Greener Than Thou

After Grezzo, our attitude toward greening is best encapsulated by Central Square’s Clear Conscience Café, a place that offers fair-trade coffee and a sustainable approach to business, while at the same time indulging the temptation to loudly announce its purity to everyone within a one-mile radius. Inside, over the counter, a wall bears a boldly painted quote from Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world." The proximity of the quote to the counter provides maximum bang for the buck. Customers get to buy organic, shade-grown, fair-trade java that comes in recycled cups and then, their transaction complete, can turn to this quote and solemnly genuflect to their own moral rectitude. "My conscience is clear," the purchase announces. "I am the change I want to see in the world." Like the obnoxious recycled bags available at Newbury Comics that read "I’m Saving the Planet—What Are You Doing?," taking part in such supposedly enlightened commerce may seem like a progressive gesture, but in reality, it’s chiefly defensive, with its roots in the Puritan psychology.

When the Puritans came here, they were quickly stricken with a case of buyers’ remorse. While they wallowed in the mud around Massachusetts Bay, trying to establish their ill-fated "Commonwealth of Saints," their fellow Puritans back home were actually mixing it up on the battlefield in the climax of the Reformation. "It is necessary, therefore, to understand that the founders of Puritan New England had to contend almost immediately with an articulated sense, both from abroad and from their own ranks, that they were missing the main event," wrote Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco in their landmark book The Puritans in America
. "This helps to explain the many Puritan pages of self-justification. Defensiveness was a part of New England’s initiation."

It still is. Nowadays we may be going green with gusto, but for the legions of converts, much of the urgency comes from remorse at not doing or having done enough in the past, when lefty West Coast cities were eating our free-range lunch as they recycled their soiled diapers and took pains not to intentionally maim cyclists. Phyllis Theermann is one of the latecomers. A personable "MBA-gone-mom" who lives in Wellesley, she caught the bug badly last year, after seeing a TV program that ended with the question, "What are you going to say in 20 years when your kids turn to you and say, ‘So you knew about it, and you didn’t do anything?’" Before then, she was your standard SUV-driving suburban American, paying little attention to environmental matters, and has since been scrambling to make up for a lifetime of needlessly loosed carbon. She launched a blog called Tread Lightly that outlines steps people can take to go green, pushed her kids’ school to outlaw Styrofoam, looked into solar panels (alas, her house faces the wrong way), bought bamboo plates and utensils to use for the parties she throws, stopped buying plastic water bottles, and began warning about the practice of "greenwashing," where companies market their not-actually-very-green products in a cynical attempt to wring money out of eco-fever. Save for the SUV, which she’s not yet traded in for the biodiesel car she hopes to have by the end of the year, she’s all in. But her evangelism is more Mormon than Baptist. "I mention it in some degree, somehow," she says about raising her views in conversation. "And if people are interested, then I’ll give them my 20 cents."

Like the Puritans who for generations flogged themselves over Adam’s ill-advised bout of apple picking, today’s Bostonians are haunted by an original sin of their own—an updated doctrine of depravity that includes doing unmentionable things to the Charles, burning untold gallons of crude to heat our drafty old houses, and having parents who took disposable Styrofoam cups to the beach. Out of a sense of responsibility, they muster the considerable discipline to do what they feel needs to be done to try to reverse the damage caused by their reckless forebears. But they’re also compelled to broadcast that fact, because they can’t tolerate someone thinking, even for one moment, that they’re not fully righteous themselves. This makes them fidgety, and occasionally insufferable. A maverick preacher named Solomon Stoddard lampooned these same tendencies all the way back in 1685 in a sermon as relevant today as it was then: "The self-righteous man sets a great price upon what he does: He loves to be thinking upon what he has done; how his heart melted in such a duty…. [He] is taken with his own carriage, and thinks that God and man should be taken with him."

And why shouldn’t he? The stakes are high, after all. Seldom is the issue of eco-consciousness raised without an accompaniment of terrifying images of the apocalypse, when the ice caps finally collapse into the sea and emaciated polar bears flung limply skyward by the force of the cataclysm start crashing onto cars and houses in Eastie as a great wave sweeps in and takes back the Back Bay. No question images like these motivate us to mend our ways. But the Puritans gave us a predecessor to this sort of Day After Tomorrow–style disaster porn, too. Out of fear they had misread God’s will by coming here, many American Puritans concocted the idea that not only was New England more significant than it seemed, but in fact it was the most important place on earth. It was to be a "New Jerusalem" that God would use as a staging point for the end times, giving its saintly inhabitants front-row seats to the glorious rapture while their compatriots across the pond tore each other to shreds in the muck. (Who’s missing the main event now?!) Consequently, the Puritans were more than a little obsessed about the coming end of the world, and many trembled with glee at the prospect of being vindicated in the eyes of those who doubted how right they were all along.

Now, I’m not saying the local foot soldiers of the green movement are actively hankering for the apocalypse. But if it happens, the rampant I-told-you-so-ism will be audible from space. And our ancestors will nod in solemn approbation.