Monday, March 13, 2023

Natural Daylight Time

 "Time is an illusion." ~ Albert Einstein


As we once again adjust in the United States to "springing ahead", an increasingly common response is "Why are we doing this?". Unlike any number of articles or social media posts arising every time we change the clocks, this one is going to wholeheartedly provide some reasons to contemplate (logically, historically and organically).

It was obvious this morning.  The light was already arriving at a more natural time to wake up.  Imagine if we had stayed on standard time (which is less commonly proposed than its alternative).  Let's reflect on that first.  In a significant swath of the world, as this is relevant outside of the U.S. as well, the sun would continue to rise earlier and earlier and earlier and earlier, in a highly unpleasant way.  By the Summer Solstice in June, the sun would be rising at 4:07 AM in Boston, giving people in many places a less dramatic taste of Alaska's "midnight sun".  

Of more concern than an early sunrise, the sun would set an hour earlier than we are accustomed to.  This would scuttle many summer activities and also be a catalyst for more crime at a time of year when it is more rampant in the heat (and accidents as well).  This is actually the significantly less severe side of what would happen if we pursued the alternative approach of staying on Daylight Saving Time permanently (note there is no 's' after 'Saving', despite the temptation).  The impacts would not be a mere walk in the park.  In fact, many people would no longer be able to enjoy their lingering evening walks, because the earlier nightfall would impact the summer nighttime activities people have yearly enjoyed.

So what about the alternative?  What if we switch over to Daylight Saving Time now and never again decide to "fall back"?  The Senate in the U.S. already hastily approved this idea in 2022, and the House is now considering it, after the previous House session very wisely chose not to. Reports are mixed as to whether it would actually pass, as the House thankfully appears not to be prepared to make a hasty decision.  For those living in a southern state, the idea is much more attractive, as the tourism industry would love those year-round extra hours of evening light. There are various industries that have lobbied for permanent Daylight Saving Time.  Though I will raise some issues not discussed in this write-up, here is a good introduction to the topic overall

Most people do not realize that permanent Daylight Saving Time (on a 2-year trial basis, purportedly to save energy, which it didn't) was attempted before in the United States in 1973-74. It turned out to be a disaster, and the decision was rapidly reversed (before the 2 years ended).  A large majority of people were initially in favor of the idea, as every time we change the clocks, the transition is unpleasant.  But as soon as they experienced the unforeseen consequences, its popularity plummeted. The reasons are logical, but human beings tend to contemplate things more in terms of short-term satisfaction rather than longer-term consequences.  Yes, it is true that changing the clocks carries some observable difficulties (stated in several articles here), but these are short-lived.  Not nearly as frequently stated are the longer term impacts.  NPR provides an interesting perspective on the modern and historical context.  This fascinating article describes what happened in early 1974 when the clocks no longer changed, entitled The US Tried Permanent Daylight Saving Time in the 70's. People Hated It. 

When I was a child in early 1974, I regularly walked to elementary school at that time.  The sun would have risen after 8:15 AM that chilly January.  I have no memory of what happened.  I recall school started at 8:25 AM, so I probably started out on my walk before sunrise.  Thankfully, it was a 20 minute walk or so.  Had this persisted into the following year, when the school boundaries changed and I had much, much farther to walk, it would have been significantly more complicated.  Ironically, it was the Governor of Florida who asked that permanent Daylight Saving Time be repealed due to an early-morning accident involving children (as mentioned here).

The problem with permanent Daylight Saving Time is it has significant detrimental effects on the most vulnerable people in our society.  The same can be said in other ways (particularly crime and accidents on darker summer nights) for permanent Standard Time, but it is true the impacts of permanent Standard Time are arguably less severe.

Permanent Daylight Saving Time would not only impact children.  It would severely impact the elderly and those with disabilities.  Many elderly people avoid as much as possible being out when it is dark, particularly on the roads.  In Seattle, on December 21, 2023, if we didn't change the clocks, the sun would not rise until 8:55 AM.  Contrary to popular misconception, Seattle is not the same as Alaska (and really nowhere close to it).  In wintry climates, where it is icy, ice would linger longer into the morning, impacting the safety for everyone either walking or driving in the morning (or anyone disabled).  The elderly often have medical appointments early in the day, and they tend not to be able to navigate as well late in the day.  People are not at all accustomed to repeatedly rising in what would feel like the middle of the night, and there are actually health and cognitive effects to repeatedly doing so, some studies say (due to impacts on cortisol levels).  

"Natural daylight time" is more of a concept than a recognizable label, the concocted subject of both this post and my podcast a couple of days ago.  I promised to blog about the idea as well, but the podcast, albeit a little more fragmented than usual (as I was jumping around on my computer and got a bit frazzled), pretty much said most of it, and perhaps in some ways more directly.  That's because natural daylight time is about aligning our lives and our schedules with the sun, as much as we can manage it.  That is precisely how it felt to wake up this morning and realize the sun was much more directly aligned with my clock.  I didn't really need the clock today (I did yesterday, as I needed to get up early for a planned activity), but the light's arrival was much more aligned with a far more natural schedule.  

Observe the light in the morning, and you will see.  And yes, the extra light in the evening is very nice as we head into summer.  We need not keep it in the winter, due to what the serious sacrifices would be (most of us do not own or daily visit vacation resorts in Florida).  I for one find myself very thankful for the way we are doing things.  I've been doing this for decades (and changing springing ahead to March and falling back to November was a good compromise, as one of the articles I've listed states - I actually like that). 

We could do even better, organically.

Modern society has created continual ways that we can't control our waking times.  We are ruled by our clocks (generally on our phones these days).  How might we change things if we eased our dependency?  So many things would be very much different (including this week).  Some of us know - because we're doing it (as much as we can).

Nature photo by Susan Larison Danz.