Behind him, up on a roadside sign above, the clock offered the only explanation he needed for the lonesome sight:
In this latest chapter of humanity’s ongoing and continually controversial experimentation with time, Brazil, after nearly a century of begrudgingly changing the clocks every few months, has called off daylight saving time. “Even if it was only an hour, it messed with people’s biological clocks,” President Jair Bolsonaro reasoned when he signed the decision last year.
Now, months later, every day brings another reminder of that decision as summer crests in Latin America’s largest country, and the sky clears at the unconscionable hour of 4:30 a.m., and early morning has the feel of high noon — minus, of course, the beachgoers.
Much of the world is increasingly considering whether it should follow suit. In the United States, the rush is on in statehouses and Congress to do away not with daylight saving time but to nix standard time, if anyone can agree on such a thing. “Making Daylight Saving Time permanent is O.K. with me!” President Trump tweeted last March. And on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Parliament voted last year to do away with all of the clock jiggering.
“Let’s end this once and for all,” urges an online petition in the United States that has collected 250,000 signatures. “End the madness.”
But many Brazilians, now months into the change, are here to say: Be careful what you wish for. Brazilians have never been shy about complaining about their country, whether it’s the crime, the social inequality or the corruption. Now, as days begin earlier than anyone can remember, they’ve added a new one to the list.
“Four in the morning and the sun is rising; I miss my deceased daylight saving time,” one person mourned on Twitter.
“ARE YOU HAPPY, BOLSONARO?” another asked.
“I never knew I liked daylight saving time until it was gone,” added a third.
In fact, a lot of people don’t know much about daylight saving time. There’s confusion over why it was established, how it works, even what to call it. Many contend, for reasons unclear, that it has something to do with farmers, when —
“It has nothing to do with farmers,” said David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight,” the authoritative account.
“I hear that all of the time, and it’s completely wrong,” he said. “It was the farmers who, historically, have always been against it.”
So if it’s not the farmers’ fault, whose is it?
According to Prerau, there are two major reasons the practice got started. The first is happiness. Clocks were set forward in the spring because people enjoy having more daylight at the end of the day rather than at the beginning, when it’s wasted on a dormant populace. They’re set back again in the fall to give children enough daylight to get to school.
“You want to have daylight at the most usable time,” Prerau said. “That’s the most basic underlying thing. We can’t manufacture more daylight any day of the year, but we can move it around.”
The other reason is economics. The practice caught on a century ago, when lamps and lights were often the biggest contributors to electrical bills. The idea was to align natural light with the business day to reduce the need for lights.
But the economic explanation is quickly losing currency.
“The argument is not there,” said Matthew J. Kotchen, an economist at Yale who has studied the topic. What drives electrical bills now isn’t lighting — whose efficiency has increased greatly — but climate control. If anything, he said, heating and air conditioning get more pricey during daylight saving time. “What we found in the state of Indiana is that (daylight saving time) does significantly increase people’s energy consumption, by 2 to 3 percent,” he said.
It’s difficult to imagine two places more dissimilar than Indiana and Brazil. But the same logic applies.
“When they created daylight saving time, the habits of people were different,” said Frederico Araújo, president of the Brazilian Association of Energy Conservation Service Companies. “We didn’t have air conditioning or refrigerators.”
His organization published data in 2018 that showed how much energy the practice was saving in Sao Paulo, the country’s most populous state. The results were underwhelming: In four months, a state with 234 cities and 44 million people saved only enough energy to power one city with 1 million people for eight days. “It’s necessary to rethink daylight saving time,” the organization concluded.
Bolsonaro did. “It doesn’t save any money and messes with our biological clock,” he said last April. “We only have something to gain by keeping the hour where it is.”
Marina Pinheiro, a young professional in Rio de Janeiro, wasn’t too sure. “During the summer, I’ve always still had an opportunity to enjoy the sun by going to the beach at the end of the day.” No more.
The same went for Julia Reis, who in the beginning ignored the government and continued living daylight saving time, despite all obstacles. “The best thing I’ve done,” she called it in a piece for Vice’s Portuguese-language website. She said she knew an hour didn’t seem like much, but for her, it made all the difference. She lives in a poor neighborhood on the fringes of Sao Paulo where it’s dangerous to travel at night.
“I can’t arrive during the night because of all of the robberies,” she said. “When it was bright out, I could stay out longer.”
Some days it feels as if Brazilians — endlessly polarized, diverse and opinionated — disagree on just about everything. Now they can’t agree on the time, either.
Marcelo Carvalho sat on a bench near the water, smiling into the sunlight, enjoying a rare moment of peace on what would otherwise be a chaotic beach.
“This is the normal hour,” the 50-year-old retail worker concluded. The moment wouldn’t have been possible without the change. “It’s better this way.”
Then he lifted himself off the bench and, as the sun reached higher into the sky, went to work his early-morning shift.