Peter Franklin: Daylight Saving. Time to stop messing with the clocks?

28 Mar

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I was robbed this weekend. The incident took place early on Sunday, as I slept. When I awoke, I knew that something had been pinched — namely, an hour of my life.

This is a dramatic way of saying that the clocks went forward – especially since I should getting those sixty minutes back in the Autumn. However, there is a possibility that the clocks won’t go back this year, because of the energy crisis.

In his Spring Statement, Rishi Sunak didn’t seem interested in our energy bills shooting up. That hasn’t gone down well – for the first time, his ratings are in negative territory.

My guess is that Downing Street’s denizens are beginning to realise that they need to help households cut their energy consumption in ways that don’t involve sitting in the dark. One time-honoured method of doing that is so-called daylight saving.

Instead of the clocks going back in Autumn this year, one option would be to stay on British Summer Time all winter and then, in a year, put the clocks forward another hour. This would take us into British Double Summer Time, which we had during the Second World War. Or we could repeat the British Standard Time experiment of 1968 to 1971 when we stayed an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time all year.

Needless to say, daylight saving doesn’t save any daylight. No matter what we do to our clocks, the sun will be up for as long or as little as the seasons dictate. But, effectively, what we can do is reallocate the hours of daylight from first thing in the morning when a lot of us are still asleep to the evening when almost everyone is awake.

Daylight saving is theoretically an energy saving measure because there’s less need for artificial lighting. In practice, the effect isn’t huge. A 2017 review  shows that it makes no difference to electricity consumption globally. It does reduce usage in higher latitude countries but only by 2% or so.

Furthermore, potential savings are diminishing. Lighting is one of the great frontiers of technological progress. Over the last 200 years the cost has plummeted. Using the amount of illumination produced by a 100 watt filament bulb as a unit, the current cost of an hour’s artificial light was $150 at the end of 18th century, $5 at the 19th’s, and just 5 cents by the millennium . Progress has continued. Over the last decade, we’ve replaced our filament bulbs with super-efficient LED lighting. Moreover, domestic electricity is increasingly generated by wind farms and not fossil fuels.

So given how little difference that extra daylight saving would make to energy consumption, why should the government bother? Simply, to be seen to do something. As long as some measurable effect can be claimed — even a 1% saving — then it could be justified.

I haven’t heard any whispers about this, but governments do love policy ‘levers’ — things that can be enacted just through changing rules. If Downing Street decides that treating the energy crisis as a national emergency is a vote-winner, then British Double Summer Time’s wartime vibe may prove irresistible.

Would that be bad? There are winners and losers to any daylight saving policy. But leaving aside conflicting interests, is there something fundamentally wrong with messing around with time?

The most prominent daylight saving opponent is Peter Hitchens – his polemics are almost as regular as the clock changes themselves.  He has been roundly mocked, especially for claiming that Greenwich Mean Time is “natural, organic, truthful time” and that changing the clocks is to “falsify” time. This allows the clever-clever brigade to point out that GMT is also an invention. If we can invent an arbitrary system for allocating numbers to particular daily points, then why can’t we modify that system whenever convenient?

The answer is that while the choice of the Greenwich meridian may have been a historical accident, there’s nothing arbitrary about measuring time relative to the day’s middle. The sun’s highest point is as natural and organic as it gets. So pretending it’s noon when it isn’t is an act of falsification.

It’s also a exercise in manipulation. There’s nothing to stop us starting our days earlier to make the most of the hours of available daylight; the option is available to every individual and institution. However, the point of changing the clocks is to get everyone to do so unthinkingly in lockstep.

Daylight saving is therefore a means of social engineering — and one of many ways in which clocks have been used in the modern age to reorganise society from the top-down. This is part of an even bigger exercise in manipulation: all the ways in which technology has been used to mechanise our way of life.

That’s not always with bad intentions. If you want a completely organic lifestyle, go live in a cave. However, between the extremes of technocracy and primitivism there’s a middle ground in which freedom depends on our ability to make conscious decisions about how we use technology — and how it uses us. Thus any attempt to change our ways unconsciously should be open to question.

I might not be long before Hitchens has the last laugh. More and more of us get our time from online devices like mobile phones. If that includes you, then ask yourself: when did you last notice that it was running fast or slow? Not in ages, right? That’s because online devices correct themselves and automatically adjust the time when the clocks go forward or back.

It shouldn’t be long before our networks also allow seamless translation between time zones. As long as a device knows where it is globally, then it should be able to take any timestamp on a piece of data and convert it to local time. For instance, a railway timetable would be automatically converted from whatever standard the train company uses, to whatever time that the reader is using. That would mean that timezones could get very local indeed. We could return to the days where every town in the country had its own time.

In the 19th century, technology allowed the standardisation of time across entire nations and regions. But in the 21st century, the process could be thrown into reverse, relocalising our clocks. Our time will be our own again.