Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

Why Daylight Saving Time is Stupid

Why Daylight Saving Time is Stupid
Photo by Jonathan Borba / Unsplash
The twice-annual clock fiddling ritual is a pointless pain in the ass and it should be abolished everywhere
World map. Europe, most of North America, parts of southern South America and southeastern Australia, and a few other places use DST. Most of equatorial Africa and a few other places near the equator have never used DST as the seasons are not marked by drastic changes in light. The rest of the landmass is marked as formerly using DST.
The blue and the orange jurisdictions do stupid things to their clocks twice a year and they should stop.

On 29 October, the superstitious annual ritual known as Daylight Saving Time ended in Europe, and for my American readers it will end this coming Sunday, on 5 November. For half or more of every year, we collectively pretend that it is one hour later than it actually is, even though doing so is entirely pointless and serves merely to increase stress and confusion.

There is a charming Anglophone tradition of crediting Benjamin Franklin with the invention of everything, and DST is often laid at the feet of this poor man. The accusations are unjust. Franklin’s crime was merely penning a sarcastic takedown of Parisian nightlife in 1784, in which he suggested that the revelling citizens of that city might spare much lamp oil if only they would go to bed earlier.

The true inventor DST was an entomologist named George Vernon Hudson, who wanted more daylight on summer evenings to facilitate his after-work bug collecting. In 1895, Hudson presented a paper proposing a summer-time programme of setting clocks two hours forward to the Wellington Philosophical Society, and he was justly ridiculed for his idiocy. One respondent called his idea “wholly unscientific and impracticable,” while another pointed out that “the mere calling the hours different would not make any difference in the time.” (A certain Mr. Richardson, however, channeling Franklin, “said that it would be a good thing if the plan could be applied to the young people.”) Hudson published his proposal in 1898, and ultimately won a British builder named William Willett to the cause of making time itself something for bureaucrats to fiddle with. Willett spent a few eccentric years campaigning to set clocks 80 minutes forward in four incremental steps every April, and then to walk back these bizarre adjustments in September. He attracted the attention of some politicians, including a young Winston Churchill, but he died of influenza before the scheme went any further.

DST became a reality only in 1916, when Germany and Austria-Hungary imposed the time shift as a wartime fuel-saving measure. So as not to lose any advantage, the United Kingdom imposed DST on its population weeks later, and the United States followed suit upon its late entry into the conflict in 1918. Even in those early days, there was considerable doubt that DST would have any meaningful influence on energy consumption, particularly in heavily regulated wartime economies. Evidence since then suggests that in peacetime it probably causes slight increases in electricity usage, as it involves a trade-off of less energy-intensive lighting for more energy-intensive heating and cooling.

Alas, such practical considerations have never mattered. The Great War cemented DST as an economising measure in the popular consciousness. While most countries ended the practice after 1918, basically everybody reintroduced the ritual in World War II. Germany set the cocks ahead on 1 April 1940, and did not bother setting them back again until 2 November 1942. Thereafter the National Socialists remembered to lift summer time every Fall until their defeat in 1945, when the occupiers assumed control of the clocks for them. After the Hungerwinter of 1946/7, they even imposed a “double summer time” of two hours in May, but reduced this to the traditional single hour seven weeks later. In 1949, both newly founded German states agreed to end the practice entirely, as did the rest of postwar Europe.

DST functions like a jurisdictional contagion. Anybody can introduce it for any stupid reason at all, thereby forcing all of its neighbours to swallow the chaos of misaligned clocks or follow along. It was France that brought DST back to Europe in 1976, in response to the oil crisis. Thus the twice-annual ritual of pointless clock fiddling returned to the Continent, this time not even to save energy, but simply to avoid confusion in flight times and train time tables. Switzerland was the last to succumb to the modern DST cult in 1981. Now that we are in this situation, it seems impossible to get out of it. In 2018, the European Commission opened an online survey to solicit citizens’ opinions on DST. The overwhelming majority of all respondents said they wanted to end the practice, and the European Parliament accordingly voted to abolish DST in 2019. Member states were set to decide from 2021 whether they would opt for permanent normal or permanent summer time. The deadline came and went and nothing has changed, because our politicians fear the confusion of fragmenting time on the Continent, and some believe abolishing DST would require a broader reconsideration of European time zones.

There are a lot of myths about DST. We’ve seen that it doesn’t save energy, although this has been its only official rationale. Many Americans believe the measure is supported by farmers, but they are actually among its core opponents. DST benefits primarily those on fixed schedules – that is to say, office workers – by increasing the available light after work. Schools, shops, and businesses should adjust their hours of operation individually to respond to seasonal changes in daylight, and some places may even find it advantageous to impose a permanent summer time.1 Twice-annual clock fiddling, however, is just egregiously stupid. It increases stress (which is why it is associated with mild spikes in heart attacks), causes widespread sleep disturbances, and a wide variety of other inconveniences.

You will say that DST is a small thing, and that’s probably true, but it is also a lesson in how irrational bureaucratic measures can perpetuate themselves long after everybody has learned to despise them and their only purpose for existing has been refuted. DST is insidious for its contagious properties and because it remains just below the threshold of serious annoyance required to animate opposition. It is nevertheless a noxious exercise in social engineering that nobody should have to put up with. 1

The only arguments I can find for summer time anywhere are a few American studies which suggest that setting clocks ahead is associated with a slight decrease in traffic fatalities. Both conclude that more lives could be saved if summer time were imposed for the entire year, and I agree that it is probably a good idea to ensure that most commuting happens during daylight hours. I can’t see how it matters whether this is done by adjusting time zones, setting the clocks ahead permanently (but this is the same thing), or simply optimising business hours.

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