The day started early at 5am. The kids haven’t adjusted to the time change this past weekend, so while they were waking up at 6, they now wake up at 5. All the better, I suppose, because I had a breakfast meeting at 7:30. I took the picture on the way into the downtown. It is interesting that in the picture it is hard to tell whether it is morning or night: so often it is dark both when I drive to work and when I return.

Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris, 1784 proposing that we change the clocks and implement policies to maximize daylight. His argument revolves around saving both money and energy: one synonymous with the other and both closely tied to time. Specifically he wrote about reducing candle usage and cutting back on the amount of oil needed to keep the lamps burning into the night. But, implicitly, his argument is also about other forms of energy: about labour and maximizing human productivity.

In the article, with a kind of evangelical zeal—directly related to the protestant work-ethic—Franklin recommends that church bells be used to wake the population. He suggested the policing of people’s sleep patterns by implementing a ration on candles, and by taxing window shutters, to ensure they weren’t being used to keep out the daylight and sleep late. It was about creating new policies and enforcing them.

It is interesting to think about the ways that our relationships to energy, and energy as capital, shape every aspect of the culture, down to the way we sleep.

Sleep is cultural. Think of the “siesta”.  Time is cultural. It dictates when we eat, sleep, work and more. Energy is cultural. It is so closely tied to time: spatio-temporal life. How we organize what and when we do.

This is what I was thinking about today, during the breakfast meeting I attended about energy transition and solar: Power Voltaic (PV) technology as a source of power, on the one hand and designing to maximize for the use of daylight, on the other. In the Mosaic Centre project, the architect was able to save 300K simply by organizing the building around the use of daylight and task lighting, and not installing general lighting — something that is typically a given.

Franklin’s idea, developed in the late 18th century, in another part of the world, with completely differently sunrise and sunset times throughout the year, seems to have little benefit or applicability here in Alberta Canada, where time-change or not, it is dark when I go to work and when I return. That said, the ideas around economy and productivity that drove it are now accepted broadly as the ‘norm.’ And those norms have us playing out the economic fantasies of the continuously producing industrial factory that demand long working hours, reducing sleep and leisure time. And now, we’ve forgotten what life was like or what it meant to sleep and live before industrialization transformed the flows of cultural life to suit a model of continuous production.

In the past, as I understand it, we didn’t sleep like we do now. First, we know for sure that we don’t sleep nearly as much now and it is having negative impacts on our physical and mental health in the short and long terms. However, more than that, we apparently, slept in entirely different cycles–often in two or more stages per day. This is what is called biphasic or polyphasic respectively. People in some cultures went to bed earlier, closer to sunset. They slept for several hours: maybe four or five. They might have gotten up and read or studied or had sex or talked. Maybe they stoked the fire so it wouldn’t completely die out. And after a period of restful wakefulness, they would go back to sleep for another four or five hour cycle.

Franklin’s ideas have been taken up in different countries, almost always in relationship to discussions around energy savings. Germany implemented daylight savings around 1915. America, too, experimented with it earlier on, but it didn’t stick as a policy until Nixon’s American, when the 1970’s energy crisis left America transformed “with odd-even gas rationing, a national speed limit and shortened Nascar races” there was an Emergency Act put into effect to save energy: “Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973.” The name of the policy specifically links time to energy.

We continue to debate the usefulness of this policy, as time marches on, and every year we move our clocks back and forth in the spring. One  online source for the continuation daylight savings time argues that “as fossil fuel supplies diminish and increase in price and their use damages the environment, we need to heed Franklin’s advice still again.

There are, of course, so many ways to organize life.

Another possibility is that instead of working longer more difficult hours in the winter, with productivity ramping up in the winter months, and children returning to school for long days with their early mornings, evenings and weekends jam packed with extracurricular activities, and leisure relegated to a few days or weeks of summers, that instead we could sleep late and cut out early from work — were our workdays truly driven by the late-rising and early-setting winter sun. Energy is finite. The model of continuous growth and perpetual productivity has proven itself obsolete. The fantasy of technology was that it would liberate us from labour. Instead, our behaviours and expectations have shifted to adapt to a model of continuous production and productivity. We are now slave to our technologies. Instead of inventing robots to serve us and render life more leisurely and livable, we have become robots in the systems and cycles of industrialized capitalism.

Cultures organize around the energy systems that power them. What if life and the world were to revolve around the sun, in whole new ways? Energy transition opens up many possibilities.

Change will bring gains and loses. Today, I’m thinking about what we might gain from an energy transition.

When our relationships to everything are remade under new energy systems, perhaps we will even sleep differently in the future. Longer. Deeper. Better.

Good night…

(Image: City at night.)


Go to Day - Go to Day


© 2021 Sheena Wilson, Associate Professor, University of Alberta
Principal Investigator: Feminist Energy Futures; Future Energy Systems’ Energy Humanities: Speculative Energy Futures and iDoc Projects
Co-founder and co-director of Petrocultures Research Group
Editor-in-chief, Imaginations Journal



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