heavily as a public nuisance,” and I agree! The mute button may eliminate the sound of the commercial, but I want to eliminate the images too!

Cheers,
Joshua

avatar 2 Scott Gast March 16, 2010 at 08:39

Great points, Sharon. Interesting how you consider true “silence” even separate from reading, iPod listening, etc. There’s a difference, I think, because silence of that kind is related to basic existence – just being in the world – no entertainment, no news, no attention grabbing or diverting. Time for thinking, or just sitting there.

Lately, I’ve been trying to use the 15 minutes or so before I fall asleep at night for this kind of thing: no reading or entertainment of any kind – just a moment to lay there. With any luck, I review the day and think about whether what I’d done that day matches up with what I want to be doing, in a larger sense. Occasionally, it’s a helpful “check in” time with myself, so to speak.

I wonder how much of this lack of silent time has to do with personal choices versus systemic conditions? Because if it’s a matter of choice, then the economists would say “if we choose to listen to iPods, then that’s what we wanted.” Hard to argue with, in a way. But I think most of us WOULD probably say that they like the IDEA of silent contemplation – but that in practice, it’s hard to get there. Has our technology somehow gotten in the way of our ability to contemplate silently – where manufactured entertainment is just “easier” – or has ruined out ability to focus inwards?

Figuring out where personal choice ends and systemic cause begins is tough, and probably very important for doing something about this stuff on a policy/culture level. I definitely don’t know the answer!

Scott

avatar 3 Sharon March 16, 2010 at 19:56

Thanks Joshua, Scott

I did smile at Scott’s reference to the last 15 minutes of the day – self reflection is definitely worthwhile, of course, and no doubt better than filling it with some of the stuff you find on the idiot box, but its still not truly quiet time in terms of ‘not-thinking’, aka meditation. Quietening the mind, even for a short period a day, enables you to cope better with everything. And yet we are confronted with a lot of stuff we don’t want as well as the stuff we do choose to let in.

It would be interesting to explore if this mental overload correlates with high levels of mental health problems, stress, depression, use of medication etc in western societies.

[Scott said]: ‘I wonder how much of this lack of silent time has to do with personal choices versus systemic conditions?..Figuring out where personal choice ends and systemic cause begins is tough…’

Agreed – some of it is definitely self discipline. In the same way that what we put in our mouths is self discipline. Then there’s the environment around us and what it makes it easy for us to do…sedentary lifestyles and an ‘obesogenic environment’ shape society and create system conditions about what is easier/cheaper to put in out mouths [or our eyes and ears, in the case of messages].

So its partly choice, partly culture. But where the line is? If there is a line? Tricky indeed!

avatar 4 Sandwichman March 19, 2010 at 09:38

Speaking of silence, albeit of the stony rather than the golden kind, below is the question I posed today at the 2010 Econ Bloggers Forum:

http://www.growthology.org/growthology/2010/03/2010-econ-bloggers-forum.html

“Last year, the U.K.’s Sustainable Development Commission issued a report titled “Prosperity without Growth?” Next week, I will be attending a conference in Barcelona on Degrowth. There is a rising crescendo of criticism of the notion that economic growth, per se, (and with a capital ‘G’) is an imperative that must be pursued at all costs. And there is a vast accumulation of evidence that the pursuit of growth for growth’s sake has often given us precisely the wrong kind of growth: polluting, inequitable and unstable bubble growth.

“Yet there seems to be a stonewall of silence from conventional economists (of both the right and the left) toward the heretical criticism of growth from, mainly the “ecological economists.” Joe Stiglitz would be a notable exception. Moreover, when pro-growth economists do address the criticism of growth, it seems to me they usually combat straw men and red herrings rather than engaging the actual substance of the growth critics’ analysis.

“My question is, would someone on the economic bloggers forum please address the substance of the critique of growth presented, say, by Tim Jackson in Prosperity without Growth or by Peter Victor in his book, Managing Without Growth?”

avatar 5 Joshua March 22, 2010 at 10:00

I think Tim Jackson’s work is the best argument against growth I have ever read, very well articulated and thoroughly supported. For that reason, I would love to see a growth-er go after him in an honorable fashion. I feel the debate is necessary, but I also believe that the conventional economists are afraid to face the conflicts of their theories with every other science (ecological limits are not fantasy, they have more scientific proof than any economic theory).

This is why every “real” debate I have seen usually ends with, as you said, “straw men and red herrings.”

Cheers,
Joshua

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