The Soundscapes of the Anthropocene

This article discusses the key concepts of the Anthropocene, as discussed in four articles, namely; Gisli, P et al. 2013; Steffen, W et al. 2011; Waters, CN et al. 2016 and Whitehouse, A. 2015. It also debates how human activities impact the natural environment, in terms of the fauna, flora, biodiversity and foremost, the sounds, of the present epoch. It provides an analysis of the presence of these sounds, both natural (birds) and man-made, to emphasise the influence that humans have had on the ecosystems of the present day.

The term “Anthropocene” refers to the recent changes in terms of the geological, ecological and anthropological state of the Earth (Waters 2016:138). It states that for the term to be considered, there must be sufficient evidence of significant changes to the Earth system that are distinctly different from previous epochs, such as the Holocene, which is evident in geological deposits (Waters 2016:138). These changes, of which human activity is the main driver, are argued to be evidence of the Anthropocene. According to Steffen, W et al. 2011, various ecosystems, fauna and flora are under threat by these human activities. This is caused by the increase over the past two hundred years of man’s exploitation of the natural environment. Burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, deforestation, and water cycle modification result in CO2, CH4 and N2O levels, amongst other harmful elements, increasing (Steffen 2011:843, 848). This results ultimately in the mass extinction of species, global warming and climate change (Steffen 2011:847).

The sounds in the spaces surrounding us in the present day consist a lot more of the man-made, and noise, rather than the natural wildlife or climate. For example, over the past two days, through recording the sounds of the surrounding environment and spaces encountered, and analysing what was heard, I found the sounds that were constant were mainly those of the city noise. Cars, machinery, talking, music, sirens, airplanes etc. In the later evenings and early mornings these sounds did seem decline and as a result I found I could hear the sounds of nature more easily. Birds, dogs barking and the wind rustling, these sounds were rarely heard during the middle of the day. Based on these findings, one could agree that such a soundscape can be considered of the Anthropocene. The noise of the human environment is more prominent that that of nature’s sounds. The increase in the human population (Steffen 2011:849), the movement thereof, the growth of cities, and the noises that accompany these practises are so abundant that it results in the drowning out of the sounds of nature completely (Whitehouse 2015:53). This creates a form of separation between nature and man, ultimately forcing the two not to interact and causing man to not even be aware of the other and his effect on nature.

When listening to these sounds of the natural environment, especially when listening to the birds of the environment, one particularly notices the how rare these sounds have become. The calls and songs of birds are hardly heard during the day, the hustle and bustle of the Anthropocene drowning them out (Whitehouse 2015:57), and when they are heard at quieter times for example, in the early hours of the morning and late afternoon, they are still few and far between. When listening to the birds’ calls, or the noticeable absence thereof, it creates a sense of loss (Whitehouse 2015:55). The fact that they can no longer be heard like they used to be, creates the realisation that the reason for this may indeed be caused by human activity (Whitehouse 2015:54). Listening to birds in the Anthropocene proves a more difficult task then it should be, anthrophony not only overwhelms the creatures songs but also links to the birds’ disappearance altogether.

The Anthropocene brings the understanding that humans and their activities have influenced the sounds that one hears. The soundscape of the birds that we hear today, and the difficulty to hear their sounds, along with the dwindling of their presence is evidence of this. Human activities have caused deforestation, climate change and habitat loss, among other problems. This has resulted in many bird species moving away or becoming endangered or extinct (Whitehouse 2015:70). Flying into electricity pylons, being hit by cars, cutting down trees and rerouting or draining water sources are just some of the many causes for the disappearance of birds from our environment. The few that do remain have their songs drowned out by machinery, construction and other human activities (Whitehouse 2015:57). The sense of loss felt may not be completely negative though, as the awareness of this loss does creates the opportunity to do something about these problems of the Anthropocene (Whitehouse 2015:70).

When listening to birds in the Anthropocene, I noticed how few different species of birds I could hear, when I could in fact hear them. Hadeda, Pigeon, Dove and Mossie were the most common. Every now and then I did hear the call of the grey Loerie or the squawk of the Indian Minor, a pleasant sound as it reminded me of my hometown on the KZN coast. The small variety of birds I did hear though, links directly with the loss of biodiversity caused by the human capacity to destroy that Whitehouse comments on in his article (Whitehouse 2015:55). As the ecosystems and habitats that birds live in continue to be destroyed, the loss of the biodiversity of bird species in an area increases.

When interviewing my parents on the matter, I asked them if they noticed the same sort of loss of biodiversity when they were growing up. My father who grew up in Durban, agreed and mentioned that he noticed a significant decrease in birdlife around the time that a large area of mangroves were cleared for the development of a shipping container depo. He also commented that when comparing the general amount of fauna and flora in the area during his childhood, with the amount present in the same area today, there is a noticeable decline.

This links with Whitehouse’s argument, as mentioned above. The decrease in bird and animal life during my father’s childhood is evidence that the activities of humans have resulted in a dramatic loss of biodiversity as well as the destruction of valuable ecosystems. The growth of the human population has ultimately led to an alteration of nature, and the interview with my father is just one piece of evidence of this. During my childhood, I have also witnessed this ongoing alteration brought about by the Anthropocene. While in primary school, for example, the school field was removed of all the trees to allow for it to be paved and made into a netball court. The increase of the clearing of land due to the growth of infrastructure has also been constantly increasing throughout the years.

In conclusion, the soundscape of today can definitely be considered one of the Anthropocene. The quiet and scarce sounds of nature trying to be heard amongst the overpowering sounds of human activity, which have not only silenced the fauna, but also driven it out, destroyed its ecosystem and disrupted the harmony in which it once dwelled. The loss of ecosystems and biodiversity provides evidence that we are indeed living in the Anthropocene. Human activity has caused changes in the Earth system, changes that are significant enough that the state of the Earth today is distinctly different form that of the previous epoch, the Holocene.



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.

Image Credit: Author 2015


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