Written by Jennifer Hsieh.
In the past couple of years, PM2.5, or atmospheric particulate matter, has become a popular buzzword for environmental activism in Taiwan. This was illustrated in Ming-sho Ho’s earlier contribution to Taiwan Insight, which includes an infographic that shows how Google searches for PM2.5 dramatically sky-rocketed after the 2015 release of a Chinese documentary on air pollution. Drawing upon the concept of social construction, Ho explains how the act of defining a problem produces the conditions and criteria through which an object becomes recognized as a problem in the first place.
A similar analysis can be made about noise pollution in Taiwan. Over the past ten years, noise has consistently been ranked as the number one environmental complaint, reaching record numbers each year—that is until 2015 when complaints about unusual smells in the air began to surpass noise. And just as Ho points out that air pollution became a concern even after a steady decline in the Pollution Standards Index, the number of noise complaints started to grow in 2001 while the rate of decibel measurements found to be in violation of noise standards decreased, nearing zero percent. The addition of government noise regulations on construction sites and restaurant establishments, as well as regulations for low frequency sounds commonly found in industrial equipment, also led to an increase in the number of complaints. In other words, the implementation of new regulations produced more awareness about the problem of noise, instead of the desired effect of reducing the number of complaints.
Despite its past record as the number one environmental complaint, noise has not experienced the same meteoric rise in public opinion as air pollution. And amongst the constellation of social and environmental movements in Taiwan, the problem of noise has remained in the periphery. By examining the social and political life of noise and noise regulations in twentieth and twenty-first century Taiwan, I have explored in my research the question of why noise seems to endure as a problem at the same time that it belies consensus. This discrepancy lies, in part, in the fact that noise is both a material object that has the capacity to cause emotional and bodily harm, as well as a discursive object that mediates social relations between subjects and the state.
In official, state narratives of Taiwan’s post-war development, noise has been regarded as an inevitable byproduct of urbanization and industrial development. Beginning in the era of the Ten Major Construction Projects of the 1970s, exposure to noise was considered a collective sacrifice made by Taiwanese subjects for the sake of modernizing Taiwan. This sacrifice was made at the same time that public health experts at the Department of Environmental Protection at the Ministry of Public Health, the predecessor to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), began to publish reports about noise as an “invisible, bloodless killer.” The implication was that the dangers of noise were imperceptible, and one could suffer from harms without becoming aware of it. Also in the 1970s, a noise monitoring tower was installed in front of Taipei Main Station to display safe and unsafe decibel levels in the surrounding area.
Installed by the Ministry of Public Health, the tower was intended to inform nearby pedestrians of potentially harmful levels of traffic noise that could lead to hearing damage. Through the two discourses that promoted both tolerance of noise for the collective good and awareness of noise for causing bodily harm, the state took on the role of producing and controlling the problem of noise.
The implementation of the Noise Control Act of 1983, now in its fifth iteration, has had the effect of defaulting all noise problems under the authority and adjudication of the state. Among noise producers, such as an urban developer, building contractor, transportation representative, or small business owner, the typical attitude is that the EPA manages noise. The implication is that only sound levels that are found to surpass permissible noise level standards, as determined by the Noise Control Act, will be recognized as a citable offense. As EPA reports state, however, less than 10% of all noise problems are found to be in violation of noise standards. Even with the mechanism for measuring and verifying a sound as noise, the problem largely remains unresolved for the noise hearer.
With the exception of occupational hazards related to factory workers’ hearing health, the everyday noise of traffic, construction, and urban infrastructure are not widely regarded as public health threats. The public perception is that most people grow accustomed to the sounds or do not notice them to begin with. And even if certain sounds may be loud and noisy (chaonao), it may not have reached the point of becoming unwanted noise (zaoyin).
So what of the high number of people who complain about noise? The diverse opinions about city sounds makes it difficult to build a social movement around noise. And as noise petitioners have explained to me, there are so many different types of sounds that may be heard as noise that there is little consensus even among noise hearers about what qualifies as noise. Someone who has a problem with the sounds of a car wash has a different expectation for rules and regulations than someone who is annoyed at a neighbors’ piano playing. The exuberant jumping of concertgoers at an A-mei concert is different from the croaking of wild frogs in a nearby body of water. All of these sounds have been reported as noise to the EPA; yet, they are regarded as isolated incidents rather than a collective problem of noise. With the exception of a few localized cases, such as complaints of noise near the Shida Nightmarket in Taipei in 2011, and protests against the low frequency sounds of wind turbines in Miaoli, noise produces the unique effect of dissipating among a diverse public, rather than amassing a consensus.
When it comes to the problem of PM2.5, there may be some lessons that can be learned from Taiwan’s approach to noise regulation. The first is that the co-production of an environmental problem is produced in part between the state and its citizens, which is tied to the role of the state in both identifying and managing the problem. The second is that increasing the regulations and standards around a pollutant has the possibility of creating regulations that are amorphous and diluted. Efforts to control and contain a problem only its omnipresent character. On the other hand, the current environmental campaign over PM2.5, with citizens’ personal monitoring of Pollution Standards Index on smartphone apps, is informative of the potential for citizens’ activism to respond to a problem.
Still, the difficulty of noise to become an agreed-upon environmental issue is perhaps what makes it a classic sociopolitical problem. Even without strong public support, noise in Taiwan remains an ongoing issue, energizing citizens in a continuous, decades-long negotiation with government officials over environmental rights, public health, and government accountability. Residents should continue to hear noise, and the government should listen.
Jennifer Hsieh is a Vossius Fellow at the University of Amsterdam, where she is investigating urban noise in the context of science, public health, and sensory perception. She completed her PhD in anthropology at Stanford University with the dissertation, “Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan” and is currently working on a book manuscript. Her work has been funded by the Social Science Research Council and Wenner-Gren Foundation, and she has held fellowships at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Stanford Humanities Center, and Academia Sinica Institute of Ethnology. Image credit: CC by Othree/Flickr.