Fixing the Small Problems

I accept that we can’t solve the big problems in America (and around the world) because there’s just too much divergence of opinion and animosity to the opposite point of view. But it turns out we can’t solve even a lot of smaller problems either – like changing the clocks twice a year.

With big issues like climate change, inequality, Covid-19 and inflation, there are plenty of loud voices pushing for their side’s solutions. On climate change, for example, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and the other major players want to delay action for as long as possible, so they push a narrative of fear: renewable energy isn’t reliable; renewable energy is too expensive; renewable energy can’t provide for all our needs.

And they pay plenty to ensure that their narrative prevents radical action. As a result, meaningful action gets delayed year after year after year.

Or take inflation or the national debt. Powerful interests advocate for their positions. The national debt is going to bury us, or the national debt is a good thing because it means money is in the hands of consumers and not the government.

Pretty much everyone agrees that too much inflation is bad, but most big companies don’t want to endure contracting the money supply, which would slow spending and drop prices. They’d be okay with other companies losing business, but they don’t want to lose any of their own.

How about defense spending? Many Americans think it’s too high, but those in areas where money lifts the local economy believe there should be an exception to any cuts where they live. So the big issues are hard to solve.

But what about the little ones? What about something like changing clocks in spring and fall? Surely there aren’t tons of lobbyists pushing to keep the system the way it is? That’s true, but there are other factors involved, particularly inertia.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says the US should eliminate daylight saving time in favor of year-round standard time. Good sleep is essential for a healthy lifestyle. Yet setting the clocks an hour ahead or back disrupts our sleep cycles. Obviously the problem is worse in the spring when we lose an hour of sleep, but it’s also a problem in the fall when we gain an hour.

Our circadian rhythms are delicate creatures. When we adjust our clocks, we disrupt them. In the spring, the risk of fatal traffic accidents increases by as much as 6% during the transition to daylight saving time. This may be because the mornings get darker and there isn’t enough light to suppress the brain’s release of melatonin (the sleep hormone).

So, yes, we get more light in the evenings, but we lose it in the morning. And a recent study shows that we don’t actually save energy. We expend more energy on heating and cooling than we save in keeping the lights off for longer periods of time.

Further, it’s not just traffic accidents. Heart disease, inability to focus, and greater risk-taking due to the inability to perceive the consequences of our actions all factor in to the equation. Changing what our body wants for social reasons may make us happier in the short term, but the adverse health impacts ought to override those arguments.

The biggest problem seems to be that people are set in their ways. They’ve always observed daylight saving time (except for in HI and AZ and a few territories) and they want to keep doing so. Nature may demand that they observe standard time, but they believe they can defeat those natural impulses. Too bad they’re wrong.

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