My Life as an Environmental Puritan

Accuse an American liberal of being a puritan and he or she will probably say, “No I’m not! I had sex before marriage.” They’re missing the point.

Puritanism was a religious movement but it’s also a cultural tendency and, among some people, a natural inclination. Every movement has its puritans and one of the most common expressions of Puritanism today is found in environmentalism.

I first heard the expression “environmental puritan” while speaking with novelist and futurist David Brin. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. He said EPs are the kind of people who say we must shiver in the dark if we’re going to save the world. President Jimmy Carter played the role when he addressed the nation during the energy crisis and confronted the shivers by wearing a cardigan sweater. Was he re-elected? I can’t remember.

The scarlet letter of the environmental puritan today is seen all over the streets of San Diego. It’s the Prius, called the Toyota Pious by Hummer Drivers. And here’s where I have to be careful to not throw stones.

Pay a visit to my house and you’ll see a Prius (44 mpg) parked outside. My second car is a Mini (33 mpg). You’ll also see that I have no front lawn; replaced this year by a patio and water-sparing garden. The xeriscaped berm dates back many more years. In my garage I have a worm bin for disposing organic kitchen waste. The worm castings are collected and scattered over the water-sparing front garden.

Did I mention I have a collapsible clothesline to dry laundry while reducing my consumption of electricity? Now all I need is the tankless water heater and solar panels on the roof. It’ll be a miniscule carbon reduction in a world still hooked on fossil fuels, but it’ll make me feel good.

The problem with puritans is we are, by definition, members of the fringe and not the majority. In fact, most of us who claim purity are not inclined to dramatically change our standards of living. And why should we? To say one person’s reduced carbon footprint is miniscule compared to the big picture is an exaggeration. Microscopic is a better word. Turning around climate change is something governments, not individuals, will need to do.

But I’ll end with a story about an individual – a Grandfather who died before I was old enough to remember him. My mother’s father was a Kansas wheat farmer who raised his family during the great depression. He owned a car, and when he washed it he never used more than one bucket of water. He told his family that using more would be wasteful.

My grandfather lived at a time when the things you needed for life were limited and hard to come by. “Waste not, want not” may have been a cliché, even then, but it was a rule you had to live by. My grandfather and his family grew and canned vegetables from their large garden because that’s how they supplemented their diet. There was nothing trendy about it.

I think a more modest lifestyle and a less global economy will be the ultimate result of our need to stop living on cheap, abundant fossil energies. But there I go again, talking like a puritan. Ronald Reagan would have kicked my ass too.

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One Comment on “My Life as an Environmental Puritan”

  1. Gloria Penner Says:

    Tom, my neighborhood is aglow with holiday lights. Looks great, but I wonder whether the spirit conveyed is one of environmental puritanism. The electricity consumption must be enormous.


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