Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight Saving Time and the tyranny of tradition

Ask any falconer about Daylight Saving Time and the response is likely to be a groan. It's not the concept, necessarily, but the implementation—it's applied to the wrong part of the year.

Blame it on Ben−or maybe not

The concept of Daylight Saving Time (DST for short) is often attributed to American publisher, inventor, and statesman Benjamin Franklin. (See, for example, this recent piece in Scientific American.) According to this version of the story, Franklin (himself a wealthy man) originated the concept as a thrift measure: by setting clocks forward, an hour of early-morning darkness could essentially be traded for an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day, thereby reducing demand for beeswax and other candle materials. In Franklin's own words, "A penny saved is a penny earned."

In reality, however, the operative proverb is "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise"—what Franklin actually advocated, while on a diplomatic mission to France, was that Parisians should get more accomplished during daylight hours by rising earlier in the day, firing cannons and ringing church bells if necessary to implement his plan. The suggestion may have been tongue-in-cheek, but even so it's a poor diplomat who accuses the local inhabitants of laziness—which probably accounts for Franklin's publishing his comments anonymously.

The actual inventor and foremost advocate for DST was an Englishman named William Willett. He lobbied unsuccessfully for the adoption of DST from 1907 until his death in 1915. In the end, the First World War accomplished what Willett could not: British lawmakers enacted DST in 1916, but not until the Germans and their allies had beat them to it.

The United States, late arrivals to the war, were late in adopting DST as well: DST went into effect in 1918, and was dropped the following year. The Second World War saw a revival of DST, but once again it was discontinued at the end of the war. DST was observed sporadically on a local basis until 1966, when the Uniform Time Act made DST more or less standard; since then, there have been minor tweaks to the system as states have chosen to opt out (or back in) and various localities have changed time zones, but American society has come to accept DST as routine.

An answer in search of a problem

Several justifications are typically given for implementing DST, many of them easy to discredit. It is often claimed, for example, that DST is beneficial to agriculture, but in fact most farmers work by the sun and not by the clock. Health and safety benefits are also claimed, but in most cases the evidence is ambiguous—or benefits at one time of year are counterbalanced by deleterious effects at another time, resulting in an overall wash. For example, a recent (2008) study in Sweden found that the incidence of heart attacks rose immediately after the "spring forward" but fell by a comparable amount after the "fall back".

The strongest argument for DST, dating back to Franklin and Willett, has traditionally been energy savings. But, as Charles Q. Choi notes in the Scientific American article, recent analyses indicate that changing patterns in energy usage, including increased use of personal electronic devices (this means you, bloggers!), may have rendered this argument obsolete. When Indiana implemented statewide DST for the first time in 2006, the result was "a 1 percent overall rise in residential electricity use, costing the state an extra $9 million."

The enemy wears plaid

Not all of the economic arguments have to do with energy. Quoting Choi again, "Retailers, especially those involved with sports and recreation, have historically argued hardest for extending daylight time." Chief among these, it seems, are purveyors of golfing equipment: The National Golf Foundation estimated that an extension of DST could result in a $200-300 million increase in equipment sales and greens fees. (Choi quotes the figure as $400 million, but who's counting?)

Even my friends, it seems, are out to get me. Greg McManus, with whom I coach high-school lacrosse, e-mailed me a practice plan for this coming Monday: "Wow! We'll actually have an hour and a half practice from now on. Daylight savings rocks!" It's true that our first few practices have been cut short as dusk falls, but the days are rapidly getting longer even without the help of DST. Which leads us to...

A modest proposal

Instead of applying DST to spring and summer, when daylight is naturally longer, how about applying it to the winter months instead, when it might actually do some good?

The sports retailers lobbying for DST to start earlier in the spring and end later in the fall represent warm-weather sports, golf being the prime example. But surely falconers aren't the only field-sports enthusiasts who find weekday afternoons too fleeting during the depths of winter—couldn't gunners (and their lobbyists) make a case for DST reversal?

There are economic and public-health arguments to be made as well. For example, many people, particularly in northern latitudes, suffer from seasonal-affective disorder (SAD) as a result of light deprivation: For a good part of the year, they commute to work before the sun comes up, toil inside all day, then drive home again after dark. If DST were instituted in the winter months, they would have the benefit of afternoon sun. A decrease in SAD could save millions in mental-health care—enough to offset golf's losses?—and perhaps even save lives.

Someone is sure to ask, as someone always does, "What about the children?" Wintertime DST would mean darker mornings, and yes, the poor kiddies might have to wait for the school bus in the dark. I have no answer to this, other than to say that I always enjoyed waiting for the bus in the dark: that's when we were likeliest to see white-tailed deer, or red fox, or owls headed off to roost. Sometimes I suspect that my affinity for wildlife stems, in part, from these early-morning encounters when the world was quiet and dark—imagination and wonder flourish under those conditions.

I'm not going to tilt too hard at this particular windmill—for one thing, I don't have William Willett's energy or enthusiasm—but I thought I'd toss the idea out there for discussion. Ultimately, I think the mnemonic "Spring forward, fall back" is too powerfully ingrained to withstand reversal. Ah, well...another good idea undone by a slogan.

Don't forget to set your clocks forward tonight.


stevea said...

I wish they'd just leave it as it is right now and not change it. It's all arbitrary anyway. Golf courses get their extra green fees and we get to hunt a normal amount of time. Win-win.

Seniority and attrition has left me in a position where everyone at work just accepts the fact that I don't change my clock at work. Big companies don't like to question things anyway. I leave an hour earlier when we pay the full price for time.

By the way, I really enjoyed the pictures form your meet. I'm not sure what that white stuff is that y'all sprayed on the ground, but it looked rela nice.

Remchick said...

Here's a thought, why don't we adjust our work schedules and such instead of being so complicated and changing the time?

People used to work when it was daylight and sleep when it was night. *sigh* We like to make everything so complicated. . .

Thanks for the post- some really cool information :-)

stevea said...

Now that I think about it, "spring back, fall forward" sounds a lot like squirrel hawking.

I like it.

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Holy cow. Who knew there was so MUCH to the time change?

Greg said...

Yes, but I get extra daylight for practice after my 8 hours of work with DST. Yeah! I'll struggle through the week of adjustment just for that luxury.