The Slatest

Why a Standard Time Activist Thinks Losing an Hour Is Actually a Big Deal

Two people look at a clock on a wall.
Gaizka Iroz/Getty Images

Most of the United States entered daylight saving time on Sunday, skipping an hour overnight and gaining some extra early evening sunlight. Once the grumbling over that lost hour of sleep ended Monday morning, some 9-to-5 office workers began to embrace the time change as a harbinger of brighter things to come: longer days, warmer weather, and the end of a particularly dismal winter.

But according to Jay Pea, the founder of a nonprofit advocacy organization called Save Standard Time, those grumblings about lost sleep aren’t petty, and that joy over 6 p.m. sunshine is misplaced. Pea, a software engineer and amateur astronomer, argues that the periodic efforts to embrace a permanent daylight saving time are misguided and ignore the more serious issues at hand. Slate spoke with Pea to understand why he and other standard time advocates think we’re wrong to think of daylight saving time as the antidote to winter blues.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: Why did you get involved in this?

Jay Pea: I was raised in rural Iowa. My great-grandfather was a dairy farmer. I learned to tell time from the sun and the stars and the moon. A lot of people say time is a social construct. That’s not true. There is an actual objective meaning to time. Noon is supposed to be when the sun is halfway across the sky at its highest, most southerly point. But with daylight saving time, we just completely obliterate the connection to nature. Within the software engineering community, we call it biohacking, but it’s circadian health—it’s looking at how you can listen to your circadian rhythm and get optimal rest and optimal performance.

Advertisement

In 2018, we had a ballot initiative here in California. Then in 2019, that ballot initiative was followed by Assembly Bill 7, to move us to permanent DST. I started looking into it, and I saw that there were many bills of this nature in states across the nation. They were treating it primarily as an issue for commerce and transportation and energy.

So I started writing letters, making phone calls, gathering information, and it just really snowballed. The mainstream media has looked at the surface level and focused on the clock change. And it’s true, the clock change is bad. But observing the wrong clock is also bad.

What are your main arguments for standard time as the right clock?

Advertisement

The biggest one is simply that it’s an issue of public health and safety. The design of daylight saving time is to force you out of bed an hour early. And we don’t go to bed any earlier; we find that it needs to be dark for like an hour or so, that you can’t just go to bed as soon as the sun sets. So DST makes it harder to fall asleep at night and then it forces you to wake up earlier in the morning. When we deprive sleep chronically over the long term, our health suffers—our mood, our alertness, our immunity. This carries forward into performance at school. Job productivity goes down. Accidents go up. Illness and disease go up. Longevity goes down.

Advertisement

There’s also the environmental factor. When we’re forcing ourselves to wake up an hour early, we are turning on the heat sooner. When we psychologically perceive daylight after work, we tend to go driving more, we tend to run the air conditioner more. When Indiana moved from permanent standard time to seasonal daylight saving time in 2007, a study found that it increased residential costs by several millions of dollars each year.

Advertisement

Why do you think moving to DST would have these effects?

We’ve tried permanent DST before, and it’s a repeat failure. Most famously, in 1974, Nixon moved the United States to permanent DST in response to the oil crisis, as an attempt to save energy. It didn’t save any energy. We were supposed to do it for two years, and it didn’t even last half the year. People thought they’d like it. But after it was enacted, the support dropped. In the United Kingdom, they tried it in the late ’60s. And they changed it back. Russia tried it in 2011 and then changed it. They changed to permanent standard time in 2014.

Advertisement

What do you say to arguments, like those my colleague Mark Joseph Stern has made, that standard time leads to seasonal depression because of the lack of evening sunlight?

There’s certainly an association [of DST] with summer. The reason we do DST in summer is that the negative side effects are more subdued. There’s a lot more daylight to play with and shift around. And the chronic effects of sleep deprivation are less pervasive. But when we attempt to do it in the wintertime, it makes the sleep deprivation much stronger. If you were to ask people if they would willingly get up in the cold and in the dark, they would say no. But that’s what permanent DST would be forcing them to do. And just because you renamed the numbers, it doesn’t feel any better. It is still dark and cold and miserable.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And we most effectively treat depression and seasonal affective disorder with exposure to morning sunlight. If you are depressed in the winter, that’s natural, because there’s less daylight available. It would be made worse by permanent daylight saving time, because you’d be depriving yourself of even more morning daylight.

So I would say to that: The problem is that we work too long. We work too much. I personally support ideas that will give workers more control over their day. Whenever you feel the best coming in to work, you should. That’s the correct solution. This whole idea of moving clocks around is like trying to change your thermometer to address global warming. It doesn’t change what the real temperature is.

Advertisement

Any state could opt out of DST, as Arizona and Hawaii do, so states don’t need Congress to pass a national law in order to adopt permanent standard time. Are you hopeful that your campaign will gain momentum?

At the federal level, there are currently three bills for permanent DST. Two in the House, one in the Senate. They are all three from Republicans. The one in the Senate is from Marco Rubio. We’re tracking over 50 bills now at the state level. And unfortunately, it’s about 80-20 in favor of DST, but there are more bills for standard time this year than there were last session. We are making progress at slowing the DST bills at the state level and getting more traction on the standard time bills. It’s slow, hard work, but I believe we’re making progress.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Those are all of my questions. Thank you.

I apologize that I’m not feeling my sharpest right now. I’m very tired [after a weekend of activism]. My clock says 9 o’clock Pacific Standard Time. Which means everybody around me is pretending it’s 10 o’clock Pacific Daylight Time. I stay on standard time year-round. I’ve been doing that for 30 years. It makes for a fun little conversation, when someone glances at my wristwatch and sees that it appears to be an hour behind, and then I can introduce the topic.

It seems like it would be hard to be on a different time than everyone else, no?

Well, I can’t recommend it, because it requires arithmetic. But I feel better. To me, it feels better to know what time it really is.

Advertisement