Times Are A-Changin’: Why It’s Time To End Daylight Savings And Embrace Universal Time

Just a little over a week ago, the United States federal government and many other governments around the world issued the annual decree we all dread.

Party like it’s 1895. Set your clocks forward an hour.

You see, in 1895, George Vernon Hudson proposed the modern idea we now call “Daylight Savings Time” as a means to ensure he would have sunlit leisure time after work, even during the parts of the year when the sun would set earlier. Most people attribute the idea to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a satire piece in 1784 proposing something very similar – but it was written purely in jest. It was not until Hudson made his proposal in New Zealand that it received any credibility. Furthermore, it wasn’t even widely adopted until World War I, when many of the European countries involved in the conflict used it to conserve coal supplies.

As for the United States, we’ve had a love/hate relationship with DST. It was first adopted in 1918 during World War I; however, Congress repealed it shortly after the war’s end due to its extreme unpopularity. In 1942, President Roosevelt made it a priority to reinstate DST to conserve resources during World War II. While several states east of the Mississippi River maintained DST after the war, no federal law mandating DST existed after 1945.

The chaos created by this lack of uniformity in timekeeping forced Congress to take action in the 1960s, passing the Uniform Time Act of 1966, requiring all cities within “time zones” to have the same time on the clocks within each zone. The act was amended several times during the ’60s and ’70s, especially during the energy crisis under President Nixon. Ultimately, Congress settled on creating the hour jump we now experience during the summer months. Since the decision, only relatively minor tweaks have been made. (The biggest tweak, which took effect in 2007, lengthened DST by four to five weeks to increase energy savings.)

Interestingly, Congress has maintained a provision allowing states to exempt themselves from DST. Ever wonder why Arizona and Hawaii don’t use DST? They were smart enough to exempt themselves.

So why do I say they were “smart enough” to make such a decision? I believe Daylight Savings Time, and time zones themselves, need to become relics of the industrial past in our ever-globalizing world.

I think this case can be made from both a theoretical perspective and a practical perspective, despite any initial misgivings you might have.

From a strictly theoretical perspective, the concept of time is becoming both increasingly relative and increasingly precise for people around the world.

Time is becoming increasingly relative in the sense that more people are traversing time zones now than ever before. Much as the invention of transcontinental travel via the railroad forced cities to standardize their times with neighboring cities, global travel via airplane might force even further standardization. Countries spanning continents may be forced in the next decade to adopt a nationwide standard time. China already enforces this policy, and many others may have to follow suit.

Additionally, since the electric light has become commonplace in the American home, the significance of planning one’s personal schedule around the rising and setting of the sun is nowhere near what it was just two generations ago. This only reinforces the idea that daylight no longer dictates the schedules of the vast majority of Americans, at least to the extent that we can begin our daily routines before sunrise and end them well after sunset. In fact, one study in 2006 found that we are more likely to base our daily schedule around television programming than daylight – and TV in the contiguous U.S. only has two time zones, not four.

However, while time is certainly becoming more relative, it is also becoming increasingly precise. People are demanding more accurate and effective means of measuring time. Many industries, for instance, have made the switch to UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time. (The acronym is a compromise between the French and English acronyms for the word, TUC and CUT.) The measurement is an offshoot of GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, the first attempt to create a standard global system of time. Both UTC and GMT use the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as the site of its definition of time, as this site is also used to define the Prime Meridian.

That being said, UTC is by no means perfect, as it presently does not account for leap seconds caused by the slowing rotation of the earth; but it is a step in the right direction. We need a system of time that will synchronize clocks around the world, even if it requires some mental adjusting. This can only serve to make multilateral international efforts easier and global business and travel more convenient.

I understand the system I’m proposing would mean we’re a generation away from not understanding what a “9 to 5″ work day is, since 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. would no longer be legitimate measures of time for the work day in our part of the world (at least under UTC, anyway). But I’m not asking anyone to reinvent the wheel, just to think outside of the box.

That’s why this is a practical idea, and one that could be a solution to problems we are not yet facing on a broader scale, but will someday have to address.

One the biggest practical concerns is whether businesses would be able to adapt to the changing time of the sunrise throughout the year. However, many employers do not require their employees to arrive until a time that is after sunrise regardless of the time of the year, though those employees may work until after sunset – not anything new in the post-industrial world. Only the agricultural sector might find itself having to adjust the time employees arrive at work throughout the year. But in a world where agriculture makes up less than 1 percent of America’s economy, this is an acceptable sacrifice to make. We should not allow a small fraction of the economy to prevent us from adopting a system of time that could increase economic productivity on a broader scale.

In terms of public and private educational institutions, they already determine when their school days start and end, and I believe maintaining local autonomy on the issue is crucial. Allowing local boards of education to continue setting school start and end times would make the transition almost seamless. Additionally, this provides school districts with the opportunity to start classes later in the day, relatively speaking, and allow students more time to sleep.

In a world where the sun is shining in Calais, Maine at 7 a.m. while it is still dark in Columbus, Ga. at 7 a.m., a little local autonomy to offset the difference might not hurt.

So maybe it will be a little bit odd for people to have to adjust to being awake from what UTC defines as 10:00 (6 a.m.) to 23:00 (9 p.m.) on the East Coast or 13:00 to 2:00 on the West Coast, but it would work incredibly efficiently. We’re already mentally ignoring the sun, how much harder would it be to wrap our minds around this?

It’s not a difficult concept, and the economic benefits of increasing time uniformity are being seen around the world. If we choose not to adopt a universal time now, then it won’t be the end of the world. But when we start mining asteroids in 20 years, or when we build a functional base on Mars in 30 years, we will have no choice but to adopt a global time. Unless we completely reject the concept of space exploration and interplanetary development in the coming decades, universal time will eventually become a reality.

So why not start adjusting to it now? We’ve got nothing but time.