Greener Than Thou

Bostonians may think they're being incredibly forward-looking as they preach the gospel of going green to anyone who'll listen. But in reality, these eco-Puritans are looking back. Way, way back.

The kid at the Italian market across the street scoffed when we told him we were going to Grezzo, the city’s first full-on vegan raw-food restaurant, located incongruously in the North End. The eatery, opened by raw-food guru Alissa Cohen, specializes in fare that can only be described using quotation marks. Everything is made from organic, non-animal-derived ingredients, none of which are ever heated above 112 degrees, to preserve their “life force,” also known as “enzymes,” a word repeated so often in Grezzo that it starts to take on the ring of “precious bodily fluids” in Dr. Strangelove.

Grezzo’s dining room is painted in warm autumnal tones, and each table has a trifold brochure explaining the benefits of eating raw. One of which is “Live food produces live bodies; dead food produces dead bodies.” Good to know. Eager to stave off death, I ordered the hamburger-inspired “sliders,” tasty falafel-like patties served between slices of tomato, and followed those with the “lasagna,” which, while somewhat more difficult to articulate, consisted of an ungainly, overseasoned pile of veggies and a cheeselike substance that was not cheese. However vegan, there was something undeniably carnal about this huge, pungent, sloppy mound glistening on the plate before me.

While I wrangled with that, all around me people talked earnestly about what they were eating, save for a troika of lesbians who talked about lesbianism for a while, before segueing into veganism (because really, what don’t those things have to do with each other?). Some of the dishes were pleasant enough, given the restrictions under which they were produced—but then, taste isn’t the point. This is food as ideology. And it comes at a steep premium. By the end of our meal, my wife and I had worked our way through two entrées, two appetizers, and two non-alcoholic “mojitos.” With tip, the bill came to $95. If I hadn’t expensed it to this magazine, we wouldn’t have had any money left to stage a badly needed cannoli raid on the Modern afterward.

But such is the price of living in Boston these days. Food is just one component of the Hub’s blossoming mania for all things green, itself a broad-based repudiation of our old dirty-water-loving ways. The examples are boundless: There’s talk of building the world’s greenest skyscraper and greenest city hall, of exponentially expanding our solar capacity, recycling phone books en masse, planting 100,000 new trees by 2020, and turning Boston Harbor into what the EPA calls a “no-discharge area,” basically meaning we’re not allowed to pump toxic crap into it anymore (take that, heritage!). In January, at his annual State of the City address, Mayor Menino beamed as he announced, “We really are turning Beantown into Greentown!” to muted groans in the press area. The following month, after Popular Science ranked Boston third in a weirdly unscientific survey of America’s greenest cities, Menino tried the rallying cry again: “Beantown truly is Greentown!” he said. As the Greentown meme spread, it seemed City Hall might use that phrase as an official slogan for its environmental efforts—at least until Civetta Comunicazioni, a Cambridge PR firm that has specialized in eco-conscious businesses since 1999, beat everyone to it this spring with its “BeanTown Is GreenTown” campaign. (“We did not rip it off from Menino,” says Civetta’s Colleen Oteri, noting the firm had actually trademarked the phrase last November. “It’s not a difficult name to come up with,” she chuckles. “It’s not super clever.”)

It goes on and on. In a few days’ span in May alone, the Boston Business Journal hosted a green business summit; the Massachusetts Bar Association teamed up with the Conservation Law Foundation to honor law firms that have implemented policies aimed at reducing water waste, expanded their recycling, and so forth; and NStar announced it would give customers the option of using wind-generated power for a small surcharge. When the Sox launched a major green initiative, the Globe dubbed it “yet another reason for Red Sox fans to gloat.” Newbury Street, which you can’t get down without hacking your way through a veritable underbrush of Greenpeace and MassPIRG canvassers, now boasts two so-called “green chic” boutiques.

Restaurants across town are tripping over themselves to offer organic, locally grown food, and veganism—once thought to be the province of ostentatiously flatulent, hirsute fringe-dwellers is gaining acceptance among the city’s mainstream, with animal-product-free dishes appearing on menus everywhere from Addis Red Sea to Wagamama. Eric Prescott, who cofounded the Boston Vegan Association last fall, says his group has already attracted over 100 members, and the number’s rising. “I’m seeing more people who realize that veganism makes sense,” he says. “It’s not just for hippies with a superhuman ability to deny themselves the pleasures of the flesh.”

Not surprisingly, Bostonians’ newfound dedication to the cause is characterized as much by an inexhaustible eco-consciousness as it is by an inexhaustible capacity for talking about eco-consciousness. Particularly one’s own. This is a city widely known (and reviled) for possessing an unapologetically liberal worldview generously varnished with moral vanity, so it stands to reason that an issue like this—which hits on politics, the environment, and social justice, and allows us to brag—would be like catnip here. And so it’s been, so much so that there’s reason to believe we may soon be the greenest city in America, as the mayor vowed in the wake of the PopSci honor/snub. After all, we have the full force of history propelling us along. It doesn’t take a hyperascetic, zero-waste, carbon-free lifestyle to recognize that, thanks to our recently discovered fervor for planet-saving, the Puritans—long thought to be irritating, nature-obsessed anachronisms rightfully left bobbing in the wake of modernity—are walking among us once again.


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.


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.