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Does Daylight Need Saving?

In 1968, Arizona stopped adhering to the rules of daylight saving time. When the rest of the country woke up, groggy as hell, to turn their clocks back an hour, Arizona stayed in bed and enjoyed an extra 60 minutes of dry heat dreams.

Mostly within the borders of Arizona, the Navajo Nation followed a different set of rules. By law, American Indian reservations are under federal jurisdiction and are not subject to the statutes of the states that overlap their domain. When Arizona ended the practice of daylight saving time, the Navajo Nation quietly ignored the news. Today, they continue to turn clocks back and forth depending on the season. So hop in a car and drive from Phoenix to Window Rock and, despite sorta remaining in Arizona, you’ll have to turn your clocks forward an hour. But depending on the route you take, your trip could be a lot more complicated.

The Navajo Nation (Image: Seb az86556 on Wikipedia)

Not everything inside the borders of the Navajo Nation is the Navajo Nation. Near the nation’s center is the Hopi Reservation, a separate jurisdiction and the enclave of the Hopi people, completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation. Unlike their neighbor on all sides, the Hopi Reservation does observe daylight saving time, which means switching those clocks back to Arizona Time twice as you’re passing through. Of course, this is all too simple, right? We’re too coddled in our air-conditioned automobiles. Where’s the sense of challenge? I found it. It’s right here: there’s a piece of the Navajo Nation inside the Hopi Reservation inside the Navajo Nation inside Arizona. Pick the right route (maybe driving through barren desert; again, challenge) and you’ll be switching your clocks six times by the end of your journey, from Arizona to Navajo to Hopi to Navajo to Hopi to Navajo again. Make that same journey eight months later and you might not be switching them at all, assuming you’re taking the trip during the four months out of the year during which daylight need not be saved.

So let’s talk briefly about this Arizona situation: is this all a detailed revenge plot for centuries of mistreatment against America’s natives? Obviously not, and it’s unkind of you to have considered it. The explicit reason for not following Arizona in their righteous battle against Daylight Saving Time hasn’t been outright clarified by the Navajo Nation, but it’s not hard to guess. While the nation is perhaps best known for the sizable portion of its land located in Northeastern Arizona, its legal and technical jurisdiction spills well into New Mexico in the East, and slightly over the border into Utah in the north. As much as choosing to observe DST may be going against concord with Arizona, choosing not to would be as much of a headache for those residents living inside the double-boundaries of Utah and New Mexico. Being that the nation is a federally-overseen body with territory in three separate states, maintaining the nationwide status quo may not be the worst idea. The Hopi Reservation, meanwhile, is located entirely within Arizona. Of course, the Hopi Reservation is also completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation, which makes the decision a little more complex. In fact, there’s a Wikipedia article titled “Hopi Time Controversy“, but that’s actually a completely unrelated affair regarding whether or not the Hopi language and culture is able to tell time (spoiler: they know about time). Back to the point, independent of Arizona’s choice, the Hopi decision to abandon Daylight Saving Time is one with a pretty hefty collection of reasons behind it. What are those reasons? Why, I thought you’d never ask.

Before we go further, we’ve gotta clear something up. Throughout this article, I’m going to use the words “Daylight Saving Time”. I don’t know if it’s a nationwide or local phenomenon, but some folks say “Daylight Savings Time”. Really, enough folks say it that growing up, I had to convince myself out of it. Now, language is fluid, and generally, as long as you follow a descriptivist view of language, whatever becomes dominant in a language’s vernacular is as correct as anything that came before it. Not here, though. “Daylight Savings” is dumb. It’s not an account at a bank, and it’s not plural. We’re saving daylight, not savings daylight. Listen, listen. Listen. I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me. Let’s get on with this.

Daylight Saving Time started a long time ago. How long ago? World War I, though the idea goes back further than that. In fact, a lot of folks would love to attribute it to Benjamin Franklin, who definitely did write about the concept of turning clocks back in the late 1700s, in an essay that also called for a tax on window shutters, a limit on candle-purchases, and compulsory waking at sunrise via church bells and cannons. If it’s not clear yet, Franklin’s piece was satire. He thought the idea of setting the clocks back an hour was dumb, and dumb enough that his audience of Parisians would find it funny.

Between Franklin’s hilarious prank and the advent of DST as we know it, there’d be a couple attempts to get the ball rolling earlier. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, an early attempt was made in 1907 by an Englishman who suggested the clocks be seasonally changed by 80 minutes, but that the change be a gradual one, with clocks shifting 20 minutes at a time during April and September. No one bit on that weirdo’s (comparatively decent) idea, and in 1909, British Parliament said “no fanks, love” to a proposal to set the clocks forward an hour in summertime. 

The real magic starts during World War I, which was not a magical time due to the war that was going on. The countries known as the Allies, who we today know as the good guys in a war without good guys, were the first to adopt the time shift in an effort to save power and resources by extending daylight one hour into the evening. During World War II, the British went absolutely nuts by extending DST by a bonus hour to conserve even more. In 1918, the war ended, but Daylight Saving didn’t. Over time, most of the world would come to abide by its demands (Note: DST actually did go away for a little bit between the wars (the big ones). It wasn’t until 1966 that the US government mandated states either use it or lose it).

Worth dispelling here is the salacious rumor that it was farmers who started DST. Our agricultural brethren are merely the scapegoats of the military-industrial complex. In fact, with some exception, farmers are notoriously against the time shift. Farmers get up early, and shifting the clocks forward an hour in springtime adjusts the schedules of agricultural workers, in some cases pushing them out of the office during peak harvest time. Dairy farmers, for example, deal with the challenge of getting cows to adapt to an hour shift, which, let’s be fair, is a little unreasonable – I’ve been adapting all by myself for years.

So let’s cut to the chase, yeah? Is daylight saving time good or bad? I’ll level with you: I’ve always hated it. I’ve called it all sorts of names (stupid, idiot, etc.). In setting out to begin this piece, I was all but entirely convinced this would be a killer takedown of Daylight Saving Time. The answer, though, is disappointingly complicated (I love easy targets. Punching down is so much easier than punching up. Gravity and so on.) Anyway, keep reading.

The big idea behind daylight saving time was always energy. Move the clocks forward an hour so there’s more sunlight in the evening; more sunlight in the evening means less artificial light in the evening. So far, this seems to check out. Let’s look a little closer though. Does it hold up under scrutiny?

Yeah, essentially. The (limited) data we have suggests that, nationwide, daylight saving time saves electricity 0.5%. That number may not look like much, but every single goddamn article I read would be calling you an idiot right now for that one. 0.5% equates to 1.3 billion kilowatt hours. Oh, do you need me to explain kilowatt hours to you too? Joke’s on you, I can’t, and neither can anyone else, if my experience with these articles is open to extrapolation. An article in Popular Mechanics compares it to the amount of power required to run a dishwasher in every house for a whole year, which is… helpful? I don’t know, does that help you? CNN says it’s enough to power 100,000 homes for an entire year, which is… a big number, right? That sounds pretty big. Still, remember that the United States has 330 million people. If we divide that 330 million by the 100,000 homes with free energy, we’d definitely get a number.

This benefit, however large or small it is, is certainly something, but detractors say it’s not all-important. First, while electricity from home lighting is likely to go down while there’s a sun in the sky, some argue the electricity generated by air conditioning in that same timeframe is enough to offset the benefit. That should’ve been accounted for in the dishwasher study, but it’s something to be concerned about depending on your climate preferences (I alternate between 31° and 33° to keep things interesting). 

Next, while later sunlight gets us out of the house, the multi-ton gas sinks that convey us there may easily offset the energy saved by not having a lamp on.

Proponents of DST point out that, beyond energy usage, it’s got some major selling points. For one, crime. During DST, it’s cooler lower. Or, at least, some of it is. According to a report by the Brookings Institute, robberies drop by 7%. During the special hour most affected by DST, they drop by 27%. This point is hard to argue against (anyone want to get robbed more?) but we’ll come back to it later.

Let’s talk about bad things. A Swedish study of myocardial infarction (listen, we all know that this means heart attack, so I won’t waste time explaining it) rates found that the rate of heart attacks rises by about 5% in the week following DST. The culprit is believed to be sleep disruption, which studies suggest is not good. Indeed, one psychological study recommended Daylight Saving Time be eliminated in order to improve American sleep health.

Likely related to that decline in sleep health, the University of British Columbia identified a 5-7% increase in car accident fatalities occurring in the three days following the switch to DST. The researchers went on to note that a similar decrease in the Autumn is not observed, given that the hour of sleep lost in the great spring forward is not always spent in slumber when it returns later in fall.

DST fans say this is all being blown out of proportion. Most of them won’t argue that the lost sleep doesn’t have a negative effect on broad health and well-being, but they instead point out that the effect is temporary and that they’re outweighed by all the good stuff we get from that extra evening hour of sunlight.

So while sleep does suffer in the week or so following DST’s big moment in spring, it eventually returns to baseline. And while car accidents may increase during that same period, evidence seems to suggest they decrease overall during DST, given that most humans have an easier time seeing things when it’s not dark out.

But this isn’t the argument-ender it presents itself as. That things eventually go back to normal is a nice thing to know (and look forward to), and, to be fair, it happens pretty quickly (over a week or so), but that this change impacts the frequency of heart attacks means it’s more than a moderate inconvenience. It’s also worth pointing out that the “pros” and “cons” aren’t exactly congruent. While most of the “cons” come from switching the clock twice a year, most things in the “pro” column are attributable to seeing the sun.

And for the mutual benefit of man and sun, there’s a third option. Interested in all of the benefits with none of the cost? Enticed by lower rates of crime and death but worried you’ll have a heart attack on the way there? Permanent Daylight Saving is the pill for you.

The idea? We go forward in spring. We do the bad one. But then, come fall, no fall back. Yeah, we sacrifice the fun one, but we do it in the name of sacrificing the back-and-forth format forever. We set our clocks to DST and then we never leave. The benefits of the late evening sun stay, and the energy we spend fucking up our internal rhythms each year can be spent fucking up other things. It’s a simple solution.

It’s not a simple solution. Every option here has consequences, and here they’re that, especially in winter, the mornings are gonna be dark. Like, real dark. Here in Minnesota, we’re looking at a post-8:45 AM sunrise in the dead of winter. And given that one of our “pros” for Daylight Saving Time was that people drive safer when it’s bright out, that might be a problem. Now, it’s worth noting that more people are probably on the road in the evening than the morning, and that the lack of general exuberant morning activity makes the roads potentially safer in the AM anyway. Still, if you’re not looking at driving in the dark, permanent Daylight Saving is a little spookier. Beyond that, someone’s gotta think of the children; even if you’re cool with completing the rigor of your daily commute in the dark, your kids might not be. Children are small and vulnerable and lack critical life skills, like night vision. But, to be fair, they probably shouldn’t be up that early anyway, at least, the CDC seems to think they shouldn’t.

This hip idea of “Permanent Daylight Saving Time” is gaining speed right now. Permanent DST bills have been signed in Washington, Nevada, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee. Oregon passed a bill mandating a swap to permanent DST, but only if its best friends Washington and California do the same, and even then, the Eastern half of the State (which celebrates Mountain time) is exempt. Legislatures in most states have had bills introduced on the topic. Some said no.

Now that we’ve discussed some of the good and bad from each side, we can maybe see that it’s a more complex issue than it seems. Again, when I set out to write this, I thought it’d be a slam dunk “poverty is bad” sort of piece. I didn’t want to have to research. But given the issue’s complexity, it’s easy to assume the current, pro-DST approach may have an edge we’re not talking about that makes it the obvious and most approachable option. After all, DST was first enacted forever ago, but it hasn’t remained completely the same. It’s been lengthened twice, most recently in the United States by George W. Bush in 2007. (Now we spend about twice as much time in DST than in so-called Standard time) So what are we missing?

The answer is golf. No, for real, it’s golf. Historically, the loudest voices in favor of Daylight Saving Time have been lobbies for sport, sporting goods, and outdoor equipment. Their logic is pretty sound: the longer people spend outside, the more money they make. According to a figure cited in Scientific American, representatives from the golf industry told Congress in 1986 that a bonus month of DST was worth $400 million in additional revenue. And so, in an absolutely sober attempt to stave off financial ruin, the American government of 2007 lengthened the DST season in hopes that citizens of an ailing economy would spend more on golf. No more financial crisis.

So what’s the answer? Is Daylight Saving Time good? Kinda. Is it bad? Kinda. What’s the solution? I don’t know. I mean, maybe Permanent DST, if you can stomach it? We’d have later mornings, but brighter evenings with fewer car accidents and less crime. Expect the PTA to voice dissent – again, I guess we can’t expect kids to feel their way to school. The young are so coddled now. I used to take a sensory deprivation tank to 7th grade. Still, we can fix this concern by pushing school start times back an hour (or two), but this brings up more challenges (convincing local governments to do things, etc) that we just don’t have time for in this already-absurdly-long piece. Still, it’s technically possible, and isn’t that what America’s all about?

Alternatively, we could let the golf industry keep telling us when to go to bed. Both solid options.

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