Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Spring Forward" Tonight

When I was young, one of the markers of the change of seasons was the strange custom of moving the clock forward one hour on the last Sunday of April and then moving it back again on the last Sunday of September (soon changed to October).  The dates have changed numerous times since then, but the custom continues. Indeed, lengthening the season for Daylight Saving Time and tinkering with its start and end dates became a popular political sport in late 20th century - usually as a substitute for a serious energy conservation policy.

Traditional societies, of course, based their schedules on the varying hours of daylight and dark. Ancient Romans divided the day into 12 hours and the night into 12 hours, but the length of each hour varied according to the actual season. Modern societies, by contrast, employ a system of fixed-length hours. Industrial and post-industrial societies depend less on daylight, and so the hour at which we begin and end work or other scheduled activities is not changed to suit the seasons. Benjamin Franklin famously proposed rising earlier in summer to take advantage of the extra sunlight. In effect, that is what we do now with Daylight Saving Time (DST) - except we alter the clock in order to maintain the satisfying fiction that we are still rising at the same time.

(In 1922, President Warren G. Harding directed DC federal employees to start work an hour earlier during summer, but that was apparently the only time that was ever tried on such a scale.)

DST seems to owe its widespread adoption to World War I, when the various belligerents (starting with Germany and Austria) adopted it, ostensibly to conserve limited wartime coal supplies. World War II made it popular again, and its use has expanded ever since. In the United States, the end-of-April to end-of-October pattern that I grew up with has given way to a number of experiments, culminating in the current arrangement that starts on the 2nd Sunday of March and continues until the 1st Sunday of November. (In the 1990s, the EU standardized its DST from the last Sunday of March to the last Sunday of October.) 

These twice-yearly time changes serve as a season-signaling ritual in a society, which has sadly lost most of its seasonal and other rituals. But is it really worth the disruption of sleep patterns and the perpetual problem of people being off-schedule for a day or so - not to mention people having to go to work and children to school in the dark, just when spring is upon us? Half a century ago, DST was still controversial, and strong arguments were advanced on both sides. Now it seems to have become part of the fabric of our lives. My guess is that we are stuck with it.

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