“The Time to Act is Now”

October 2nd, 2015

An address at “SLO Faith Communities Respond to the Pope’s Message,” sponsored by People of Faith for Justice, October 1 2015

About a month ago, I went to the annual potluck picnic of the White Heron Sangha—a Buddhist meditation fellowship I’ve been attending for several years. It took place at a beautiful home and retreat center in Squire Canyon, and during the meal I was asked by a couple of people if I would be willing to substitute for one of the Sangha’s leaders in representing the Buddhist community at tonight’s program. He couldn’t be here because he was heading off to a retreat in India.

Being only a marginal Buddhist myself and a burnt-out former climate activist, I was reluctant to agree, but I found myself saying “yes” as I recalled recently hearing about Pope Francis’ wholehearted willingness to take on the issue.

Having organized large Earth Day events and teach-ins called Focus the Nation on Global Warming at Cal Poly, I turned my back on the cause in 2009 after witnessing the failure of the international Helsinki talks and the growth of Climate Denial, driven by the influence of Fossil Fuel companies. I shifted my attention to family– raising two grandsons—to the community– building the SLO City Farm–and to myself– swimming, meditating and engaging with the Sangha.

But I found that this shift—liberating at first—was leading to a growing discomfort.

So, responding to the pressure of my fellow congregants, I started reading Laudato Si, the Encyclical I’d heard about. And I kept reading over several days…all 200 pages.

It was a disturbing experience—a stark and comprehensive reminder of what I had been trying to forget. It eloquently described how what was foretold years ago in the books I read in the Faculty Sustainability Book Club at Poly has now come to pass: the accelerating decay of nature and the increasingly desperate Darwinian battle between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, progressives and obstructors. The gloomy prospect came closer to home because of the California drought, the fires, and the aching fatigue brought on by our late September heat.

But I also found the document encouraging. Francis was mobilizing vast reserves of spiritual energy and institutional authority behind what seemed like a flagging cause—to save us from ourselves. His approach labeled Integral Ecology, that fused scientific and religious reasoning, material and spiritual principles, political and moral urgings, and public and personal arenas, felt both prudent and absolutely true.

Two years ago I registered for a fourteen-day silent retreat that’s scheduled to begin late this month. To prepare for it, I’ve been waking up at 5:00 a.m and meditating for an hour, occasionally experiencing deep concentration and serenity. But after I started reading the Encyclical, these sessions soured. My mind got distracted, uneasy, impatient for the ending gong. One morning I realized if this kept up, there was no way I was going to leave everything at home behind just to grow more anxious and uncomfortable at the retreat. And then came an understanding of what had happened. I’d heard the spiritual call to action. Whether or not I would go on retreat, I could no longer ignore it.

After I got the boys to school I returned to the Encyclical and came across this passage:

[What] some committed and prayerful Christians…need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them…”

The power of my conversion was amplified by the source of the summons—the Buddhist Sangha, and specifically a person known to me then only as a fellow member of that Sangha—Sharon Rippner, who happens to be the person who organized this forum.

Later that day she sent me the discussion questions I was supposed to prepare. First:reflect on how your faith tradition resonates with the observations and urgings of Pope Francis.”

Not having any answer, I emailed an old friend from the sixties, Taigen Dan Leighton, who’s become a prominent Buddhist monk but has remained a political activist. He alerted me to a proclamation signed by thousands of Buddhist practitioners and by leaders such as the Dalai Lama, the Karmarpa, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and which represents “a global Buddhist statement,” arguably as authoritative as the Pope’s Encyclical. Entitled “The Time to Act is Now, A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change,” it’s to be presented this December to the 21st UN Conference of the Parties, the successor to the Copenhagen, Cancun, Kyoto, and Rio meetings of world governments attempting to find ways to address the crisis together. (http://www.oneearthsangha.org/articles/the-time-to-act-is-now/)

Much like the Pope’s Encyclical, The Declaration begins with a description of the urgency of the present situation and then relates both causes and solutions to traditional core principles of the religion:

There has never been a more important time in history to bring the resources of Buddhism to bear on behalf of all living beings. The four noble truths provide a framework for diagnosing our current situation and formulating appropriate guidelines—because the threats and disasters we face ultimately stem from the human mind, and therefore require profound changes within our minds. If personal suffering stems from craving and ignorance—from the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion—the same applies to the suffering that afflicts us on a collective scale.

However, the declaration shifts from the traditional Buddhist emphasis on individual liberation to the collective, from the mind to the world, from contemplation to action. It urges us “to adopt behaviors that increase everyday ecological awareness and reduce our ‘carbon footprint,’” but more prominently to “make institutional changes, both technological and economic…to ‘de-carbonize’ our energy systems as quickly as feasible by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources,” to “reverse the destruction of forests,” and to “to move together towards an economy that provides a satisfactory standard of living for everyone ….”

The second part of Sharon’s question asks “how your faith community might engage in courageous actions to address the problem of climate change”

The issuance of this Declaration is an example of how the Buddhist faith community has exercised the courage to move from personal issues involving its members as individuals to addressing our collective karma and to taking action to improve it.

According to the Declaration, “If political leaders are unable to recognize the urgency of our global crisis, or unwilling to put the long-term good of humankind above the short-term benefit of fossil-fuel corporations, we may need to challenge them with sustained campaigns of citizen action.”

Campaigns of Citizen Action involve participating in educational and lobbying groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby (https://citizensclimatelobby.org/), Fossil Fuel Divestment campaigns like Gofosselfree.org, and in public demonstrations like last year’s amazing Climate Marches organized by the grassroots alliance 350.org Specifically they require joining an association like “One Earth Sangha,” whose tagline is “a Buddhist response to Climate Change and other threats to our home.” (http://www.oneearthsangha.org)

Groups of people supporting one another within each of our congregations can educate and persuade other members and help build a huge groundswell that’s supported not primarily by money or interest or fear, but by the counterforce of conviction and group solidarity.

Every church, synagogue, mosque and sangha represents an opportunity for transformation here and now.

The message that we need to spread is one of faith that averting climate disaster is still within our ability. We have the technology today to switch from fossil fuels to renewables worldwide; we have the money, if capital devoted to outmoded technologies is invested in renewables with a long-term profitable return. We also have the political capacity to make this happen through the simple and tested means of a carbon tax.

What we have lacked since the problem of climate change first surfaced thirty years ago is the political will, and that depends on every one of us as individuals, and more significantly, as individuals interacting with other individuals in existing communities, in particular in faith communities, just as we are doing on this occasion.

“What teachings from your faith tradition give you hope for our ability to make the necessary changes, given the dire situations which currently confront us.”
Buddhism for me is not really a faith, it’s hardly even a belief system, and I know very little about its vast array of traditions. My engagement is with a habit of practice, a set of moral principles shared with most religions, and a particular community of people.

But my experience of recommitment to climate activism over the past few weeks does involve faith, which I think of as the mind’s willed leap across a gap from one state of resolve to another.

That occurs in an instant that seems timeless—something alive both before and after the chronological event. This notion is supported by the Buddhist metaphysical doctrine of the limitlessness of the present moment.
The leap of faith is associated with what St. Paul called the evidence of things unseen—the voice of conscience, the breaking of one set of causal chains and substitution of another, the shift of perspectives, the inspiration of other people’s examples.

Faith produces sacrifice and is supported by sacrifice, which is the deliberate acceptance of suffering. Taigen Dan Leighton states

Suffering wakes us up, which is why the Buddha began his teaching with the First Noble Truth of Suffering. Now humanity is faced with suffering that will sooner or later shake us out of our complacency and make us come to terms with the consequences of living unsustainably in a world of limited resources.

Pope Francis says “Our goal is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

Buddhist practice also equips us for this acceptance. According to Taigen Dan: “Meditation… helps individuals to develop more calm and patience, a wider capacity to be helpful in the face of distress. Pope Francis says: “We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present … without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.”

Another Buddhist doctrine is the importance of Sangha, or congregation, for the support of faithful practice. As mentioned earlier, building support within the Sangha is an effective way of mobilizing action in the political sphere. But partnering with people of shared convictions also strengthens the faith of those convictions, the faith that the struggle can be won. Membership in the Sangha of millions of people around the world, both religious and non-religious, who share that faith, is open to us all.


Response to Initial Study of Calle Joaquin Hotel Development

September 16th, 2015


The signatories of this letter, consisting of all of the Board Members of the licensed non-profit, Central Coast Grown (http://centralcoastgrown.org) urge the San Luis Obispo Architectural Review Commission not to grant a Mitigated Negative Declaration for the Calle Joaquin Hotel Development at its meeting of October 5, 2015.

This Declaration was recommended by the contract planner hired by the City of San Luis Obispo in an “Initial Study” dated July 31 2015, but we oppose it for the reasons detailed below.

We also request that 1)the project be either rejected or thoroughly scaled back and redesigned and 2)the project be required to submit for public review and comment a full EIR with sufficient time for consideration and response.

Neighbors of the project and members of the public did not receive adequate notice to fully respond, solicit technical expertise, and reach those people who would most be affected or concerned.Central Coast Grown, the primary tenant of the adjoining and nearby property, was never informed of this pending project.  Rather, the City sent a notice to Nico Allegretta, a former sublessee of Central Coast Grown, whose business was dissolved in late 2014.

Notice was also not given to San Luis Ranch, owner of the large property near the project, whose pending development plans will be affected by it. The project was first brought to the attention of both neighbors by a community member who saw the public notice in the classified ads of the Tribune in late August 2015. (See attachment 1: list of parties who received the notice.)

The proposal has serious environmental impacts that are either under-reported or ignored in the Initial Study. This violates the requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act:

“All answers must take account of the whole action involved, including off-site as well as on-site, cumulative as well as project-level, indirect as well as direct, and construction as well as operational impacts.”

The recommended “Negative Declaration: Less Than Significant With Mitigation Incorporated,” only

“applies where the incorporation of mitigation measures has reduced an effect from “Potentially Significant Impact” to a “Less than Significant Impact.” The lead agency must describe the mitigation measures, and briefly explain how they reduce the effect to a less than significant level…”

This requirement has not been met.

The project also does not comply with multiple San Luis Obispo City policies, most notably with the recently adopted LUCE update dealing with this property and adjoining properties, section 8.11.  Calle Joaquin Auto Sales Area:

These four vacant lots are suitable for commercial mixed use and other uses described under the Tourist Commercial designations. Portions of the site may be appropriate for use as auto sales, depending on market demand. Development of this area must address preservation of and transition to the agricultural parcels/uses to the northwest; connectivity to the Dalidio Ranch area; viewshed preservation; and treatment as a gateway to the City visible from Highway 101.

The project property shares a narrow border to the west with City Farm San Luis Obispo, a 20-acre parcel owned by the City of San Luis Obispo and managed by the 501(c)3 non-profit Central Coast Grown. The long northeast property line is separated from City Farm by only 211 feet, occupied by another as yet undeveloped lot. City Farm is a part of the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Open Space Preserve, which also includes approximately 140 acres of adjacent working agricultural land to its northeast, now owned by San Luis Ranch.  Half of this land plus City Farm have been designated by the City’s General Plan to remain in agricultural production and to serve as educational as well as tourist-serving facilities in order to acknowledge and strengthen the City and County’s agricultural heritage and to provide residents and visitors the opportunity to learn about, appreciate and participate in local farming activities.

Aesthetic Impacts (Item 1)

The first significant impacts not mitigated are aesthetic, 1a and 1c in the Initial Study prepared by the City: “Would the project have a substantial adverse effect on a scenic vista?” “Would the project substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings?”

The Study mentions that “U.S. 101 and Los Osos Valley Road are designated in the Conservation and Open Space Element (COE) as having view corridors of “high scenic value” southwest of the site, and “moderate scenic value” northeast of the site (Figure 11: Scenic Roadways and Vistas).”

As highlighted in the preface to the Master Plan for the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Open Space Preserve, ‘“the 1994 update of the General Plan states that it was the City of San Luis Obispo’s intention to preserve significant parts of “this signature working agricultural landscape” at the city’s southern gateway.’(16)
Nevertheless, the Initial Study concludes “Based on the size and location of the proposed structure, a majority of existing views of prominent hillsides would be retained as viewers travel along U.S. 101.”

However this conclusion is not supported either by a visit to the site, driving by it on Highway 101, or even by the Study’s own visual representations of before and after:

northboundafterThis structure would completely block the background views of San Luis Mountain for travellers entering the City before they reached the viewpoint of this picture.  From the point the picture was taken, it would hide Bishop Peak and the adjacent middle distance view of the Eucalyptus grove which has been an iconic feature of this critical City gateway.

More significantly, what is not shown by the picture is that the foreground of the “signature landscape” consists of the rowcrops of vegetables and flowers and of the farmers and volunteers and farm equipment engaged in agricultural activity.  All of this is completely obstructed by what could be described as a four-story “big box” vastly out of scale vertically and horizontally with its agricultural surroundings. Taken together, these effects constitute Class 1 impacts to Aesthetics.

Although Aesthetic Impacts, particularly in this signature gateway context, need to be reconsidered, other impacts “including off-site as well as on-site, cumulative as well as project-level, indirect as well as direct, and construction as well as operational impacts,” as specified by the Initial Study, are just as important in this case, despite not being mentioned there.

Because of its height and monolithic mass, this project would dominate views from anywhere on City Farm, views to the south and southwest that now open to the hills in the distance.


View from northern (most distant) border of City Farm [CCG rendering]


View from middle of City Farm field [CCG rendering]

This massive structure is inconsistent with the agricultural operations to the North, and will undermine City Farm and San Luis Ranch’s outreach and educational efforts.

Impacts on neighbors (not considered)

The EIR we request needs to thoroughly examine the project’s impacts, not only for aesthetics but for its long-range negative consequence for the tourist-serving and commercial facilities already approved by the City in the form of 1) a farmstand and parking area to be constructed on City Farm at the end of the present Calle Joaquin as soon as the present temporary off-ramp from the freeway is relocated and 2) a Pergola serving as a meeting place and educational center now nearing the end of the City’s approval process.
Were this hotel project redesigned to be compatible with the Agricultural Preserve, it could enhance views both of and from it with tourist serving facilities that would benefit from the proximity.
Examples of such compatible projects are readily available, e.g. San Luis Obispo’s Apple Farm:



applefarmimage2The consequences of the project’s incompatibility with its neighborhood will be intensified as plans unfold for the development of San Luis Ranch within the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Preserve.  This development will continue agricultural activities on a large portion of its acreage and will integrate design elements including agriculturally themed housing, commercial structures and tourist facilities in what is planned as as a “farm-to-table community.” Examples of this progressive up-and-coming approach is afforded by the Cannery Development in Davis, California (http://livecannerydavis.com/) and by the twelve more described here: http://www.shareable.net/blog/12-agrihoods-taking-farm-to-table-living-mainstream

In contrast to such visionary projects, the Calle Joaquin Hotel Development is outmoded in style as well as function.  Its cookie cutter design may be suitable for generic freeway exit locations in “anywhere U.S.A.,” but not for the scenic gateway and stunning natural resources of our signature landscape.  Its towering presence will draw the attention of passers-by away from the agriculturally centered businesses and activities at the Calle Joaquin Preserve and will reduce their appeal to those on site.

Guidelines not followed in Initial Study

Specifically the project violates multiple and overlapping City Policies for development in this area. Relevant key terms are highlighted

From the current LUCE update: 8.11.  Calle Joaquin Auto Sales Area:

These four vacant lots are suitable for commercial mixed use and other uses described under the Tourist Commercial designations. Portions of the site may be appropriate for use as auto sales, depending on market demand. Development of this area must address preservation of and transition to the agricultural parcels/uses to the northwest; connectivity to the Dalidio Ranch area; viewshed preservation; and treatment as a gateway to the City visible from Highway 101.

From Agricultural Master Plan for the City of San Luis Obispo’s Calle Joaquin Agricultural Reserve:

“This approximately 180-acre area of prime farm land bounded by Madonna Road, Highway 101, Central Coast Plaza, and Prefumo Creek is in three ownerships. The City intends to preserve at least one-half of this signature working agricultural landscape at the southern gateway to San Luis Obispo as it existed in 1994.” —City of San Luis Obispo General Plan, Land Use Element, Policy 8.8

The proposed project violates multiple “Community Design Guidelines” mandated by the Architectural Review Commission, for example:

Chapter 1 – Introduction and Applicability
San Luis Obispo is a vital community located in a beautiful and unique physical setting. It is also a place where citizens care about the quality of architecture and urban design, and participate in the design review process.
1.1 – Purpose of the Design Guidelines
All development projects should be designed in a manner that responds to the unique characteristics of their individual sites, but also to fit into the wider context of San Luis Obispo.
These guidelines have been prepared because San Luis Obispo has become a city with a physical character and identity that are distinct, attractive, and widely appreciated by residents and visitors. At the same time, changes in the nature of business, marketing, and the California economy have created pressures for types and styles of development that have made many other communities lose their distinctiveness and look and feel like everywhere else, and nowhere in particular.

1.4 – Goals for Design Quality and Character

How the built environment appears in relation to the surrounding landscape, and the quality of the architecture and site design within the city, are key to continuing and advancing the high quality of life.

A. Keep San Luis Obispo architecturally distinctive, don’t let it become “anywhere USA.”
3. The quality of development at city gateways and along key corridors is critical to the city’s overall image for residents and visitors.
4. Design with consideration of the site context in terms of the best nearby examples of massing, scale, and land uses when the site is located in a notable area of the city
C. Site planning. Project site planning should comply with the following guidelines.
1. Consider neighboring development. Each development proposal should demonstrate consideration for the existing conditions on and off the site including the following:
a. The uses on, and site layout of neighboring properties;
c. Existing natural features (i.e., mature trees, landforms, etc);
d. Opportunities to preserve or enhance views of the hills;
e. Privacy and solar access of the site and neighboring properties;
d. Scenic views and natural features around the site, and a site’s location on a scenic route (see the Circulation and Open Space Elements of the General Plan) should be considered early in project design. For instance, the placement of buildings against the backdrop of the hills should not obscure views by being oversized, extremely tall, or use materials or colors to draw attention away from the natural environment.

Agricultural Impacts (Item 2)

Given the proximity of the immediate neighbor, City Farm San Luis Obispo, the Initial Study doesn’t adequately take into account two serious impacts on the agricultural activities presently conducted there.
1. The shadowing study shows shadowing at four times of the year but only at noon.  Shadow impacts on crop growth need to be shown at other times of the day, especially during Winter. The farm uses solar radiation all day to produce food 365 days year.
2. The impact of construction dust on crops grown on the adjacent and proximate lots also needs to be considered.

Land Use Impacts (Item 10)

The proposed project “Conflict[s] with any applicable land use plan, policy, or regulation of an agency with jurisdiction over the project (including, but not limited to the general plan, specific plan, local coastal program, or zoning ordinance) adopted for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect?” as specified in the earlier quotes.

In addition, the project has unacknowledged cumulative impacts resulting from its “leapfrog development” location.  Being placed one lot short of the northeast border with the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Preserve will encourage unsuitable development on both sides. The incompatible size and appearance of the hotel will overshadow any efforts at compatibility on the lot between it and City Farm, and there will be no incentive to achieve any compatibility in the development to the south.  However, if this project, despite all the drawbacks noted here, were placed next to the present car-dealership, a number of the impacts that concern us might be mitigated.


Some of the most serious negative impacts of this project go beyond the parameters in the Initial Study.  The unique future potentials of the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Preserve are long-range and only starting to become evident in the present activities on City Farm SLO, an endeavor in which the City of San Luis Obispo is partnering with the non-profit Central Coast Grown, three independent young organic farming enterprises, the Food Bank, the San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles School Districts and many local citizen supporters and volunteers.  (For more information, please see http://cityfarmslo.org) The vision guiding these developments promises to make the Preserve a showpiece for the City as well as an exemplary operation at the forefront of the urban farm, local food, sustainable agriculture movement.

The citizens and political leaders of San Luis Obispo struggled long and hard to make it possible to realize this vision.  Please don’t let this development block that vision either literally or figuratively.

Respectfully submitted,

Board of Directors of Central Coast Grown

Wendy Brown

Brian Engleton

Hunter Francis

Jerusha Greenwood

Terry Hooker

Steven Marx

John Phillips

Attachment 1: List of parties noticed of the project


Lund Reunion remarks

August 15th, 2015

I procrastinated until early this morning to look closely at the speaking assignment in the program that Tai had given me:

Tell “Why this reunion and the community of Lund is so important to me.” You have three minutes.

She’s a born teacher and the project which she’s taken on—making a film about this community then and now—is an educational endeavor on a grand scale. Using the medium that’s most powerful and most accessible to the widest audience, she’s telling the story of young people desperate about the direction that the society they inherited was going and hopeful about creating alternatives for themselves. This is a largely forgotten story that the whole world can still learn from today. This is our story, and she’s brought us together here this weekend to participate in the project, and by so doing, to re-educate ourselves.

Like a good teacher, Tai designed her assignments to tap into the individual concerns of students. The topic that she’s given me, I realized as I thought about it, resonates with what I’d stated in the invitation we sent out last December:

For the last couple of years a number of present and past residents of Lund have tossed around the idea of organizing a reunion of people whose memories of the place go back to the late 1960’s and 1970’s, along with their descendants and friends.

We thought 2015 would be a good time for a couple of reasons. Sadly, the number of us who can share those memories is shrinking.  Happily, Sandy Dunlop has been encouraging people to submit articles about their recollections for publication in The Lund Barnacle and Tai has been working on a documentary film about that time and place, including in-depth interviews, archival movies and photographs, and present-day footage.

A gathering of people who shared the adventure of coming to the End of the Road 35 to 45 years ago would allow us to pool interesting tales of the past, to catch up on what’s happened since then, and to reflect on the role of that place and time in the stories of our own lives.

As I did my homework this morning, the words of another teacher, Henry David Thoreau, came to mind–words which stirred me into undertaking that adventure in 1970 and which today close the great gap of time between then and now:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”






In the Swim: Musings on Meditation under Water

January 26th, 2015

1. Wendy’s “Water”

On May 24 last year, I went to the Steynberg gallery on Monterey St. to attend a concert by Shadowlands, a new local musical group consisting of Bob and Wendy Liepman and their collaborators Mark Davis and Karolyn Hausted. They were introducing songs they’d written in preparation for recording them on a CD to be released early in 2015. I’d made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter because I admired Wendy’s dedication to feeding the Homeless and because I enjoyed her earlier songs, many of which seemed to me more like religious hymns than folk tunes.

Their first piece was the album’s title track, “Shadowlands,” a dark evocation of the mental condition we usually call depression, but which in earlier times was known as melancholia—a state associated not only with illness but also with deep thought, fertile creativity and spiritual awakening.

Next was a busy, nervous piece which began, “O restless mind you’re working overtime,/when you chase (thoughts) what do you hope to find?”— a rebuke of the annoying monkey mind that meditators try to quiet.

Then came a long anthem whose chorus repeats “Every worldly thing will evaporate”—an adaptation of the perennial poetic refrain, Ubi Sunt, or where have they gone?–and an explicit assertion of the first of Buddha’s four noble truths.

The song which affected me most that night was called “Water.” It was about a connection between swimming and meditation. Read the rest of this entry »