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The Cost of Springing Forward: The Rationale (Or Lack Thereof) Behind Daylight Savings Time

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Welcome to the crankiest week in America, when millions of us are jolted by the time change. For some godforsaken reason, we spring forward one hour as it warms up. Falling back one hour as is done in the autumn isn’t nearly as bad sleep-wise, although the early onset darkness can be pretty miserable for those who enjoy basking in post-workday sunshine. That begs the question: what is the rationale (or lack thereof) behind the observance of Daylight Saving Time (in case you’re wondering, it’s not Daylight Savings Time like you typically hear in common parlance).

As it turns out, Daylight Saving Time (DST) is one of the most contested and quirky public policies in modern existence. Ben Franklin supposedly floated the idea, but it took another hundred years for a Kiwi entomologist (that’s a New Zealander who studies bugs) named George Hudson to pump out a serious proposal that caught the attention of many observers in the English-speaking world. The politics behind DST is a story of haphazard adoption and subsequent widespread repeal, with some serious differences both within countries and across national borders.

The logic behind DST is straightforward–set the clocks forward during the summer so that citizens can enjoy more hours of daylight. The sun rises earlier during the summer, so it only makes sense to shift the time so that we’re not sleeping through precious hours of daylight. The problem with DST is that the shift is never easy, and has serious consequences for citizens who have to live through the short-term fallout of this change (note, I’m currently falling asleep as I write, and it’s only 8:57 pm)

There’s significant debate over the cost of DST. Lost productivity across the planet is pretty steep because people lose a measurable amount of sleep when the time falls back or springs forward. While DST was widely adopted in America during the 1970’s oil crisis, the time change probably doesn’t save energy, and results in a higher rate of heart attacks, car accidents, and workplace incidents.

Additionally, several monumental disasters have been linked to sleep deprivation resulting from DST, including the nuclear meltdown in Cherynobyl, the horrific Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion.

Surprisingly, we don’t do DST because of the farmers–that’s actually a vicious myth since the agricultural lobby detests DST. Conversely, business interests adore DST, because they believe that more daylight generates additional demand and they have consistently lobbied to keep DST. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that DST is consuming more and more of our calendar year. In 2007, the United States expanded DST by more than a month. We used to spring forward in April, and we now do it in March.

Politically, DST will continue to be dicey. Here in the United States, Hawaii, Alaska, most of Arizona, and the majority US Territories don’t observe DST. Currently, there’s a bill in California to put DST on the ballot in order to get rid of it. Globally, countries are going every which way on DST. Just in the past two years several countries including Chile, Egypt, Russia, and Uruguay have repealed DST, while Jordan and Mongolia adopted it.

In the meantime, I’m starting to get pretty tired because I woke up too early. Feel free to write my boss and inform her that DST has impacted my work performance. This probably would have been a longer article if I lived in Puerto Rico or Western Australia, where they eschew DST and the time never changes.

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