Greener Than Thou

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Image by Rob Dunlavey

The kid at the Italian market across the street scoffed when we told him we were going to Grezzo, Boston’s first full-on, vegan raw-food restaurant. The eatery 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 because to do so destroys their “life force,” also known as “enzymes”–a word repeated so often in Grezzo that it starts to recall “precious bodily fluids” in Dr. Strangelove.

Grezzo’s dining room is painted in autumnal tones, and each table has a tri-fold brochure explaining the benefits of eating raw: “Live food produces live bodies; dead food produces dead bodies.” Good to know. Eager to stave off death, I ordered the “sliders,” falafel-like patties served between slices of tomato, and followed them with the “lasagna,” which consisted of an ungainly, over-seasoned pile of veggies and a cheeselike substance.

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 back into veganism. Some of the dishes were pleasant enough–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 nonalcoholic “mojitos.” With tip, the bill came to 95 dollars. If I hadn’t expensed it, we’d have had no money left to stage a badly needed cannoli raid.

Such is the price of living in Boston these days. Food is but one component of a blossoming mania for all things green, itself a broad-based repudiation of old dirty-water-loving ways. There’s talk of building the world’s greenest skyscraper, of exponentially expanding solar capacity, planting 100,000 trees, and turning Boston Harbor into 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. When the Sox launched a major green initiative, the BostonGlobe called it “yet another reason for Red Sox fans to gloat.”

Not surprisingly, Bostonians’ newfound dedication to eco-consciousness is characterized 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. After all, we have history propelling us along. It doesn’t take a carbon-free lifestyle to recognize that the Puritans are among us once again.

After Grezzo, our attitude toward greening is best encapsulated by the Clear Conscience Café, a place that offers fair trade coffee and a sustainable approach to business, while loudly announcing its purity to everyone within a one-mile radius. Inside, over the counter, a wall bears a 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 in recycled cups and then, transaction complete, can turn to this quote and genuflect to their own moral rectitude. “My conscience is clear,” the purchase announces. “I am the change I want to see in the world.” Taking part in supposedly enlightened commerce might seem like a progressive gesture, but in reality, it’s chiefly defensive, with roots in the Puritan psychology.

When the Puritans came to the New World, they were quickly stricken with a case of buyers’ remorse. While they wallowed in mud, trying to establish their ill-fated “Commonwealth of Saints,” their fellow Puritans back home were mixing it up on the battlefield in the climax of the Reformation. “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,” write Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco in The Puritans in America. “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 of not having done enough in the past, when West Coast cities were eating our free-range lunch as they recycled their soiled diapers and took pains not to intentionally maim cyclists. Out of a sense of responsibility, Bostonians muster the discipline 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.

The stakes are high, after all. Seldom is the issue of eco-consciousness raised without terrifying images of the apocalypse, when 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. But the Puritans gave us a predecessor to this sort of Day After Tomorrow disaster porn, too. Out of fear they had misread God’s will by coming here, many American Puritans concocted the idea that New England was, in fact, the most important place on earth. God would use it 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. (Who’s missing the main event now?!) Consequently, the Puritans were obsessed with 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–or any city–get? As with most things, success depends on how we deal with the frauds and zealots in our midst. The former, certainly, are in ample supply, with all the faddists 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 clients are asking about green materials–but once they learn the cost, many go for the conscience-soothing minimum.

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. The Puritans, while placing the strictest demands on their own personal comportment, write 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; composting would be the eco-sensitive choice), but it does raise the specter of the sort of tireless sermonizing that led subsequent generations to abandon Puritanism altogether.

The backlash factor is worth bearing in mind. The trick, for all interested parties–from the longtime vegans to the come-latelies to City Hall–is to learn from the Puritans’ example. Do what’s right to the fullest, but try to avoid doing it in a way that makes people hate you and, out of sheer spite, do the opposite. Seems simple enough. Whether we have the restraint to pull off such a thing without it devolving into the kind of piety-measuring contest popularized by our ancestors, and still very much in fashion today, remains to be seen.

Joe Keohane’s writing also has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and the Boston Globe. E-mail him at Excerpted from Bostonmagazine (July 2008);

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