Greener Than Thou

How green can Boston get? As with most things like it, our success in this big project of ours depends on how we deal with the frauds and zealots in our midst. The former, certainly, are in ample supply, between all the faddists and neurotics out for a quick way to feel better about themselves. They give themselves away by the lengths to which they’ll go for their cause. One local contractor says more and more clients are asking about using green materials—but once they find out the cost, many opt out or go for the bare conscience-soothing minimum. "Maybe they’re just willing to pay a little more for recycled materials," he says, "even if they’re made in China, shipped over on a diesel-fueled boat, and held together with glue and formaldehyde."

As for the zealots, they will, by necessity, try to take care of the frauds themselves. The risk is that, being zealots, they’ll eventually go after the mainstream converts, too. Movements forged in dissent have a way of turning that dissent inward, following the model of the Puritans, who while placing the strictest demands on their own personal comportment, wrote Heimert and Delbanco, soon "were rooting out their own deviants from their midst." This isn’t to suggest we’re in for a round of witch burnings (too much carbon—smothering and composting witches would be the more eco-sensitive choice), but it does raise the specter of the sort of tireless sermonizing that led subsequent generations to abandon Puritanism altogether, mainly because they got so sick of hearing about it all the time.

The backlash factor is worth bearing in mind. However prominent Puritanism is in our DNA, there’s also a deep distaste for our predecessors’ shenanigans, honed by decades of enduring beerless Sundays and reams of idiotic blue laws. The trick, then, for all interested parties—from the longtime vegans to the come-latelies to City Hall—is to learn from their example. Do what’s right, go green to the fullest, sure, but at least try to avoid doing it in a way that makes people hate you and, out of sheer spite, do the opposite of what you do. Seems simple enough. But whether we have the restraint to pull such a thing off without it devolving into the kind of piety-measuring contest popularized by our forebears, and still very much in fashion today, remains to be seen.