Changing Time/Timing Changes: Daylight Saving & the Politics of Time

By Conor Heaney - posted on 15 August 2022

I started writing this blog post in Glasgow in late June. Perhaps I should have finished the post sooner, but then time got away from me. The time of writing was relevant as it was shortly after the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. While the days are often grey, they have that feeling of extended length and energy that can come with the sense of extra daylight. This is to be contrasted to that feeling, come November and that potentially tiring approach to the winter solstice, when the days suddenly seem to close in and contract.

This distribution of daylight and its patterns across years is one which has natural, social, and technical dimensions. We know, for example, that the Earth’s axial rotation around the Sun explains the solstices and their effects on daylight and differences in sunrises and sunsets depending on geolocation (natural). We also know very well, however, that part of this seasonal variation is explained due to the biannual (legally determined) dance between daylight saving (DST) and standard time (social) (broadly, British Summer Time (BST) and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) respectively in the UK). We know further still, too, that such changes in clock-time are importantly related to our technologies of time-measurement and the objects we use to know time. Today, our technologies of time-measurement are increasingly automatised such that our digital devices tend more and more to function as our primary time-cues (technical).

What I would like to try to do in this blog post is offer an account as to the importance, increasingly recognised, of adopting more proactive approaches to how we structure time in our societies, as a space where natural and social scientists, communities, workers, policy-makers and others have interest and in which all of us are stakeholders. We are all stakeholders insofar as our necessarily limited time is what is the object of the ongoing juridico-political and technical experiments. The distribution of time and how it impacts our relationship to daylight is not a benign issue, but one of political import and, in an interrelated manner, significant for public health (discussed further below).

Despite this, we tend to pay minimal heed to such processes, perhaps not even realising time-changes until, for example, we notice the clock on our car or oven is suddenly out of sync. What is at stake in the perhaps rather innocuous sounding issue of whether we should maintain DST as it currently stands? What are the most likely alternatives, and what opportunities and risks are put into play? Such questions reach out in multiple disciplinary directions, crossing the fields of chronobiology, anthropology, philosophy, politics, law, as well as science and technology studies, to name a few. In my own work, I try to use and conceptualise the idea of rhythm to provide a theoretical framework of analysis for such questions.

The impetus for this blog post followed the curious event when, on 15 March 2022, the US Senate quietly, to the surprise of many, passed the Sunshine Protection Act by unanimous consent (facing no objections), paving the way for the potential permanent DST across the country should it pass the House and become signed into law. At the time of writing, it is still uncertain whether the bill will in fact pass the House and has been described as having “hit a wall” in the context of other issues taking precedence. Put forward by long-time proponent, Marco Rubio (the Republican Senator of Florida), the Senator released a video shortly before the scheduled “spring forward”, i.e. the shift into DST, where the clocks are set forward by an hour, the purpose of which being to “save” time such that while we lose an hour of sleep, we gain “extra” daylight in the evening. Rubio argued that it was time to lock the clock and move into permanent DST.

The issue of DST is also somewhere on the agenda in the European Union. In March 2019, the EU Parliament voted in favour of a draft directive to end DST (as part of a process of repealing the “summertime” Directive 2000/84/EC), or more precisely, to discontinue bi-annual clock changes. The move could see a similar form of locking the clock that Rubio imagines for the US, but where different EU member-states could themselves decide their own standard time and retain that competence. The specifics of what the future of time in the EU might be are thus yet to be determined, and appear to be dragging along, although it is of note that the Irish government had in October 2021 opposed the proposal in large part due to the risk it posed of creating two time-zones of the island of Ireland, as well as the complications that might arise in the creation of a new time-zone jigsaw across Europe.

The issue of DST has, of course, historically had particular salience in Scotland given that its distance from the equator, particularly in northern regions, means that the effects of such policies can be more pronounced. Taking Orkney as an example. On the day of writing, the sunrise in Orkney was at 04.04 BST, and sunset was at 22.26, with over eighteen hours of daylight. In December 2021, the latest sunrise was at 09.06 GMT, with the sunset that day at 15.19, i.e. just over six hours of daylight. So when, in the early 2010s, there was an attempt made to trial a one-hour forward shift (with GMT+1 in the winter and GMT+2 in the summer) – sometimes called “double summer time” – Alex Salmond was quoted to have echoed the famous criticism that this would “plunge Scotland into morning darkness” where December sunrises in Orkney would not be until 10am.

If we take these two examples of the US and the EU – and they are only two – as indicative, then there appears to be something of a legislative and policy momentum to some mechanism of locking the clock and a move away from the daylight-saving framework initially established in a number of different European states during World War I. Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary were the first in Europe to introduce it to conserve coal in 1916, shortly followed by the Summer Time Act 1916 in the UK. It was introduced at the federal level in the US two years later via the Summer Time Act 1918. The history of DST has been somewhat staccato since that point, with (and here very generally speaking) an abandonment of the practice after WWI, reintroduction and then discontinuation around WWII, followed by its re-emergence broadly around the 1970s oil crisis and its subsequent continuation since that point. (In fact, during WWII, the UK followed double summer time.) This is quite a messy history, but it does highlight that our current framework of bi-annual clock variation is a fairly recent and changeable phenomenon. Its use seems to be attached to times of crises, and on this point it is perhaps unsurprising that the idea has already been floated, for example by the Liberal Democrat peer John Lee in April 2022, to move once again to double summer time in order to reduce energy usage, bills, and therefore ease the current cost of living crisis.

Despite all of this, there is another important aspect to consider when thinking about the ramifications of bi-annual clock variations and other such juridico-political experiments with time. This concerns what contemporary research actually indicates about the impacts of bi-annual clock changes, and what kinds of conceptual frameworks we can use to develop our own understanding and approach to the relevant issues.

In 2019, the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms (SRBR) published a position paper highlighting their assessment of the current scientific understanding of the effects of DST and what sort of policy position such evidence supports. In this paper, they highlighted a key distinction between our body clock, which receives time-signals primarily via the sun’s apparent east-west journey throughout the solar day, and our social clock, which synchronises social activity via technologies of time-measurement and laws concerning their appropriate standards and divisions (e.g. time-zones, time-standardisation, etc.). These two are by no means necessarily in harmony. As an examination of a time zone map indicates, social clocks are significantly politically determined. SRBR suggest that our body clocks follow the sun and are attuned relative to it, regardless of social clock (as long as we have some sort of access to sunlight), and as such it should be the former which should be prioritised in policy-making. DST, they suggest, disrupts the relationship between social clocks and body clocks, such that we are continuously shifting our relationship to the sun in ways that can be deleterious to health.

The position paper takes aim in particular at the proposal for permanent DST (which Rubio has potentially paved the way for) due to the fact that this temporal imbalance between body clock and social clock will be particularly marked in the winter, as we noted above. This greater difference between body clocks and sun clocks in winter months is emphasised as particularly salient. Since research appears to corroborate the position that such differences have certain consequences for health more generally (e.g. decreased life expectancy, less sleep, cognitive problems, etc.), any increase in such time differences (as permanent DST would mean in the winter for Orkney residents, for example) risks exacerbating such effects. Given that body clocks are attuned to the distribution of daylight in particular locations, the position paper makes this a normative priority, advocating an abandonment of DST entirely and, once again, locking the clock but instead on standard time given its general closer attunement to the sun, for the “health and safety of citizens.”

I do not intend to come to a conclusive position on such questions within the context of this blog post. I do wish, however, to bring us towards a conclusion by highlighting how an issue such as DST – an issue which itself seems to enter and leave public consciousness in a cyclical fashion – is both politically significant independently, but also with regard to broader questions of how our systems of time-measurement and regulation are normatively guided and informed. As the brief elements of its legal context and history we mentioned above indicate, our social clocks are contingent effects of social (e.g. political, economic, etc.) as well as technical processes. They enable social synchronisation within and between states. But what should be the anchor through which we socially synchronise? Or to put it more analytically, if the question of how we manage and regulate the temporal frameworks governing everyday life is a political and normative question, what should these frameworks be?

An interesting recent example of a network that has emerged which seeks to address such problems is the Barcelona Time Use Initiative for a Healthy Society, organised around those aforementioned broader questions the normative formation of our systems of time regulation. They released what they termed the “Barcelona Directive of Time Policies”, open to signatures, which (amongst other things) commits to working towards a situation where ‘the right to time is acknowledged as a fundamental right of all citizens and is equally distributed.’ In the Appendix to the Directive, seasonal time changes are highlighted as a key area of interest, supporting the end of bi-annual variation, but this is placed within a broader context which includes working time and leisure time, time poverty and its gendered dynamics, urban life, civic participation, as well as the putting of health and circadian rhythms central to how our approach should be informed, amongst other issues. How we answer the question of whether we should abandon seasonal clock changes, and whether we might establish permanent DST or permanent standard time, immediately therefore opens itself onto the broader question of what values should inform our approach to managing time itself via legal and political institutions. Rather than locking the clock for the sake of efficiency, convenience, or in some hoped-for health improvements or lower health risks, such groups place health as a normative priority within a rights-based framework, blending together elements of “bio-political” and “chrono-political” perspectives.

Whether such a rights-based framework (a right to time and its equal distribution, a right to health, etc.) is sufficient for the task is an open question, but it is significant in that it underlines the need to make the politics of time, including but not limited to the question of DST, central to our normative concerns.