What is the Sound of the Energy Revolution?

Recently, the German magazine zweitausend50 (meaning: twothousand50) − issued by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, representing about 1,900 companies − got in contact with us. They wished to know more about the sonic aspects of the so-called energy revolution. For the Sound Studies Lab we got the permission to translate our conversation into English.

Mr Schulze, you research the effect of sounds on people. What kind of sound does the energy transition make?

The shift from fossil fuels to a sustainable circular economy aims to put an end to the resource extraction of the last two centuries. It is a change of direction that not only transforms national economic cycles, but also strives to save us from climate collapse. Sound-wise, this means: we move from sounds of raw material extraction to sounds of a more respectful form of economy. Because sounds are created through concrete actions. In the energy transition, I hear above all a slow fading of the militant noise of industrialisation:

Fires are dying, heavy machinery is being discarded, winding towers in Europe and the southern hemisphere are being shut down. Labour society is being rebuilt. Less steel and cast iron beats against each other here, we hear more the gentle whir of electric circuits; occasional melodic signals that span the entire frequency bandwidth. Mild loops, perhaps a fragile overtone singing, growing quieter, ever quieter. Cities are also becoming quieter, more whirring. We should not give away this potential by rushing to sonify our more silent cities. The diminishing of noise is also an expression of the reduced force and energy needed in the economy. We also hear the rise of social progress in the circular economy. More equality, recognition and respect.

What kind of impact does this have on people?

It is a relief, definitely. Maybe not everyone feels it that way yet. The extraction of raw materials and energy in the last centuries marked a sort of panicking industrialisation. Their endless series of more or less life-saving inventions and consumer products made the mass societies of Europe so prosperous in the first place. Mortality fell, life expectancy rose. Local welfare societies became conceivable. Today, we can sense how this incredible frenzy of growth is ending.

We can open our eyes to other needs and values of economic activity. Furnaces of fire seem increasingly alien to us. We no longer want to burn, but to maintain a steady state. It is a different way of life. This way of life ensures that social classes in our country and cultures on other continents do not suffer. That is its impact on human beings. We are also becoming quieter and more cautious in this respect. We recognise the benefits and harms of mass production and strive to find alternatives. It is a struggle. But we recognise the benefits for all. The energy transition is clearly also an act of planetary solidarity. This becomes audible in the smaller, sober sounds. Their softness becomes dominant.

Is there a specifically European sound of the energy transition − and if so, what is it?

The energy turnaround is necessary for survival and will initially cost a lot of money. It requires a radical change of direction − the cushion for this was acquired by European societies in the course of industrialisation; not without lasting damage, as we know. We cannot get out of this dialectic: our prosperity is unique − but bitterly bought. That is our specific European (sound) history. Social progress comes not for free. The sound of the energy transition therefore also includes the sound of this progress: a sound of contradictions, of historicity, perhaps even of reparations. Social equality, conceived in planetary terms, is the goal. So, what does such dialectical progress of a society sound like?

Probably it also sounds contradictory: not only whirring loops or mild overtone singing can be heard; but also sounds of social struggle for the new circular economy. The fears and protests of not wanting to give up the familiar economy and not wanting to lose their professions; the protests and fears due to the destruction that threatens us if we do not change course. This ambivalence and historicity, its explicit mention − also in this place, in this magazine − that is for me the outstanding heritage of a European cultural history in sound.