Wrinkling Time

If you’ve ever doubted time is an illusion – or a human construct – try being awake when we “fall back” to standard time in November.

I don’t do this anymore since the promise of getting back the hour of sleep stolen from me in March is too much to resist, but in my younger, wilder days I was often awake at 2 a.m. local time, pumped by the prospect of repeating the hour between 1 and 2 a.m. A kind of time travel without the ethical dilemmas and worries about tearing apart the space-time continuum.

Mostly it was just an excuse to have another round. Or two.

Whether by design or habit, it’s impossible to ignore we’re slaves to the clock. Return to the West Coast after a two-week vacation in Europe and for the next two weeks I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus. Even what should be a minor thing – losing or gaining a measly hour in March or November – feels like a complete unraveling of the fabric of time to the human body.

So my heart leapt for joy, briefly, this summer when the California Legislature decided to give voters a say on whether we scrap springing forward and falling back in the Golden State.

“We started this practice to conserve energy during wartime, but studies show that this is no longer the case. We are no longer saving energy, and studies have shown this practice increases risk of heart attacks, traffic accidents and crimes,” Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, said of his plan to let voters say whether to repeal the Daylight Saving Time Act.

The European Commission came to the same conclusion in September, after an avalanche of public comment revealed 84 percent of EU citizens want to ditch the seasonal clock change. Beginning next year, each member state will decide whether to permanently stay on either winter time or summer time – setting the stage for the possibility of temporal whiplash on a continent where one can journey by train across five EU nations in a single day.

Manipulating the clock to maximize daylight isn’t a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. Ancient Romans kept time with water clocks that had different scales for each month. At Rome’s latitude, the third hour from sunrise on the first day of winter started at 9:02 a.m. and lasted 44 minutes. They “got the time back” as the year progressed: by summer solstice, the tertia hora started at 6:58 a.m. and lasted 75 minutes.

The modern human moved toward saving daylight in fits and starts. Appalled by the lackadaisical start to mornings in France, Benjamin Franklin of “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” fame suggested taxing window shutters and firing cannons to get people out of bed and using the early daylight hours.

Spanish lawmakers in the 19th century decreed moving some meeting times forward by an hour from May through September, though they didn’t quite reach the conclusion of changing the clocks instead. That was the product of New Zealand entomologist George Hudson, who wanted extra daylight hours after his workday to collect insects.

Hudson’s proposal stalled in the end, as did one pushed by prominent British builder William Willett. Willett disliked two things in life: lazy Londoners who slept away a good portion of a summer day, and seeing his rounds of golf cut short by dusk. He got a member of parliament to propose the world’s first daylight-saving bill in 1908, but it and several like it failed and Willett never saw his dream come true.

World War I changed everything. In 1916, Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary adopted sommerzeit – summer time – as a way to conserve coal. Britain and its allies followed suit, and the United States adopted the practice in 1918. While many jurisdictions abandoned summer time after the war ended, they brought it back during World War II. The energy crisis of the 1970s cemented daylight saving time as the responsible thing to do.

But not everyone agrees. Sure, the retail, tourism and sporting industries love it, but their workers and anyone with a job in outdoor industries like agriculture aren’t thrilled with “daylight slaving time.” Neither are people in northern latitudes: After Russia decided to stick with daylight saving time year-round in 2011, three years of citizens complaining the sun didn’t rise in winter until nearly 10 a.m. forced the federation to abandon the scheme and return to permanent standard time.

And what of the supposed benefits? A 2017 analysis of 44 studies found minute energy savings – 0.34 percent for electricity – while subtropical regions, including the lower third of the United States, actually consume more electricity because people use air conditioning for a larger part of the day. Meanwhile, people consume other forms of energy like gasoline to run to the mall at 8 p.m. because heck, why not, it’s still light out.

I think the seasonal time change is a crappy thing to do to citizens. Aside from the benefit of a reminder to change the batteries in my smoke detectors – which my smartphone can tell me to do – I can’t think of a single good thing that comes out of playing with time twice a year. The older I get, the longer it takes my body to recover. And it makes people cranky, something you know we need less of if you have a Twitter account.

So you probably think I’ll be voting yes on Proposition 7 next month. Truth is, I haven’t decided. Unfortunately, the initiative makes daylight saving time the standard for California. Summer days will be hot for longer, and the sun won’t rise in winter until after 8 a.m. where I live. Perhaps worst of all, daylight saving time creates an excuse for us to work more hours, and Americans work too many hours and enjoy life too little as it is.

And maddeningly, passage of the initiative only means the beginning of hoop-jumping: the Legislature has to approve by a supermajority, after which Congress must OK the change. The former is probable; the latter, unknown.

The best way to stop the madness of time changes is in Washington, but we all know it’s not going to happen there. The District of Columbia is where the will of the people is routinely ignored, and where sensible ideas go to die.

But that’s a topic for another time.

 

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