Now that it’s back to Standard Daylight Time (for a few weeks now), we’re confronted by the shortness of days. When it was still dark 7:30, I was more ready to get up when my alarm went off than I am now, when 7:30 is already light out. And it turns out I have a lot to say about circadian rhythms and assumptions due to seasonal lighting.
Sometimes it’s special to get up before dawn and watch the world come to life. At the bird observatory at the tip of the island, we’d have to get out there a half-hour before dawn to catch the morning birds, active before the heat of the day. I liked driving in early-morning traffic.
In Denmark, where winter days were 7 hours long (8:30 to 3:30; summer nights seeming even shorter), I reveled in the gloaming. So do the Danes: they consume more candles per person than the rest of the world. It’s called “at hygge” – ah hoogeh: being cozy and comfortable. But typically, you hygge with candles in the evening. The morning: get ready for work.
As the day begins these days, my three squirrels come to the door, hoping to see some life on the inside. I’ve got a routine from 7:30 to 9 – after that, it’s up and out or down and in.
Despite what all the productivity people say, in the morning, my brain is not up for deep or creative thought. As for otherwise being on the ball, yes! Mornings are when I prefer having physical work. However, winter has less of that physical work, so mornings enforce some creative space between me and my computer, and I don’t mind that.
Winter also changes my afternoon habit. During the warm six months out of the year, I take my paperwork and go sit in the sun or shade to do it on the back deck, front step/stoop, or anywhere outside! And then, as now in winter, I take my postprandial dip afternoon nap. Some people erroneously think a nap is a bad thing, and when one is busy I can see how some see it as “lazy,” though it’s actually smart. But in winter, if I do have a nap, I try to do it in a patch of sunlight.
Being sequestered for winter is still productive time, especially for thinking and work between me and paper/the computer, and social efforts. It has been, throughout the world, a time of learning and cultural production.
I live and work by natural light, so much so that it bothers me when people assume that electric light is as good or better. It kinda bugs me, to flip on a light because a room or a corner is dim, when daylight is full and you can seek it if you need it. I also don’t like the design of office and shopping spaces so that ambient light is artificial, and takes one out of time-of-day (using more fluorescent than LED and halogen for work lighting.) I hate not working by the light of day, even if my rhythm is later in the day and evening (by fire and incandescent light) for my most productive time.
It’s also an unnecessary draw on the electrical grid. If that’s what you want to do, then do it yourself by setting up solar and wind power on the building’s roof. North America needs a low-watt, high-output incandescent bulb, like they have in Europe, because incandescents give off a pleasant colour of light, and in winter, it’s not a loss of heat energy (where their wattage is typically wasted).
I propose we make all our buildings passive solar. We should get all employees working at least half their day in natural light, and use incandescent lights in winter for reading and task lights for added warmth. Because not only have our artificial lighting needs crept upwards, our assumption about the proper room temperature during the seasons has, too. If it’s winter: get used to 19º. That’s warm by any other measure. Task lighting, task heating.
Being a bit of a late worker/night owl myself, working late is a necessary accommodation for a lot of people. But we need to drop shift work, except for essential services (police, hospitals, hotel accommodation, limited transport and gas stations, emergency veterinarians, security). The health and social information about the detriments of nightshift work have long been in, and yet we still allow it to go unfettered if the market supports it. Overnights? How about shifts that go from 8 PM to 3 AM, and then 3 AM to 10 AM. The person staying up to 3 has it harder, scientifically, than the one rising at 3. But both get to sleep during a natural part of the night.
There seems to be an agenda implied in the design of public and work spaces, where we set the world alight on the dark side of the planet, leaving lights on in buildings past midnight for no reason; killing billions of migrating birds (we need to alter the tempered window glass for daytime visibility, and turn off the lights at night), and disturbing sleep and peace. It even implicates cancer and increases prescription drug use through anything that contributes to insomnia. Finally, the security assumption of night lighting is belied in that it kills humans’ night vision: they see less for all the illumination.
I reject the assumptions that we should have a 24/7 world. The idea that faster spending makes a better economy, a sense of entitlement about extended shopping hours, constant activity outside one’s front door so that one feels “safer” or a part of something – these are false anxieties.
We have always had 18 hour days. Taverners go to bed late, bakers rise early. Some things can and do happen overnight. But try to imagine everyone having the same day off per week, or a level field in which we have one common social day off per week. It’s the presumption that everything should always be open that breaks down the fairness of a day of rest. It also increases our pressure on resources, on ourselves, and on each other. Imagine the benefits of a society built not for 24 hours, but a standard that takes full advantage of the day, and does not apply day standards to the night. And then imagine a world that goes to sleep at night, and rises with the dawn. It sounds a little more peaceful, and a lot more efficient.
Also published on Medium.