the art & adventures of tracy durnell


August 26, 2008


Secular Tithing

Since I got my new job I decided to adopt one (typically) religious practice that I think is actually a nice idea: tithing. Not to a church, not even to one particular organization. Each month I am donating a percent of my income to a secular charitable organization. I'm starting out with $50 a month, which is 2% of my annual income; the "standard", it seems, is the 10% of your income, so I too will work my way up to $250 a month.

My motivation? Ultimately, I feel it's my duty as a relatively well-off human to help others (including animals) less well-off than I. Also, it's a way to promote lifestyles and causes I support (e.g. local farmers, alternative transportation, separation of church and state). But I must admit a small part is that I want to correct misguided perceptions of atheists as bad people, and to bolster charitable giving by atheists, which actually is significantly lower than other (religious) groups.

Oh come on, right? No one discriminates against atheists anymore. To the contrary. Hemant at (which I enjoy and recommend reading) pointed me to an article written to explain/explore why atheists were not invited to the Democratic National Committee's Interfaith Gathering:
Democrats will nominate a Christian gentleman who respects others. It’s likely they didn’t invite atheists to their faith service because they didn’t want embarrassing guests. Atheists might bring pseudointellectual proselytizers, who are intolerant, self-aggrandizing and rude. Atheists should fund universities and hospitals. They should feed and clothe starving kids. They should act more like Christians and Jews. If they do some of that — if they contribute to a diverse humanity — they might get better party invites.
I know you’ve heard this before… but you replace "atheist" with "Muslim" in that paragraph and lots of people would be out of a job. As it stands, there’s not much reaction from anyone.
And these are the liberals of the country. :P

Should you like to participate, here's a good list of secular/ humanist/ atheist charities for starters. I started with a local food shelter and the Secular Student Alliance; I think August will go to animals. I may start following Hemant's recommendation to join groups, giving them a donation that way. Global Giving Green also looks like a neat way to find environmental projects needing donations.

[Actually, I just want the tax write-off :P]

Labels: , , ,

December 12, 2007


Atheists, Choose Your Battles!

This year I'm celebrating the winter solstice rather than Christmas. We're probably going to do the same things we do for our usual Christmas celebration, but a few days earlier, on the shortest day of the year. I mentioned this to a (fellow atheist) friend, and he said, "Oh, you're one of those atheists." Since I don't believe the religious foundations of the holiday, why shouldn't I celebrate the lengthening of the days instead? I actually care that we'll be getting more sunlight, and am excited to usher in a new season and a new year. I'm not waging a War on Christmas.

American atheists and agnostics number between 20 and 60 million--why do we have no political representation or respect? An Economist article claims we are choosing the wrong fights and giving people fuel to fight back against us by tackling ceremonial deism and public displays of religion in addition to 'more direct' or 'clearer' cases of government-sponsored religion like the 10 commandments being displayed in court rooms. To me, this makes clear that we MUST continue to fight against ceremonial deism etc because people still do not understand the symbolism of ceremonial deism.

Writing "In God We Trust" on our money and pledging "one nation, under God" constitute a governmental sanctioning of religion from a government that should be completely secular. Declaring our united belief and trust in god through civic rites and on government-issued funds is not merely ceremonial. The words are not meaningless because they are so commonly used. Nor is 'ceremonial deism' continued and fought for because it fosters civic responsibility and patriotism, as some claim. Ceremonial deism is as much government-sponsored religion as federally sponsored faith-based organizations and required prayer/'moments of silence' in public schools. Or how about House Resolution #847, passed 372-9 TODAY, whose stated purpose is to "recognize the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith"? Dear Economist--is this one of those 'ceremonial deism' issues I'm not supposed to be upset about? Maybe I should write my representative to thank her for being one of the nine against.

Labels: , , ,

October 15, 2007


Leadership: Al Gore, climate change, America

As promised, today I blog about the environment! (Obliquely.)

In case you missed it, Al Gore and the IPCC (who I mentioned in the last post) won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.

“We would encourage all countries, including the big countries, and challenge them to think again and to say what they can do to conquer global warming,” Dr. Mjoes [lead member of the peace committee] said in Oslo.

The four other members of the peace committee generally refuse to comment on the thinking behind the award, which in recent years has moved toward issues at a degree of remove from armed conflict, like social justice, poverty remediation and environmentalism. But in a telephone interview, Berge Furre, one of the four, said, “I hope this will have an effect on the attitudes of Americans as well as people in other countries.”

Also, Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting article contrasting Al Gore and George Bush's leadership styles.

Never has so much national unity — which could have been used to develop a real energy policy, reverse our coming Social Security deficit, assemble a lasting coalition to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe even get a national health care program — been used to build so little. That is what historians will note most about Mr. Bush’s tenure — the sheer wasted opportunity of it all.

My parents just returned from the East Coast; my mom showed me a few of her pictures, including some WWII propaganda posters asking people to save rubber, fat drippings, and gas (by driving slowly - what would the bumper sticker be, "Everyday Sunday driver for war relief"?). Today, the government asks us for little besides taxes and civic obedience, and Americans have lost the habits of conservation and reuse. Two articles in the NYTimes last week argued that: a new life phase - odyssey - is developing between the stable, structured phases of adolescence and adulthood; and that my generation is willing to pursue our idealistic notions, but too complacently. Twenty-somethings have a latent energy and desire for change, but are lost in conflicting drives to pursue change and life stability and demoralized by the seeming immutability of big-business- and sound-bite-controlled politics. Thomas Friedman appeals to us:

America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms. Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall. Virtual politics is just that — virtual.

So help us help the country. Give us leaders who are ballsy enough to listen to broke college students. Convince us democracy is real and effective. Give us viable options to contribute to society while learning and surviving: AmeriCorps pays $8 an hour, more than minimum wage but tight as a living wage; going door-to-door or manning telephone banks for Greenpeace pays minimally, is a dead-end occupation, and garners little respect for anything but our youthful idealism.

Better yet, maybe someone my age will throw off the lazy mantle of internet activism (says the blogger), and unite my generation, assuaging our political hopelessness or apathy.

Labels: , ,

October 11, 2007


Suing the Government

Could I sue the U.S. government for their failure to act on global warming, saying that their inaction is harming me/people my age economically (and emotionally)? This really is a total harebrained idea, but why not think it through? I came up with it because money is the only thing it seems this administration values and because the federal government is too afraid of biting the hands that feed them: businesses and constituents who dislike and fear change.

The premise is that, based primarily on the International Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report, "both past and future [human-caused] carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the time scales required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere." (Note: if you want a relatively short but scientifically accurate summary of climate change science, read the Summary for Policy Makers [pdf].) Compound that with a 2006 UK report [pdf] and a 2007 U.S. military report that claim the costs of inaction will be greater than the costs of action now and that third-world countries, already struggling and many unstable, will be the hardest hit by climate change.

Climate change will cause:

  • changed precipitation and temperature patterns, which will lead to:
    - changes in growing conditions for many plants and crops (better in some areas, probably worse in others) - economic
    - habitat changes, pressuring native, endemic, specialist, and endangered species, while allowing the range expansion of low-elevation or tropical species including agricultural pests and vectors for disease - emotional and economic
    - exacerbation of health problems, like all the heat spells in Europe and the U.S. over the past few years have caused lots of deaths (particularly for the elderly) - economic and emotional
  • glacial melt, which will lead to:
    - pressure on high elevation species and habitat types - emotional
    - water shortages in glacial fed lakes and rivers, making them poorer quality habitat for fish like salmon that require certain water flow to aerate their eggs etc, and causing water shortages for humans - economic and emotional
  • sea level rise, which will cause flooding in coastal communities--flooding that will disrupt economic activity and create refugees that, according to the military report above, will decrease world stability (movies of sea level rise impact on major U.S. cities, google maps mashup starting on San Francisco showing different sea level rises) - economic and emotional

among other effects. But of course, this is surely all impossible since I doubt you can sue based on presumed/future harm--which would make sense, but doesn't help me (or the planet)!

Labels: , ,

October 4, 2007


Soundscape Preservation

I backpacked into the Yosemite Wilderness a few weeks ago. One day we hiked up to Upper Young Lake and hung out for several hours reading and enjoying the scenery. Aside from the planes that passed directly over the National Park every half hour, the loudest disturbance was the complaining squacks from a nearby Clark's nutcracker who protested our presence. The quiet between each punctuating noise enhances that sound and increases your awareness of the creatures and natural processes around you.

When I interned at Muir Woods, heli-tours flew over the park, creating such loud noise that I and other rangers were forced to stop our talks until the helicopters passed. Silence, argued the head ranger, was an integral part of the redwood forest. Few animals live in redwood forests—-silent slugs, silent deer, silent mountain lions, silent northern spotted owls. Even wind causes little noise there, as redwoods tend to grow in sheltered areas since they are so tall and their roots so shallow.

Yosemite and Muir Woods represent two protected natural areas—-what aspects of these natural areas is the Park Service meant to protect?
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

We emphasize the visual component of these resources, and neglect the aural (and functional, but that's another story) properties of wilderness. Why? Our physical capabilities that make us visually reliant?

Man has impinged upon most other ecosystems and natural areas. To what extent should we condone man's spread and dominance by saying that man is simply an extremely successful species? To what extent does man's success rely on modifying the environment to the detriment of other species, and how does that compare to other invasive species? To what extent should man, as just another competitor for limited resources, respect existing ecosystems? How can we balance our own success with the importance of biodiversity?

National Parks are America's first attempt to preserve patches of ecosystems intact from man's influence. If we believe these places are important, both inherently and as a baseline to see how the world would be without us, we should protect them completely. In this instance, we must ask: is the preservation of natural soundscapes important enough to divert economy-influencing air traffic? If you think soundscapes seem important, read about the One Square Inch Project, which aims to protect one square inch of land in the U.S. from noise pollution.

If you're more visually oriented, perhaps consider participating in Lights Out San Francisco on Oct 20 or your city's equivalent, which you can find through the Dark Sky Association, or in a world-wide Star Count to index light pollution.

Labels: , ,