Spring Forward
2:47 pm
Wed March 12, 2014

Hate Daylight Saving Time? Blame the Man From Filene's Basement

If you think about why you fiddle with your clock twice a year, there are probably two things that spring to mind: farmers and energy savings. Neither are the reasons why we have Daylight Saving Time, so I called Michael Downing, the author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, and asked him why these myths persist.

Downing said farmers have consistently lobbied against DST, but there's a more pertinent reason why they got mixed up in this debate: Lincoln Filene, the man behind the Filene's Department stores. "He was part of a commission who put out, I’m not making this up, '13 reasons why daylight saving was good for the farmers,'" Downing said. "It included such things as, 'crops would be more appealing at market if they arrived with dew on them.'"

Credit From the Lit­er­ary Digest, Feb. 1, 1919 p. 24

Retailers love DST, but we’ll get to that later. For now, let's explore a simpler question: why do we have this confusing yearly clock shift?

Downing said the answer extends back to World War I. The Brits were toying with the idea of daylight saving time, and then, "Without warning, WWI has broken out, and the Germans adopt daylight saving before the British do," Downing said. "The next year, the Brits adopt it. The next year, the Americans adopt it, all under the rubric of trying to save energy for the war effort."

After World War I, Congress repeatedly repealed and passed daylight saving time bills. In 1966, the bill become law.
After World War I, Congress repeatedly repealed and passed daylight saving time bills. In 1966, the bill become law.

During the war, Congress told people they could use the extra daylight to do patriotic stuff like tend to their “Victory Gardens.”

The basic idea behind DST was simple enough: if we have more sun, people will turn on their lights later in the evening. But there’s a problem. As Downing explained, you’re just shifting things forward.

If you’re an early bird, DST hits, and then suddenly, it's dark when you get up, so you're turning your lights on. Downing told me people went before Congress and actually testified saying just that. For a time, their testimony, along with the farm lobby, was heard.

Then big business took up the DST cause. Colin McEnroe put it to me best: "Remember in 'Thank You for Smoking' the three lobbyists who called themselves the Merchants of Death? (Alcohol, tobacco, firearms.) The Merchants of Daylight of late have been golf, charcoal, and candy."

In 1966, Congress finally caved, and DST was adopted permanently. 

But does the policy actually save energy? 

The primary rationale for justifying DST is energy. It turns out DST might not impact energy consumption at all. It may even hurt it.

For an answer to that, I turned to Matt Kotchen, an environmental economist at Yale. A few years ago, he teamed up with a utility in Indiana to study DST, and whether modern-day air conditioning use is negating any potential energy savings. He said it is.

"The reason is," Kotchen said, "you are taking an hour in the early morning, when you wouldn’t have to run your air conditioning as strong ... [and] pushing that hour to the end of the day, when there’s more solar radiation. That requires more energy for cooling." 

Senate Sergeant at Arms Charles Higgins turns forward the Ohio Clock for the first Daylight Saving Time, while Senators William Calder (NY), William Saulsbury, Jr. (DE), and Joseph T. Robinson (AR) look on, 1918. U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.
Senate Sergeant at Arms Charles Higgins turns forward the Ohio Clock for the first Daylight Saving Time, while Senators William Calder (NY), William Saulsbury, Jr. (DE), and Joseph T. Robinson (AR) look on, 1918. U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.
Credit Library of Congress

Kotchen said DST does have mental health benefits for some people. It’s just that those other benefits have never really played a role in the debate. The primary rationale for justifying this policy is always energy, and according to Kotchen, it turns out DST might not be impacting energy consumption at all. It may even hurt it.

So, I asked Kotchen what he sees as the future for DST. "Well, I guess it seems to me that it’s hard to imagine getting rid of Daylight Saving Time," he said. "But I wouldn’t be surprised if, over time, we do end up thinking more carefully …as energy becomes more of an issue …about whether or not we have set the starting and ending time correctly."

Kotchen said that while DST policies seem permanent, they're actually quite fluid. The U.S. and Canada extended DST most recently in 2007. Collectively, the two countries employ DST longer than any other country in the world.

Kotchen said, "I could imagine a situation where, as the research continues to build, we think about when is the optimal time to trade off some of these different benefits of Daylight Saving Time against the energy costs."

Credit xkcd