Changing time zone can improve our health and makes our lives safer. Yet more often the decision is a political oneby Jessica Furseth / October 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
The sun moves across the sky in a timelapse photo. But the timing of our day is surprisingly political. Photo: Flickr/jimnista Spain has spent the past 77 years in the wrong time zone. Visitors may find the habit of starting work late and eating dinner after dark to be charming, but the reason Spain left Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to alight its clocks with central Europe’s is pretty sinister: General Franco wanted to show solidarity with Hitler. Countries change their time zones all the time, and it’s usually for reasons similar to Spain’s move in 1940: politics. North Korea changed time zones in 2015 to mark its liberation from Japan in WW2. Samoa and Tokelau jumped the date line in 2011 to better align with its biggest trading partners. Hugo Chavez shifted Venezuela back by 30 minutes in 2007. Crimea joined Moscow Time in 2014 after the annexation. After independence from Britain, India adopted a single time zone as a display of unity. Other arguments for changing the clocks have to do with health and wellbeing. Right now, in Massachusetts, a study is underway to look into the merits of joining Atlantic Standard Time, and California has been a battleground over the issue of Daylight Savings Time all year. Last December, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy suggested bringing Spain back to its original time zone—a move that would lead to improved work-life balance as the workday could end earlier. Whenever these proposals are made they are backed by clear research: optimal alignment of the available daylight with people’s waking hours is clearly beneficial to people’s health and wellbeing. But countries don’t often move time zones for these kinds of reason—if they had, Britain would be on Central European time right now, as proposed in the defeated Daylight Savings Bill of 2012. In the summer, the fact the bill failed doesn’t make that much of a difference. But the time of indifference to Britain’s current time zone ends on Sunday. On 29th October Britain will put the clocks back an hour, with the noble idea that it will save daylight. Except that for the majority of Britons it doesn’t save us any light: creating lighter mornings and darker evenings means we just waste a lot of it by sleeping through it in the early mornings, only to face a wall of darkness at 4pm. There are plenty of rational arguments as to why we shouldn’t live like this. An extra daily hour of evening sunlight could save £485m each year as people would use less electricity and heating, researchers at University of Cambridge found. Tourism Alliance estimates lighter winter evenings is worth an £3.5bn annual boost to the tourist industry. The Football Association and other sports organisations back lighter evenings on the grounds that more light will encourage people to be active. The reasons go on—as David Prerau wrote in his book Saving the Daylight, the light “affects everything from terrorism to the attendance at London music halls, voter turnout to street crime, gardening to the profits of radio stations.” Scotland is often cited as a reason why Britain shouldn’t change its clocks, due to the added danger to kids walking to school during darker mornings. But analysis from the Department of Transport actually shows this is not the big problem it appears to be: the added risk of darker mornings would be offset by the diminished danger of lighter evenings. This was the conclusion when Britain experimented with constant summertime in 1968-71: more people were indeed injured during darker mornings and fewer during lighter evenings, but on balance, 2,700 fewer people were killed or seriously injured during the first two years of the experiments. This is why the Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents remains a proponent of moving Britain’s clocks in line with Europe. But if all that wasn’t enough to move Britain onto a more beneficial time zone five years ago, here in the post-Brexit era, it’s merely a dream. One key reason for why we’ll never move our clocks now is that the Daylight Savings Bill proposed we’d adopt what’s known as Single-Double Summertime: GMT plus one hour in the winter, and GMT plus two hours in the summer. But there’s another name for that particular time pattern: Central European Time. This creative renaming of the fact that this constituted a move away from Greenwich Mean Time—the time zone named for the British site of the discovery of longitude itself—shows just how political time is. And now in the post-Brexit era, it’s hard to imagine an argument that could persuade UK politicians to join Europe’s timezone, as they’re desperately moving in the other direction. No matter how beneficial this would be for economics or public health, it looks like we’ll keep sleeping through the precious early morning daylight hours in the years to come.