The Soundscape of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is thought of as a new epoch, where the intervention of mankind’s activities has bought on massive changes to the natural world. This new epoch is suggested if significant evidence exist that humans have altered the Earth enough that a distinct signature from that of the Holocene epoch exists (Waters et al. 2016:137).It is a proposition that human activity has had an impact on the geology of the planet. It is proposed by Steffen et al that these changes especially became increasingly accelerated at the start of the 19th century Industrial evolution onward. (Steffen et al. 2011).

The most obvious evidence of this altering of the natural world is seen right there in the comfort of our houses, as pointed out by Gisli et al. We continue our existence on human made sediment (Gisli et al. 2013). This points to the idea that humans have now made a permanent mark on the planet forever, which will read in the Earth’s strata for future generations.

The current issue of rapid changes in the Earth’s climate has brought attention to the idea that anthropogenic activities greatly affects our globe. Through human’s increased population and vigourous expansion, carbon emissions have increased tenfold (Steffen et al 2011: 842).

Human advancements have also made an impact on important elemental cycles that are vital to the functioning of the planet. These elements include phosphorous, sulphur and nitrogen (Steffen et al 2011: 843). The alterations bought on to the natural flow of rivers to support human expansion has bought on changes to the water cycle. The ongoing man-made constructs that have changed and removed the natural foliage has interrupted the way water vapour travels tot he atmosphere. There is also evidence that suggest that human involvement has lead to the extinction of many animal and plant species (Waters 2016:137) (Steffen et al 2011: 843). All of this points to the impact humans have on the globe, reinforcing the concept of the Anthropocene.

 

Soundscaping

The Droning of human life

From the 5th of April onward, I tried my best to keep my ears open to sounds I would previously have kept myself oblivious to. It has become second nature to ignore these man-made sounds.  At first, the droning of human transport became the most obvious. At night, the sound of airplanes flying overhead becomes much clearer. Distant sounds of cars driving around midnight.

I take the Gautrain to university if my schedule allows. The Gautrain station itself is rich with the sounds of people talking, walking and trains screeching like banshees to a halt. There are various announcements made, and the train ride itself is a massive drone of movement of the various carriages. I usually listen to music on my phone during the ride to break the dull sound away.

The walk to and from the university and Gautrain has a soundscape littered with the sounds of construction sites, buses and cars zooming around. The sound of taxis hooting is also in abundant supply. Nearby Hatfield Plaza, a massive building is being built, and the sound of crashing cranes and drilling fills the ears to near deafness. It is not pleasant to listen to, and is remedied only by walking faster, or walking with earphones and music loud enough to destroy the other outside sounds.

I see fellow pedestrians walking with earphones or headphones plugged in, filling the ears with man-made music, more palatable that the sounds of man-made construction. This reminded me of the comfortable removed-ness of humans from the obvious destruction they create. Gisli et al describes this as the ‘new human condition’, a condition that is marked by increasing awareness of global environmental changes brought on my human activity (Gisli et al 2013:4).

The far-off droning of human transport was a constant reminder of how removed from nature we have actually become. This is something Whitehouse especially takes into consideration. He describes how the Anthropocene epoch has created a soundscape that is loaded with the sounds of electronical enhancement, operating machines and engines that has come to dominate the sounds of the natural environment (Whitehouse 2015: 57). This supports the ideas of Steffen et al, who argues strongly in favour of how the Anthropocene has come to shape the planet globally, the overwhelmig droning out of the sounds of natural environment possibly signalling a growing decline of the Earth’s biodiversity (Steffen et al 2011:856).

Bird Gossip

For the next few days I kept an attentive ear focused solely on searching for the teetering and chirping of birds. They were there, when I listened closely. I heard many unidentifiable birds. To listen to birds in the Anthropocene is to have to pay attention undividedly. Late nights at the art studio walking  towards my car I heard a very peculiar bird sound that I had not yet paid attention to my whole life. It was a type of “hoop” sound. The chirping of birds early morning is something I still hear regularly at my house in Midrand. The sound of hadedas are also prominent and I have seen and heard a few robins around the garden.

I realised how birds could be heard clearly in the  very early morning, before the human world has woken up. The sounds of birds need to continually compete with the overwhelming droning soundscape of human industry. Whitehouse regards this as evidence of the Anthropocene era and how it is different from the pre-Anthropocene: previously the sounds of nature and human activities had melded together. The post-Anthropocene is an era in which human created sounds seek to destroy this harmony (Whitehouse 2015:57).

The cooing and scuffling of pigeons is a sound that is all to familiar to the ears of art students, as they nest in the ceilings of our first year studio as well as our printmaking studio. Pigeons seem to adapt well with human expansions. Pigeons and hadedas seem to be the most common bird sounds heard and observed by everyone. To their credit, they are highly adaptable birds. Whitehouse describes this phenomena by relating it to a concept by Krause, that the sounds indicate the evolution of certain species as they interact with other sounds in the same soundscape (Whitehouse 2015:57). Another bird species I see and hear often is the Indian Myna bird. This bird is an invasive species, and hurts our indigenous bird population immensely through its aggressive interactions with indigenous bird species (SANPArks n.d.).

The rich and diverse sounds of birds are becoming more rare through human interventions on the planet. Biophonic sounds, sounds that are produced by the natural world, are drowned out by the anthrophonic sounds, sounds made by human activity (Whitehouse 2015:57,58). This loss of sounds creates a type of anxiety of extinction caused by the Anthropocene. Birds and their habitats are lost through human industry, pesticides and motorways. The loss of the sounds of birds against the backdrop of a disruptive human soundscape could be considered as symptoms of the Anthropocene (Whitehouse 2015: 66).

Talking to the Elders

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Approaching the older generation on their past experiences with wildlife up until now makes the realisation of the rapid effects of the Anthropocene much more stark and depressing. My parents moved to Midrand when the area was still very much a rugged landscape, back in the early 90s. There is a restaurant here called The Spotted Genet, so named after the furry creatures that would claw and jump around the branches of the trees surrounding the restaurant, my parents tell me they saw them there once, but didn’t see them again on any other visitation.

Many of the points they made even I remember in my own short span of 21 years. Midrand used to have an open marsh that we used to walk to and visit to catch snakes and frogs and other critters for our pet snakes to eat. This marsh area has largely disappeared due to ongoing construction in that area. My brother also remembers finding and showing a chameleon in our own backyard at our first house in Vorna Valley, who then went on his own merry way. We never saw one again. We moved to a house back in 2004 that used to have an open field in front of it (later replaced by two new complexes), that we once observed a mongoose running out of (not kidding!). I shudder wondering where the poor creatures ended up.

One observation I made early on, during the brief discussion in class, was that I hadn’t seen or heard a Loerie in a very long time. I remember the distinctive “Kwê” sounds very well and haven’t heard them in a very long time. We also used to catch a lot of field mice around the yard, mostly because the cat would bring them in, and we would rescue them. I haven’t seen a wild field mouse since I was ten years old. This makes me wonder how the domesticated animals that humans keep as companions affect the natural environment in their own little way as well. Cats and even dogs keep the rat population in check, but so as well do they keep the bird population in check. Luckily, I find that I often still find little indigenous non-invasive frog and toad species regularly in the yard.

(Image of Grey Loerie from http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/birds/musophagidae/corythaixoides_concolor.htm)

Conclusion

The current soundscape we live in has predominantly been created and influenced by us. Humans gain more and more knowledge and develop more complex ways of manipulating the environment to their will. Humans are the only species capable of this disruption (Steffen et al 2011:847). The sounds of nature has become discordant from the sounds of human activity. Humans do not just influence other sounds through their own sounds but also through the disruptive and harmful activities they invoke against the natural world (Whitehouse 2015:57).

The loss of sounds from the natural environment causes a greater concern of how humans are rapidly causing the disappearance of a natural harmony that we have existed in prior to the Anthropocene epoch. Listening to and documenting our current soundscape solidifies the Anthropocene concept- it is an obvious indicator of how a previously nature-dominated planet has now become a human-dominated environment (Gisli et al. 2013:5).

 

References:

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.

South African Natural Parks. n.d. Birders, Alien Invaders. Accessed April 10, 2016, from SANPArks-South African Natural Parks. Available at https://www.sanparks.org/groups/birders/alien_birds.php

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.

 

Amelia Daubermann 15191037

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