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2007 QLD Govt
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Light without progress

Why daylight saving's benefits do not add up

From the time of the ancient Greeks, western civilization has perceived itself as a seeker of truth, wisdom and knowledge. For centuries, the western mind has used 'light' as a metaphor for progress and reason, while its antithesis is the 'darkness' of conservatism and superstition.

We had the 'Dark Ages' of the early medieval period, which was supposedly full of ignorance and fear, while the 'Enlightenment' of the eighteenth century ushered in a time of intellectual advancement and discovery. When trying to make sense of the world, the individual can either 'see the light' or choose to remain 'in the dark'.

The concept of time is subject to the same rhetorical treatment, and is rarely ever considered without its constant companion, motion. A progressive thinker is 'ahead of one's time', while the narrow-minded thinker is 'behind the times'. You 'can't turn the clock back' nor can you afford not to 'move with the times'. You've got to have 'progress' or you just end up 'going backwards'. Perhaps the biggest fear that lurks in the 'dark' recesses of the 'enlightened' western mind is that of being 'left behind'.

Throughout almost a century of divisive and disruptive daylight saving history, its advocates have successfully aligned daylight with traditional 'enlightenment' symbolism - and forward clock-changing with the western anxiety of staying 'ahead' of the competition. With so much light and progress rhetoric to choose from, the premise of moving the clock 'forward' to bring more 'light' or 'time' to your day is hypnotic to the western mind, regardless of how much actual good it is doing.

Unfortunately, 'progress and light' mythology also allows daylight saving advocates to get away with a multitude of narrow-minded ignorance, fallacies and mindsets. In the odd twilight logic of the daylight saving (and wannabe daylight saving) world, it's not latitude and longitude that matter - only attitude.

Poor old standard time has been lumped with a backward image, while daylight saving is deemed sexy, progressive and competitive. As a young Brisbane man once told me "Even if I didn't want daylight saving, I'd never admit to it".

Yet, while mythological stereotypes abound of parochial daylight saving opponents not wanting to fade the curtains or muddle the cows, a lot of equally weird pro-daylight saving logic goes unchallenged or unremarked. The widespread, but misguided, belief that more daylight at the end of the day provides 'more time' or 'more opportunity' to do things is surely on a par with the supposed belief that it curdles the milk. Yet the 'more daylight equals more time' premise has been almost totally absorbed by mainstream thinking.

'Studies prove'

Convinced of its righteousness, mainstream thinking also puts unswerving faith in a ubiquitous body of 'enlightened', international research that supposedly deems daylight saving's benefits to be irrefutable and universal.

In reality, however, the number of serious international research studies commissioned on daylight saving over the decades could be counted on one hand.

What little we 'learn' from these studies is almost exclusively limited to a narrow geographical range, e.g. a region of the UK, parts of the US. They base their methodology on estimates, gleaned from a combination of mathematical paper calculations, anecdotal interviews with 'experts' and public attitudes.

The most common 'proof' attributed to daylight saving studies is that it universally reduces energy consumption regardless of seasonal daylight patterns, a belief even held by opponents. Yet, what little scientific research actually exists on the subject - mainly in the UK and North America - can only estimate (but not prove) this.

The highest energy saving figure I have been able to find is that of the US Department of Transportation - that is, up to one per cent per day!! The 'up to' and 'per day' are important. This means that, over the US 7-month daylight saving period, the energy saving equals 7-twelfths of up to one per cent - or up to 0.6 per cent per annum. (In the case of Australia, which operates on a 5-month daylight saving period, this equals 5-twelfths of one per cent - or up to 0.4 per cent per annum.) This figure, infinitesimal as it is, has become the unacknowledged gospel of daylight saving's energy-saving rhetoric. (One UK study into 'single/double daylight saving', that is one hour forward in winter, two hours in summer, actually cites with pride the splendiferous figure of 0.09 per cent!)

Yet, how can such an arbitrarily miniscule percentage, estimated within largely temperate-zone nations, be adequately translated into the tropical Queensland climate, with a very limited seasonal daylight variation? Surely there is a multitude of lifestyle and commercial variables that could easily compromise this tiny little percentage figure. No matter where one lives, such a saving could be equally gained by encouraging people to close their fridge doors sooner or watch one less TV program per week.

The 'reduced road toll' theory is another persistent daylight saving myth, one that is based almost entirely on the premise that darkness reduces road visibility. Daylight saving research on the subject of road fatalities tends to base its estimates on this premise, concentrating heavily on the evening hours and virtually ignoring the morning. In reality, however, more people die on the roads at night than during the day because they socialise more, drink more alcohol, suffer more fatigue and drive faster in the presence of fewer cars - factors that can only be improved by changing attitudes, not clocks.

Strangely, I have not been able to locate a single study that draws any comparative scientific analysis between two comparable societies, one daylight saving and one standard time - surely the most logical path for any serious daylight saving study to take.

So too, there is almost a total absence of studies that allow some reference to low latitude environmental conditions. The fact that daylight saving forces many people living below 30 degrees latitude to have their houselights and headlights on until almost 8.00 am in summer - or that it creates a massive increase in late afternoon air-conditioning consumption - seems of no interest whatever to daylight saving research.

How objective is daylight saving research?

Historically, daylight saving studies are almost always initiated within the context of strongly vocal, highly urbanised, commercial lobby campaigns to either introduce the practice or extend it.

More often than not, these lobby groups want to be in sync with someplace that they are not in sync with at the moment. Experts, holding thoroughly urbane, progressive values, then collect their daylight saving data within the confines of usually a metropolitan university or commercially based think-tank. Thus, they unwittingly shackle themselves with an 'urban-progress agenda'. As the western world is addicted to progress for progress sake - and particularly as its urban populations deeply fear the stigma of 'backwardness' - a pro-daylight saving outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.

Australia imported daylight saving from Europe and North America three decades ago - making almost no effort to gauge its practical suitability to such a huge, vastly contrasting, and mostly low-latitude, nation. As in many walks of life, Australia deferred to the belief that 'what works for Europe and North America works equally well for Australia'. (This thinking also gave us rabbit plagues, cane toads and salination). Instead, Australia's early daylight saving campaign drew heavily on dubious international 'research' that was almost totally irrelevant to the nation's environmental conditions.

To this day, Australian state governments still act surprised that communities across the entire northern two-thirds of the continent fiercely reject daylight saving - preferring to explain it away as just the conservatism of the 'deep north'. Three decades later, nothing has changed and the nation is still hopelessly and bitterly divided. What continues is a lame excuse for a debate that treats daylight saving as mainstream wisdom, while reducing all opposition to cows and curtains ridicule.  

Progress or perish

More than any other sector of the community, the urban business world sees itself as the frontrunner of progress and is acutely sensitive to any stigma of backwardness - real or imagined.

The south-east Queensland business lobby argues that the state simply cannot 'progress' without daylight saving - that our standard time status gives us the image of a financial backwater. Real estate and tourism industries are its strongest proponents and their spokespersons are, of course, almost exclusively quoted in media articles on the subject. These articles abound with snobbish quotes that the state's sophisticated south-east has little in common with its conservative rural-regional cousins, and that the city's more progressive values are more in sync with those of southern capitals. So why stay in the 'dark ages'? Why live on such a 'backward' time zone?

Yet thousands of people desert the southern states each year to live in daylight-challenged, 'backward' Queensland. It is predicted that another million people will settle here by 2020. Ironically, as enlightened progress becomes increasingly expensive, stressful and unsustainable, the relaxed 'backwardness' of the tropical, low-latitude lifestyle may well be the way of the future.


The desire to make the most of daylight is human and natural. However, equating daylight saving with enlightened progress, and forward clock changing as staying ahead of the competition, has hopelessly muddled this desire.

At its core, the practice of imposing a twice-yearly clock change on entire populations more likely reveals the very unenlightened need for conformity and regimentation - a kind of globalisation of daylight. If anything, this absolutist practice is, in its own way, quite 'backward'. It has encouraged an over reliance on limited, irrelevant research estimates and impeded the right of individuals, states and nations to optimise their own daylight usage according to lifestyle and environmental conditions.

The strident pressure on Queensland to 'join' the daylight saving world is driven, not so much by progressive necessity, as we are so often told. What drives it is the force of ridicule, the shame of being different, the yearning for what we don't have and the fear of being left behind.

March, 2002