Tonight begins another exercise in collective action: Some change their watches in the middle of the night, others already turn the arms of the clock before going to bed. The radio clock on my wall humms like june bug when it suddenly springs to action and make a full turn in the middle of the night.
Daylight Saving Time was originally introduced during World War I. Even today – almost 100 years later – it causes us to change the time on millions of clocks. We may have gotten used to the enterprise, but it really is a gargantuan task: Church towers need to be climbed for the change to take place, air traffic controllers need to crunch all sorts of numbers to make sure planes fly through the right time zones and even sundial clocks require a second row of numbers to accurately show the time during summer.
At the same time, countless appointments will be missed – despite all warnings by the big media companies. Thousands of people will get up at the wrong time while others (who seemingly get the exact same amount sleep each night) are going to complain about missing an hour of sleep for days. When the time changes, the whole country changes with it – not to mention other continents, where the switch to Daylight Saving Time takes place two weeks earlier (as if to make matters yet more complicated).
All things considered, the mere existence of the biannual time change is a curious matter of life. Over the course of the last century, it was frequently abolished only to be reintroduced a few years later. The current system has been in place since the oil crisis of the 70s. Needless to say, its original reasoning has long disappeared: While it was previously about conserving candle wax or heating oil, we now use resources at previously unimaginable dimensions. For that we need no city that never sleeps – look no further than your cellphone, charging on the bedside table. By the way: The alleged benefits of summer time on our energy consumption have never been proven. The only beneficiaries of this global mechanism are retail businesses and outdoor events – which seems hardly worth the trouble, considering the endless crisis we find ourselves in anyway.
In the U.S., there is currently a petition to the White House, demanding the abolition of Daylight Saving Time. Such a step would clearly make sense in a country where some of the (traditionally strong) federal states don’t adhere to the system and stoically remain on winter time all year long. The petition’s initiators require 100.000 signatures by the 4th of April for a mandatory response by the White House – and I doubt that Obama will snip his fingers to get rid of the practice.
The reason for my pessimism is simple: Despite of all the complexity of the existing system, we humans naturally shy away from change. Getting rid of summer time would have unintended side effects that simply make us accept all of the inconveniences mentioned above.
Consider Britain: Between 1986 and 1971, the country experimented with a switch to Central European Time by simply sticking with Daylight Saving Time. The reported happiness of many Scots about the additional daylight wasn’t for long, since the trial period was stopped due to its tragic effects: Many children that had walked to school in the dark had fallen victim to traffic accidents. Despite the statisticians’ best attempts, this depressing reality could not be justified with the increased number of survivors during the evening hours. It is a reality of our news culture that reports about dead children get far more attention than those about survivors during the evening hours. (“Lucky Tommy was not hit by a car tonight!”)
Meanwhile, Spain (which lies even further West than Britain) is in the same time zone as Germany. The reason for this dates back to a presidential order by Franco, who wanted to sync Spanish time with that of his fascist comrades in Germany and Italy. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam Time (GMT + 20 min), was abolished by the nazis during occupation. Decades have passed since Franco or the oil crisis and our clocks still adhere to this logic. Path dependency rules over our daily lives – even if it derives from the greatest villains of the 20th century.
Daylight Savings might never be abolished because we are simply too used to it. But it is a great opportunity to think about all the other things we take for granted. “That is the way it has always been” is not only a terrible excuse but also obscures our creative vision: Maybe a city needs better bike paths rather than parking lots. Maybe we can stop stuffing our rooms full of dusty books and instead share them with one another. And maybe it is time to abolish the rhetoric so prevalent during the crisis – that there are simply no other alternatives – in favor of creative thinking. It certainly doesn’t make sense to apply the logic of Daylight Saving to the rest of life.