I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
~ Sarah Williams
With the problems our nation is currently facing, many people may not view a critique of daylight savings time as a subject of consequence. Indeed, they may wonder why I would waste time over something as seemingly trivial as DST. But the federal government’s arbitrary reshuffling of our days is a typical example of inappropriate bureaucratic behavior and, in my opinion, quite significant.
I have been an opponent of daylight savings time (I know it should be "saving" rather that "savings" but I’ll use the government’s terminology) for as long as I can remember. For years I have sent grumbling letters to the editors of local newspapers at the onset of DST. When my letters appear, I always hear from many people who agree with me. But a significant number disagree. I am amazed that so many actually support this arbitrary time change.
Supporters of daylight savings time claim that days, hours and minutes are simply arbitrary constructs of man, therefore man is at liberty to change them to accommodate his needs. Although a "day" is in essence, a creation of mankind, its structure is far from arbitrary. Prehistoric man set noon as the moment when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. With noon as a fixed point, morning, afternoon and night could be placed in their relationship to noon. When the sun rose, it signaled the beginning of day. When the sun went down, it signaled the beginning of night. Night is as essential as day to our health and well-being.
The animal kingdom also conducts its activities around this concept of a day, often called the "rhythm of nature." The blooms of many plants open when the sun rises and close when it sets. Of course, there are nocturnal animals and plants but they also adhere to the circadian rhythms. When civilized communities developed, the rhythm of nature continued to determine how days were broken up into hours — usually based on shadows projected from sundials strategically placed to determine the location of the sun. This same rhythm of nature model was used when time was eventually "standardized"; standardized by creating time zones across the country based on the earth’s rotation around the sun.
For millennia this concept of a day worked well. But it was inevitable that man would eventually try to alter the rhythm of nature. Benjamin Franklin may have been the first person to conceive the idea of saving daylight. As a resident of Paris in the 1780s, Franklin focused his keen mind on the amount of candles and oil for lamps Parisians were using after the sun went down. Franklin’s projections on the overall cost of candles and oil consumption by Parisians led to a proposal for an official delay of the onset of darkness. This experiment of saving daylight was tried, without much success, not only in Paris but other parts of Europe. Still over the years, DST has continued to intrigue bureaucrats, especially as governments grew larger and more intrusive.
We are told that 25% of our power usage is for lighting and small appliances used by families in the evening hours. The government maintains that by moving the clock ahead one hour, we can reduce the amount of power we consume by about one percent each day. I don’t know what this estimate is based on but I do not believe it. I have never found anyone who has noticed any reduction, however small, in their monthly power bills during DST. If there is a savings by government agencies or large corporations, it certainly has not been passed along to the public.
Do government bureaucrats think that these "small appliances" are only used after the sun goes down? Do they honestly believe that TVs, stereos, VCRs, DVDs, video games, home computers, ovens, dishwashers, microwaves and all the other appliances are only used after sunset? Do they also believe that sunlight passing through windows completely negates the use of electric lights? Millions of Americans live in apartment complexes with windows on only one side of a four-sided unit. Sunlight from windows on only one wall will hardly provide enough lighting for the average apartment dweller. And I hope these bureaucrats don’t think that an extra hour of sunlight reduces the use of air conditioning.
But if a theory sounds good, politicians do not usually spend a lot of time analyzing the data justifying it. They blithely pass a law like daylight savings time without knowing if it will be beneficial or not. However, that doesn’t prevent them from referring to the law as "progress." Being something of a Luddite, I always cringe when I hear a politician use the word "progress." It usually means something that works well is being replaced by an untested theory. In the case of DST, it is a theory that moves us further away from nature and the rhythm of nature.
To make things worse, politicians rarely amend or repeal a law even though the conditions for its original justification might have changed. To their way of thinking, if daylight savings time seemed like a good idea in 1966 it must still be a good idea in 2005. Of course there are the herd mentality politicians who simply follow along — a recent example can be found in Indiana, one of the places that had wisely resisted DST. In April, the Indiana legislature, by a slim majority, voted to impose DST on the state. The Indiana House Speaker encouraged the vote with this comment: "Now is the day to tell the rest of the world that we are willing to step into the 21st century." I think the people of Indiana would prefer their legislators to base their votes on something more substantial than showing the world that the state was willing to step into the 21st century.
Other arguments for DST — it reduces traffic accidents and promotes commerce — are also questionable. Studies in various countries on the reduction of traffic accidents as a result of DST have produced conflicting conclusions. And I doubt that there is any hard data that indicates that shifting one hour of daylight from morning to evening will significantly increase commerce. But these kinds of dubious claims seem to be good enough for our legislators.
From an aesthetic standpoint, daylight savings time has robbed us of the night; that mysterious and most therapeutic part of the day. Darkness provides solace from busy daylight hours unless one simply replaces the noisy restlessness of the day with frenetic television programs in the evening. But an end to DST would allow us to once again to sit outside in the quiet of the evening, without the television set or the cell phone, and try to recover the lost art of conversation while experiencing the curative powers of sunsets, stars and moonlight.
Especially annoying to me is that DST prevents us from enjoying the ancient human tradition of viewing sunsets. I always remember watching fantastic sunsets as a child. Often the entire family would sit outside talking and reminiscing as we watched the sun sink below the horizon. Even more spectacular is viewing the sunset from the vantage point of a beach. There are amazing, magical-seeming color changes in the sky — blue, gray, orange, red and violet — eventually the sun becomes bright red and slips into the ocean.
I also remember searching for constellations in the night sky. Many in the current generation may find this activity a little boring compared to watching the latest segment of "Desperate Housewives" on television. But, as a young person and even as I grew older, it was exciting to try to locate those clusters of stars as their positions changed with the seasons. And young children enjoy discovering the interconnectedness of constellations like the Big and Little Dipper and Orion. It teaches them patience, doesn’t set their nerves a jangle and isn’t likely to cause Attention Deficit Disorder.
Luckily, the number of people who want daylight savings time ended is growing. There is even an End Daylight Savings Time website that has become a focal point for those who want this intrusive annual time change ended. The site provides information about DST and encourages opponents to let congressmen in their states know their feelings (as I have done). It also provides how-to information as well as a petition that can be signed to urge the return to year-round Standard Time.
The late Canadian journalist and author, Robertson Davies, said this of DST: "I object to being told that I am saving daylight when I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Savings scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise in spite of themselves."
The poll numbers regarding approval of DST are confusing. We are told that the majority like it. But in these same polls, the percentage of those opposing the annual time change is identical to those favoring it.
Having an agrarian predisposition, I believe our society is moving too far away from the rhythm of nature. I also believe that this estrangement from nature contributes to the malaise of our overly-medicated generation. Uninterrupted, year-round Standard Time would not be a panacea for our discontent but I think it might be a first step in the right direction.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer living in Beaufort, S.C.