Bright lamps can fatally attract nocturnal insects, street noise drowns out the alarm calls of songbirds, and artificial lights divert sea turtle hatchlings away from the water. These are just some of the examples that The Atlantic’s staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong describes in a new cover story, “Our Blinding, Blaring World,” which looks at how, by flooding the environment with light and sound, humankind has confounded the senses of countless animals and obscured the cues they depend upon to survive. This phenomenon, called “sensory pollution,” can have catastrophic results. But, as Yong shows in this fascinating feature, we can still save the quiet and preserve the dark.
“Our Blinding, Blaring World,” The Atlantic’s July/August 2022 cover story, is exclusively adapted from Yong’s forthcoming book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (Random House). On Tuesday, June 21, Yong will discuss his book and cover story in conversation with staff writer Clint Smith during an event at Washington, D.C.’s historic synagogue, Sixth & I. Tickets (in-person and virtual) are on sale here.
In his cover story, Yong invokes the concept of Umwelt, which comes from the German word for “environment” but specifically describes “the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience––its perceptual world. Our Umwelt is all we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know,” Yong writes. “This is an illusion that every creature shares. Humans, however, possess the unique capacity to appreciate the Umwelten of other species, and through centuries of effort, we have learned much about those sensory worlds.” Yong explains the damage human activity has had on other species’ Umwelten. “Because of the way we have upended the worlds of other animals, senses that have served their owners well for millions of years are now liabilities.”
Take, for instance, the 9/11 memorial Tribute in Light, which features two large beams of light that represent the fallen Twin Towers and are produced by 44 bulbs with 7,000-watt intensities. By analyzing meteorological radar images, researchers have discovered that these beams have waylaid about 1.1 million migrating birds. “The beams reach so high that even at altitudes of several miles, passing birds are drawn into them,” Yong writes. “They circle slowly, as if trapped in an incorporeal cage. They call frequently and intensely. They occasionally crash into nearby buildings.”
Two years ago, the world inadvertently addressed sensory pollution when it was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Roads were closed, cruises were docked, and people stayed home––making for darker nights and quieter spaces. “In a multitude of ways, the pandemic showed that sensory pollution can be reduced if people are sufficiently motivated—and such reductions are possible without the debilitating consequences of a global lockdown,” Yong reports. “Quiet pavements with porous surfaces can absorb the noise from passing vehicles. Sound-absorbing barriers, including berms on land and air-bubble curtains in the water, can soften the din of traffic and industry. Vehicles can be diverted from important areas of wilderness, or they can be forced to slow down.” In his piece, Ed cites noise-reducing measures at the Muir Woods National Monument in California and the regulation of commercial ships in the Mediterranean as evidence of the correlation between simple, actionable steps and reduced sensory pollution.
Through modern technology, humans have explored the sensory worlds of creatures throughout the animal kingdom––we have made the invisible visible and the inaudible audible. “This is a profound gift,” Yong writes, “which comes with a heavy responsibility. As the only species that can come close to understanding other Umwelten, but also the species most responsible for destroying those sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal all of our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.”
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