The Anthropocene: Grey Soundscapes

Screenshot_2016-04-05-18-13-31The older members of my family, like many, find great pleasure in cornering me at Sunday lunches to tell me stories from their childhood. It has always been something I enjoy, as it is like hearing stories about another world, not just another time. What has become increasingly clear to me, as I watch my Grandparents and parents retell their childhood experiences with a complete sense of nostalgia, is that it is not just the new technology that is available to us that is changing our surrounding environments, but our presence on earth in general that is having this effect. Cartoons enjoyed by our generation often feature the ‘bad guy’ who wants to take over the world, and the funny thing is, that is exactly what humans have done. We have taken over what was once a nature-dominant earth and made it human-dominant. People taking what they need from nature and discarding what is not useful should perhaps be seen in the same light as the ‘bad guy’ in the cartoon.

It is scary to think that humans are no longer fusing civilisation and nature, but are quite literally taking over the world (Steffen 2011:846). My parents speak about open fields where they would ride their bikes and chase after whatever critters they came across. I think very few people my age and younger can say they have had the same experience. Those open fields have been replaced by clusters and shopping malls, and those little critters are nowhere to be found. Morning walks to school to the sound of birds chirping has been replaced with a roar of traffic and a slightly less obvious buzz of generators and power lines. This process can be referred to as the Anthropocene and is a broader term used to describe the current state of our environment (Waters et al 2011:842). Is it not chilling that nature almost does not exist around us anymore? This is the kind of human domination that we would be hoping the super hero manages to prevent in our childhood cartoon, so why is it acceptable now?

These sort of statements may seem extreme, but in order to try and substantiate an argument that our immediate surroundings are dominated more by man made things than the nature we would be privileged to be immersed in, a sound journal was kept for a period of two days, carefully picking out specific sounds and analysing whether they were a testament to the idea of the anthropocene. Throughout the two days, some sounds were constant. This included the sound of electricity, whether it be lights in lecture halls, or projectors in class. The most overpowering sound on walks outside was the sound of air-conditioning units on the outside of buildings. This in itself is a metaphor for the anthropocene (Whitehouse 2015:60). When outside, you should be overcome with sounds of trees rustling in the wind and birds calling in the trees. Instead, you hear industrial machines that deaden what should be an experience of nature.

Even in a home environment, there is the chatter of television programs in the background, with a slight crackle and buzz even after it has been turned off. The dishwasher running in the kitchen is something that might become just background noise, hardly noticeable, but is glaringly obvious if you tune out everything else and focus on it. The old geyser that is warming up the water for that dishwasher also makes a noise that sounds like it is struggling. The buzzing of cellphones and the pop-ups on laptops also make up a part of the daily noise. The slight clatter as the fan spins becomes very obvious in the dead of night, but fades into the background during the day. At night we become more aware of the noises as we are forced to lie and listen, instead of it just being a blur in the background. It is with the usual lull of the lawnmower and the start of the day for the builders down the steer that I am usually woken up.

If you listen closely enough, there is still a presence of the chirping birds in the morning, but their sweet sound is usually overpowered by that sound of the anthropocene. To listen to birds in the anthropocene, involves really taking time to shut out all the other sounds and focus on the birds. The bird chirping in the tree outside my window is almost always accompanied by the sound of cars and trucks roaring passed on the main road behind my flat. You can very seldom appreciate the birds as pure nature because they are surrounded by something so unnatural.

In a perfect world, birds are heard in abundance, but unfortunately due to the sorts of environments we have created, hearing birds is a sort of treat (Whitehouse 2015:55). The fact that it has become difficult for a person to hear birds on a daily basis is rather sad. While grieving the loss of the birds that would make our environment so much more beautiful, it is important to consider why we are grieving in the first place. Instead of the world working in harmony, side by side, humans and the anthropocene have disrupted and starting competing with the natural environment (Whitehouse 2015:56).

While tuning out the everyday sounds of humans and their anxious and busy lives, it again become clear how the birds in the area are seriously dwindling. Sure, there are the common sounds of Hadedas and pigeons, but other than that, there are few other birds around. Although, I probably would not be able to identify any other species anyway, which is a testament for the Anthropocene in itself. Biodiversity in the Anthropocene is then clearly decreasing at a rapid rate. There are no magnificent birds with brilliant colours flying between trees, adding a bit of brightness to our great world. We are only left with the birds that are perhaps brave enough to endure the kind of environment we have created.

If we move away from focusing on the sounds and species that we see around us now, and look at the situation over a longer period, the same conclusions can be made. I spoke to my Gran about some of the things she used to see around and whether she still sees them. She speaks about going to the park to read her book because she loved the sounds of the birds in the trees. This is something that few of us get to experience. Parks are hard to come by these days, never mind those filled with chirping birds. She also tells stories of how my father and his brother would spend the whole of a Saturday afternoon in the veld near their house chasing rabbits and guinea fowl. That veld is now occupied by a shopping centre built not long after my dad left school.

Interviewing my Gran made it quite clear to me that the sense of nostalgia when talking about the animals and birds that were a big part of their lives is huge. She was speaking as if she was longing after an environment that she will never be able to see again. that then got me thinking about my own childhood. If I actually considered my environment as a child in comparison to what it is like now, there are huge changes in the biodiversity around me. I am lucky enough to live on the border of two golf courses, which means I am exposed to more wildlife and more species than the average person. However, when I was younger, the golf course behind our house was not kept and maintained, which meant that animals had a place to live in the middle of an area dominated by people.

We would see owls almost everyday in the early evening, and I would sit on the courtyard wall, just watching. I now have not seen an owl in almost a year. We also saw mongooses scurrying around the garden on a regular basis when I was growing up. I now do not even know when I last saw one because it has been so long. Lastly, finding frogs in the sprinkler box used to be my favourite pass time. Although I am now not nearly as likely to go chasing after frogs, my nights are no longer filled with the croaks of those frogs that always made me feel at home. All this loss in biodiversity is due to the fact that about four years ago, the golf course was bought and cleared so that it could function as a course once again. This does not even involve building of houses etc. and this is the kind of damage that was done. I do not even want to imagine what would have happened if it was cleared for a development of houses or shopping centres.

As someone who really appreciates nature and wildlife, from growing up in that sort of environment, it is so sad to see that the current Anthropocene is really just resulting in the destruction of our ecosystems and has lead to a huge decrease in biodiversity. after a week of small experiments and really taking the time to listen to my surroundings and consider what is going on around me, it is clear that the Anthropocene is completely dominating the world, rather than just existing in harmony with nature. The sounds that exist around us consist of almost only human activities, machines and disruptions. Without even considering the dwindling of ecosystems, the soundscape in itself quite clearly shows that we are living in the Anthropocene. It seems ridiculous to me that we are the villains in our own story. We may think that things are oky for now, but there is no telling what might happen in the future. We need to start playing the good guy, because do we really want our children to grow up in an environment rid of nature and dominated by concrete?



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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