Daylight Saving Time — everybody seems to hate it, but nobody actually knows why we have it. They have ideas, sure — something to do with farmers, maybe energy conservation, or something to do with schools.
The nutshell explanation is that DST first appeared seriously in the United States during World War I, after Great Britain’s embrace of it, when it was signed into law in 1918 as part of an effort to conserve energy and thus help the war effort after a long and bitter political battle that even brought God into the argument. It was repealed, though several large cities decided to keep it in effect. In 1942, Roosevelt instituted it year round for the country until 1945. Until 1966, states and cities were allowed to choose on their own whether or not they would observe DST. States retained the ability to opt out by passing its own law once it became national that year. Hawaii and parts of Arizona currently do not observe DST.
But socially we’ve moved way beyond the technical reasons for the time shift, and I sought out author Michael Downing to talk about that. Downing, a novelist and Tufts University writing professor, wrote the book Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time (Amazon, Powell’s) which chronicles the history of Daylight Saving Time and the battles over it. We spoke about the absurd state of DST and how the bickering about it may just be the permanent normal.
MD: I really was one of the people who grew up with the idea that we did it for the farms. The very first fact I found, of course, was that the farmers were the lobby most vociferously opposed to DST. Within about an hour and a half of just the most fundamental library research, I realized that everything everyone thought they understood about DST, including its proponents and its greatest opposers, was absolutely inverted. The history is so misunderstood and filled with so much confusion that it just got funnier and funnier. Within three months, I was reading the congressional record on the first hearings on DST from 1916, that time period, and I realized it was really the greatest comic novel in American history. People would say anything, attribute every woe in the history of the western world, to this project of turning our clocks forward.
J7: By chronicling this specific debate and the misunderstandings and the fervor based on misunderstandings, you really actually capture an example of what our larger politics always seems to be like – it’s not just about DST, but DST is the funniest, most pure example of it.
MD: It’s great that you say that. That’s exactly what kept me going in the project. I realized that this was a picture of what happens with bipartisan politics, what happens when everyone feels they have to be on one side or the other of an issue. Every issue has somehow a moral and political life, and has to be injected with it. You’ve got it exactly, and I realize that it has persisted now for more than 100 years. Confusion is really interesting because it fuels controversy, but there is no way to resolve a confusion that is based on what is at best, let’s face it, a theoretical proposition, and probably a philosophical proposition, that we can lose or gain an hour. Right? The premise is philosophical, or at least theoretical, and there’s no resolving it.
J7: At root it’s a very technical, clerical, dry topic where you’re just posing the questions ‘Should we do this? Is it helpful?’ Something very dry and kind of mundane got transformed into this emotional, ideological debate.
MD: That’s exactly right, which is so typical of American politics. I do think it has something to do with bipartisanship, this idea that everything has two sides and you have to figure out which side you’re on. And then what it touches off is the element beneath it that has always interested me, is that as you say it’s a dry idea, but what it touches in us is this idea that time really is the currency of our lives, and so it raises a lot of emotion very suddenly precisely because we think ‘I don’t want the government taking an hour away from me.’
Even Congress gets itself in a crazy position. Ed Markey has said this a hundred times, ‘Congress can give us more sunshine,’ and you just think, wow, that just seems like a losing proposition of an idea. I think there’s a limited amount of daylight. That’s our lot in our life on the planet.
J7: Do you keep up with new developments on the issue when it comes around each year?
MD: Inevitably, I have been forced to keep up.
J7: Who is for it at this point? I never hear anyone talk about how great it is.
MD: Who is really for it at this point is the Chamber of Commerce, and they remain its most ardent and most important supporters, and it’s on behalf of these small niche businesses, particularly anything to do with outdoor home repair, gardening, barbecuing, sports and recreation, because it turns out that if you give people more daylight at the end of the day, we really do leave our homes, and so they’ve really profited enormously. And this isn’t some kind of conspiracy theory or an idea that I’ve cooked up, this is explicit in the testimony before Congress. This is all from the industry and in the lobbying that goes on. They are very proud supporters of DST.
There are a couple of other important groups in terms of who keeps pushing it, but in the past 30 years, the most important single group within the industry constituents has been the National Convenience stores lobby, which is interesting. The one apparent reason for that for a while was that people tend to stop on their way home from work at small convenience stores and pick up things if it’s light out, or they’re more apt to than if it’s dark out. That behavior seemed to be it, but it turns out there’s a much simpler reason for it, which cuts right at the heart of the very reason we started this project in the first place. The presumptive reason that we adopted DST early on was for energy saving.
The National Association of Convenience Stores doesn’t just represent convenience stores. It turns out Americans buy 85% of their gasoline from them. Doesn’t it make instant sense? It turns out Americans drive more when we have more daylight. The petroleum industry has known this since 1930, and so the National Association of Convenience Stores now has a day in Washington devoted to DST, they’re so pleased with its effect on the purchases of gasoline. So they’re a really important lobby.
Though it doesn’t get a lot of press in terms of who cares in the long run, it’s a very public idea with them. Again, it’s not some sort of hidden thing, or some sort of cabal. They’re very proud of this idea.
J7: Sure, all they’re really saying is that it is good business.
MD: That’s exactly right.
J7: On the other hand, what is the point of being against it? Who’s really against it anymore?
MD: There’s two parts to that answer. One is a very sad and telling answer about what’s happened in the country if you like agriculture. Of course, the farmers were the most important and organized group against it and they’re the reason singular reason the United States did not have a peace time DST policy until 1966, because their opposition was so potent, and because the farm lobby was so important. By the year 2000, there were more Americans living on golf courses than there were Americans living on farms. The farm lobby has simply lost its clout. Of course, the golf lobby is a tremendous supporter of DST and always has been since it’s the last major sport whose playing surfaces can’t be artificially illuminated. Golf benefits enormously from DST.
One answer to the question is that the farmers have disappeared. The people who remain opposed are a fragmented group now, and they include, traditionally, the PTA, who opposes particularly the extensions of DST into winter months, which creates these dark mornings, so school children ride around on dark streets. The PTA has long been an opponent and remains one. A number of religious groups, particularly, for instance, Orthodox Jews, who rely on sunrise and sunset times for prayer times, are very much opposed to the changing time of sunrise, which often puts them at work before the sun rises and they haven’t said their morning prayers yet.
Now there’s another kind of a very fragmented group of people who you might essentially call Anti Federalists who oppose it simply on the notion of the federal government messing with their clocks. It echoes the old religious opposition that was originally there in the 20s and 30s, there was a tremendous opposition to this idea that congress was moving us off god’s time. Standard time had become god’s time, so there as a religious opposition. That’s morphed into this anti-federalist idea.
J7: Which there’s certainly a bit of these days.
MD: You’ve got that right and it’s really notable that particularly five years, now something on the order of 15 legislatures see bills trying to dispense with DST in one way or another. Some of them want to go on Daylight Saving the whole year. Some of them want to get rid ofDST entirely. But it’s an increasingly populist idea.
J7: I remember in your book it was very telling when you talked about how Congress were faster to move on DST legislation than they were to end World War I.
MD: Isn’t it fantastic? The heatedness of public sentiment is really hard to overestimate. In part that’s because it really is an odd and probably singular piece of federal legislation that requires that people perform a physical action twice a year. It’s unusual for the federal government to tell you what to do with your hands. That’s pretty specific. I think that’s really partly what incites the furor of people, suddenly remembering that today’s the day I have to go around and change every damn clock in my house. You feel like you’re being bossed about.
J7: Smartphones and computers have solved that pain a little bit by doing it automatically on a network, but then it becomes more standard in your life, just part of the accepted backdrop, because you’re not even doing it yourself, it just happens.
MD: That’s right, and that’s where any alteration in the policy or variation in the policy becomes more significant, for instance, the fact that the United States now starts with Canada alone starts daylight Saving so early on the second Sunday of March, our smart phones and our computers all flip ahead, but of course in Europe and across the rest of the northern hemisphere, that doesn’t happen for three weeks. We’re more alert now suddenly — the electronics have made us more alert to the idea of the lack of synchronicity that DST is causing across the map, and that’s incredibly important in terms of not just trade and travel, but also because the 24 hour economy presumes our capacity to predict the time in another place that we might be calling or emailing.
J7: Given all this, is this just something we’re more used to the battle than actually solving it? We’re so used to griping about it and that’s the norm now, why would it ever need to change? Why would we actually want to end DST? It seems like it’s much more complicated to stop it.
MD: You’ve put your finger on something that’s very true of it. Your idea that the controversy has begun its sustaining reality is really interesting. I think that’s probably right and I hadn’t actually put it so succinctly before in my own imagination.
Two things about that. The pattern is that we keep increasing the period of DST. Every 20 years we get another hour of DST in the United States. That’s been true since 1966 and that seems to be an ongoing reality. That’s partly because of the lobbies that Congress is responsive to. But the other oddity that you put your finger on that’s historically been true is that several times either cities or states or even countries like Great Britain have tried to resolve the problem by going on full year daylight Saving. That is just move the clock ahead and be done with it. We don’t have to go through the change. Without fail, what happens is that in March or April, people’s fingers get itchy and they turn their clocks ahead again. In England, they set it up in World War II with what they called Double DST, and the same happened, in fact, in Chicago and many American cities where they tried this idea of full year DST and then went on to double DST and now were two hours ahead of standard time.
It’s true that people don’t want to give it up. I do think even the people who oppose it often feel they are kind of owed the change in spring, particularly if you live in a cold climate where you feel like you deserve a longer summer evening given the winter you’ve just endured, and it’s now become a kind of human inheritance. It’s our right to have that in spring and summers. And of course that depends on turning the clocks ahead. I don’t think anyone in Detroit is going to give up their 10 p.m. summer sunset time.
J7: We’ve become so used to it and it’s strange what a difference it makes, even though it seems slight, and Americans, one thing we really hate is change. On one level this seems like it was the change originally, but now we’re so used to it that to get rid of it is a big change for us.
MD: It’s absolutely true that it’s become our standard time. We’re on it eight months a year. It’s replaced standard time. We just don’t call it by its proper name anymore.
J7: This is terribly complicated, as it turns out.
MD: It’s very confusing, right? It’s very thick. And again I do think it’s because of the fundamental idea is so implausible, the idea of losing an hour, and our confusion of the mechanical with solar time is really profound.