Tampering with Time

It's recently (October 2010) been announced here in Britain that the government is considering legislating for permanent "Summer time", with a view to "double Summer time" in the near future. I say - let's not.

All sorts of arguments have been put forward by enthusiasts of the plan, including "more daylight in the evenings", "reducing road accidents", "energy savings and reduced carbon emissions" and even "people sleep through the lighter mornings anyway", so it's probably going to happen.

But of course wild creatures don't wear watches. So the dawn chorus will start at the same real time - determined by the level of daylight due to the Earth's rotation past the nadir - as it always did, but the road traffic will be heavy earlier than it was before the change. The net result will be more background noise against which the wild will have to compete in order to communicate. As a major function of the dawn chorus seems to be the reinforcement of territorial boundaries, the implications will be unpredictable and possibly detrimental.

This isn't just an idle - particularly not a sentimental - concern. Yes, it will make wild soundscape recording more difficult, but that's a minor issue compared with our effect on the wild itself. There's accumulating evidence that our noise affects the lives of wild creatures significantly, and some of these effects seem to be permanent and potentially detrimental. Indeed some studies have indicated the possibility of speciation in bird populations bacause of changes in the song of populations exposed to urban or industrial noise. The urban and rural populations have difficulty pairing up to mate because of the differences in their song - due to the urban birds having learned to shout above the noise.

So while some pressure groups lament the loss of species via extinction due to human activities, others pander to our growing unwillingness to fit into the natural rhythms of the planet we inhabit. We're yet again planning to mess around, maybe drastically, with the lives of other creatures to afford ourselves a small measure of convenience.

I think this is a very bad idea and should be resisted - at least until its influence on the wild has been thoroughly considered and taken into account. But quite apart from any other consideration, it's lying to ourselves anyway - the equivalent of using an elastic ruler to measure the length of a plank. Universal Coordinated Time and its analogous predecessor Greenwich Mean Time are referred to the solar zenith within a small tolerance. So "zero hours", "midnight" and all the other established shorthands we use for time have finite meanings related to the earth's rotation and therefore the natural cycles of light and darkness. There are annual and daily rhythms in association with which we have evolved as a species. Moving the reference point arbitrarily invalidates these relationships.

If - having properly considered the wider implications rather than just our own immediate convenience - we still decide we really need this change, a much better plan than self-deception would be to adjust the time we start and end work with the seasons, instead of tampering with the frame of reference. Strangely enough, that's exactly what humans mostly did before the industrial revolution weakened our perception of connectedness to the rest of the living planet. But it is only a perception. We have not become disconnected - we cannot become disconnected - from it. We can only choose to fulfil or ignore the responsibilities imposed by our intrinsic place in it - and live with the consequences of that choice. Organisms that adapt poorly to their environment ultimately become extinct.