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David Bouchier: Darkness Visible

Gabe Raggio via Pixabay

Yesterday a whole hour of sleep was snatched away from us by the arbitrary imposition of so-called "daylight saving time." Not only do we suffer this annual act of daylight robbery, but we waste half of Sunday trying and failing to reset our impossibly complicated digital timepieces.

Daylight saving time is unsettling because it is so pointless. We can't save daylight, any more than we can save time. We might as well claim to make people live longer by starting newborn babies at 10 years of age. Benjamin Franklin liked to say that time is money, and he wrote a little satire in 1794 about the enormous amount of expensive candle wax that could be saved by changing the clocks. Long after candles had gone out of fashion his joke was revived and written into law during the First World War, to save fuel by reducing the use of artificial light. Franklin himself pointed out that simply going to bed at dusk and getting up at dawn would have exactly the same result.

Daylight saving time is a source of enormous international confusion. In some obstinate foreign countries, as well as in parts of Arizona, it is ignored entirely. Most of Western Europe changes its clocks two weeks later than we do, some change by two hours, and some not at all. You can imagine the trouble this causes for the people who write airline timetables, and for the unlucky travelers who try to make sense of them. Does anybody know what time it really is?

We are already a nation of insomniacs, consuming five billion dollars’ worth of prescription sleeping drugs each year. There is a gigantic sleep industry that, as well as drugs, sells mattresses, pillows, masks, ear plugs and sleep-inducing sound generators, all with the promise of perfect sleep. An ordinary domestic cat can sleep quite naturally, for up to 18 hours a day, with no expensive equipment at all. What’s the matter with us? It must be our overactive brains worrying about everything (and, admittedly, we have a few things to worry about), and staying up half the night with glaring artificial lights and television. On average, we sleep two hours less each night than our grandparents did. The vast majority of Americans get only six or seven hours of sleep, instead of the recommended eight or nine, which adds up to a whole night lost every week. Lack of sleep is blamed for everything from dismal job performance to rotten sex lives, and this neurotic fiddling with the clocks doesn’t help. A government report estimated that tired drivers cause a third of all fatal accidents, or 10,000 deaths a year. Researchers in Canada have proved what we all knew already: lack of sleep makes us more stupid. Every lost hour wipes one point off our IQ score. If things go on like this we won't even have the intelligence to go to bed before the Late Show.

Evolution itself is being thrown into reverse by this vast, cumulative sleep debt. Daylight saving time itself is a very good example of how insidiously our intelligence is beginning to fail. Any well-rested person can see that we don't need to save daylight. There's far too much daylight as it is. Longer nights would allow us all to enjoy a little more sleep without guilt, and wake up smarter. What we need is darkness saving time.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.