In the UK, in the early hours of Sunday 30 October, 2022, the clocks will go back by an hour. Most of the country will be asleep as they experience the repetition of the 60 minutes between 1am and 2am. This move heralds darker nights and, for many, brings Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that can linger until the clocks go forward again in late March, 2023.

So why does the UK, and many other countries, go through this process? Who really wants darker nights, other than criminals, owls and, presumably, torch salesmen and women? In 2022, given the enveloping energy crisis, wouldn’t it make more sense to let the evenings stay lighter and keep the darkness in the early morning? Is there really an economic reason behind this time-tampering?

Why did we start moving the clocks backwards and forwards?

The idea of adjusting work days around the sun’s hours had been around for centuries, but it was in the 1800s that the idea of formalising Daylight Saving Time (DST) started to take off, primarily as a way of saving on candle usage. An early exponent of such a move was US founding father Benjamin Franklin, but it was New Zealand entomologist George Hudson who first proposed modern DST, involving a two-hour shift in the country, in 1895.

His ideas were echoed in the UK by builder and keen golfer William Willett, who is reported to have objected to cutting his games short at dusk. Hudson wanted to make the UK’s evenings lighter, switching from Greenwich Mean Time to what the country now knows as British Summer Time (BST). This proposal was taken up by prominent members of the Liberal Party, but Willett’s campaign would not be successful until 1916, after being rejected by Parliament on numerous occasions. By this point, however, cities in Canada, and then various locations in Germany and Austria-Hungary, had started to use DST as a way to conserve coal during the First World War. It was then quickly adopted by the US, the UK and many other major economies involved in the war, mostly as a means to preserve resources. After the war ended in 1919, some countries abandoned DST, but it was retained in many others, including the UK and the US (although it varied on a state-by-state basis) but not without controversy.

Those favouring more light in the mornings (and therefore opposed to DST, which meant daylight lasting longer into the evening) were generally led by farming groups, who had a longer wait for morning dew to evaporate to harvest hay, while casual staff would work fewer hours as they would use the clock for their mealtimes, and cows would not be ready to be milked at the earlier time to meet shipping schedules. This disruption was deemed as unnecessary in the early 20th century by farmers across the world, but they were not alone in their opposition. Religious groups also widely opposed its introduction (for reasons that ranged from it being a deviation from ‘God’s time’ to it making prayer and fasting more difficult), and it was also a fractious political issue, with former US President Warren G Harding being a particularly vociferous critic.

Is DST still needed in the 21st century?

Many countries around the world now implement some form of DST, even if it is complicated in larger nations that span several time zones. DST does seem to be a developed world phenomenon, however, as well as something that seems more common the further a country is away from the Equator. Indeed, it is almost entirely restricted to countries that stretch north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn – which is perhaps unsurprising as these countries have shorter daylight hours in their winter months.

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No African country uses it in 2022 (although it was trialled by Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt and South Africa at various points), and the same is true of Asia. In the Middle East DST is used by Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Syria. In South America it is only used in Paraguay and Chile. It had been used in some other countries in the region, such as Argentina and Brazil, but has since been abandoned. In North America and the Caribbean it is used in the US, Canada and Mexico, while its adoption is varied throughout Central America and the Caribbean islands. Parts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji use DST, but it is not practised in the rest of the Oceania region. That just leaves Europe, where every country other than Belarus, Iceland, Russia and Turkey has DST in operation.

Even in the countries that do practice DST, however, it seems to be under a semi-permanent threat. The EU seems to be in a constant state of uncertainty over the practice. Proposals to abolish summer time observation in 2015 and 2016 came to nothing as member states could not agree on the issue. Finland, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden were all in favour of abolishing DST, but the European Commission noted that a cost would be incurred if there was no harmonisation on the matter among member states. Furthermore, a 2018 web survey of 4.6 million European citizens found a large majority in favour of not switching clock times annually.

On 15 March 2022, the US Senate passed legislation to make DST permanent starting from 2023 after a campaign by groups advocating lighter afternoons and evenings, who claimed such a move would boost the country’s economy. Some 30 states have already introduced legislation to end DST within their own boundaries. A national law still needs to pass through the House of Representatives and then meet the approval of President Joe Biden.

The situation in the UK may be change should Scotland ever achieve independence. Some of the pressure to switch to Greenwich Mean Time in the winter months is to avoid darker mornings north of the border, but if Scotland were no longer part of the UK, there would be less reason to alter the clocks for the winter. Beyond a few murmurs on social media, however, there does not seem to be any concerted effort in the UK to move away from the present situation of changing the clocks every March and October.

The health, safety and economic arguments for and against DST

In 2018, a group of experts published a study claiming that changing the clocks was bad for a population’s health. “Daylight Saving Time increases the time difference between the social clock and the body clock… [which] challenges our health,” the report claimed. These ‘challenges’ include decreased life expectancy, shortened sleep, and mental and cognitive problems. On the latter, SAD is a mental health illness that tends to be most prevalent in the winter months when the evenings are darker. Studies have shown that affects about 3% of the population in the Netherlands and up to 25% of the population of Alaska. A move to lighter evenings would bring some respite to sufferers of this condition.

In October 2020, the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents called for BST (which means lighter evenings) to be adopted all year round to make roads safer for children, the elderly, cyclists and motorcyclists. It pointed to the years between 1968 and 1971 in the UK, when summer hours were kept all year. This led to an “11% reduction in casualties during the hours affected by the time change in England and Wales and a 17% reduction in Scotland”.

The economic argument for or against DST is harder to prove, however. Those against changing the clocks and instead retaining lighter evenings all year round claim that people are more likely to shop for longer, thus boosting local economies, while less energy will be used if daylight extends further into the day. However, in a study, PNC Bank economist Kurt Rankin said: “It would be hard to attribute any gains or losses economically to Daylight Saving Time because there are so many other potential variables.” Indeed, would the economic benefits of people being able to shop later be offset by the damage that darker mornings would do to the farming sector?

The direction of travel seems to be one where populations all over the world are tending to express a preference for lighter evenings all year round. There appears to be strong arguments behind this when it comes to the health and safety benefits that ditching DST would bring, even if the economic argument is more complicated. If the US ends DST in 2023, the clamour to do the same in other holdouts, such as the EU and the UK, will grow ever louder.