Let’s Get Rid of Time Zones, Not Just Daylight Savings

This is one of those weeks when, sitting here in Berlin, I feel much closer to my place of birth, New York. By one hour, to be precise. Most of the U.S. switched to daylight savings time last weekend, whereas Germany — the first country to introduce “summertime” about a century ago — will spring forward next Sunday.

As a general rule, nothing that was originally proposed by Benjamin Franklin should be dismissed as self-evidently daft. The crafty founding father surmised that changing the clocks twice a year might nudge people to rise and go to bed earlier in the summers, thus saving candle wax. That probably seemed sensible at the time.

Nonetheless, daylight savings is an idea whose time has passed. The resetting of clocks messes with our body rhythms and creates health problems. For school children in particular, it causes a mild form of jet lag, but without the excitement of travel. For others it just adds confusion. So I’m with the many who want to stop these biannual resets.

But I’d also like to go one step further and propose getting rid of time zones altogether. I’m hardly the first to make this suggestion; the argument has been put forth sporadically for about half a century. That’s about a third of the time we’ve had time zones, incidentally.

To see how arbitrary those squiggly lines are, join me on a jaunt through history. For most of our evolution we followed natural time. We generally rose with the sun, which stirred us with the blue wavelengths of morning, then got drowsy with the redder hues of dusk, before sleeping soundly exactly when we should.

Then technology and globalization threw a spanner into this harmony. In the mid-19th century, each town and hamlet still kept its own local time, based on a sundial. But railroads started carrying folks around faster than their ancestors could have imagined, and telegraphs magically connected them across continents. People suddenly needed standardized schedules to catch a train or get a message.

In 1884, some countries therefore agreed on international time zones. The prime meridian was defined as running through a measuring device in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in London. The rest of the world was divided into strips of 15 degrees longitude in width, neatly adding up to 24 zones, one for each hour of the day.

Once the system was devised, politicians everywhere started messing with it. The French, being French, for years refused to accept anything British as the standard. In the decentralized U.S., time-keeping remained a free-for-all, until Congress attempted to impose order with the Standard Time Act of 1918. That quest is ongoing: countries are still switching zones now and then.

Let’s Get Rid of Time Zones, Not Just Daylight Savings

Elsewhere, countries keep bending the meridians to suit their ideologies. In recent years North Korea shifted its time zone by a half-hour increment — just because it could — before moving it back again to align with South Korea when relations thawed. Idiosyncratic places, like Nepal, diverge by quarter-hour increments. Russia has 11 time zones. China, which should have five, has one.

Politics isn’t the only thing that exposes the system as intrinsically silly. If you ever visit the right spot in Antarctica (where the meridians converge) and stretch out in your sleeping bag, you’ll be in all time zones simultaneously. Will that cause jet lag?

Besides being inane, the convention is also bad for us, because it messes with our biological clocks. People who live on the eastern edge of a time zone especially get their circadian rhythms, and health, thrown out of whack.

The whole notion of time zones rests on a fundamental delusion. It suggests that a number — seven, 12 or 21 — should tell us when to get up, eat lunch or go to bed. We should instead be taking our orders from the interplay of planetary rotation and circadian rhythm.

Hence the idea of transitioning to a simpler but superior system. It would combine one global time with several billion individual — and biological — times.

The single global time is necessary because the railways and telegraphs of the 19th century represented only the beta version of globalization, whereas our Zoom-and-Slack era is the real deal. That’s why pilots, who’d rather not crash in the multinational airspace, already use Coordinated Universal Time. It’s the successor to Greenwich Mean Time, but abbreviated UTC rather than CUT, to appease (whom else?) speakers of French.

We should all use UTC. Initially, this would be weird, even hilarious. New Yorkers would have to get used to having breakfast when the clock seems to say noon, Shanghainese when it shows midnight. But we’d quickly sort it out.

Tell me: At 70 degrees temperature, would you be comfortable, boiling or frozen dead? That rather depends on whether we’ve chosen Fahrenheit, Celsius or Kelvin, wouldn’t you agree? But the temperature hasn’t changed, and we know the one that feels right.

In the same way, after adopting UTC everywhere, we might also reconnect with natural time. We’d start listening to our bodies again, and associate different numbers with dawn, noon, night and so forth.

Better yet, almost all of us (except those along the longitude of London) would have to revisit our conventions — when school should start, when work should end, and so forth. This would force even bureaucracies to become temporarily flexible. School might start later to accommodate the patterns of teenage brains. Work should finish before dark, lest the blue light of our computers wake us and ruin our subsequent sleep.

Making time in one sense absolute — setting the clocks to the same number worldwide — would be efficient in our global economy. Leaving the interpretation of that number up to us could help re-synchronize us with natural light, aiding everything from digestion to sleep. Albert Einstein meant it differently, but in that most important sense, time really is relative.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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