Boston — It was a telling irony. Jonathon Porritt, leading spokesman for Europe's radical ``green'' movement, spoke here recently on the need for global action against industrialism. Only 12 people showed up. The talk -- and the turnout -- suggested that the 41/2-year-old grass-roots coalition, which has had a notable political impact in Europe, may have serious trouble gaining strength in the United States.
``In the US, the movement lags far behind the thinking,'' said Mr. Porritt, the newly appointed director of England's Friends of the Earth (FOE), in an earlier interview. The Oxford-educated Porritt points out that European ``greens'' have gathered most of their ideas from American thinkers like environmentalist Wendell Berry, ecological-anarchist Murray Bookchin, and economist Hazel Henderson.
Porritt cites several reasons that the ground for green growth has been somewhat fertile in Europe but fallow in the United States.
The basic philosophical reason, Porritt says, is that ``the superideology of industrialism,'' which he claims underlies both right and left political thinking, has nearly unquestioned acceptance in the US, but shows signs of losing favor in Europe.
He explains that industrialism -- namely, centralized power, technological determinism, and an exploitative attitude toward the environment -- judges success by quantity of growth rather than quality of life. This standard not only causes maldistribution and misuse of the earth's resources, Porritt says, but will ultimately bring us face to face with their absolute limits. ``Limits are not a popular image here,'' he adds, alluding to what he sees as President Reagan's reinvocation of the American myth of the limitless frontier.
On the other hand, the European green movement, which grew out of the antinuclear and environmental campaigns of the 1970s, continues to grow because the limits of growth economics seem graver and clearer there than in the US, Porritt says.
``In Europe, most people believe mass unemployment is with us eternally -- except the politicians,'' he notes. ``People are beginning to see that there is no automatic link between growth and a reduction in unemployment.'' For Porritt and European greens, the only road to a sustainable, full-employment economy is through ``the politics of ecology'' -- in short, localized power, human-scale technology, and reverence for the environment.
On the political side, the most obvious roadblock to a US green movement, he says, is the two-party electoral process, because it stifles alternative ideas and groups.
David Brower, chairman and founder of Friends of the Earth in the US, agrees: ``We're not set up for a third party that is anything but a spoiler.'' He notes that the tiny Citizens Party, an ecologically oriented group most noted for backing Barry Commoner for the 1980 presidency, only siphons votes from the mainstream political party that most closely reflects its views -- in this case, the Democrats.
In West Germany, Die Gr"unen -- the anti-establishment, antinuclear, anti-NATO Green Party -- has had some success thanks to a political system that allows for several parties (three governing and five opposition) as well as proportional representation (once a party garners more than 5 percent of the popular vote, it appoints a proportional number of Parliament members).
Since 1983, when 27 of its members were elected to the Bonn Parliament with 6 percent of the popular vote, Die Gr"unen's popularity rose to 11 percent in late 1984, but dropped dramatically -- to less than 5 percent -- in two recent district elections when many supporters jumped over to the Social Democrat bandwagon.
Die Gr"unen is now severely divided on the issue of whether to join forces with the left-of-center Social Democrats, who have already appropriated some green concerns. Die Gr"unen's realist wing thinks a coalition is imperative to bolster their political strength; but party fundamentalists -- and Porritt sides with them -- feel strongly that greens must maintain their autonomy.
``Any attempt to graft [green politics] on the spectrum will stop its growth,'' Porritt says. ``By identifying with the left, we would be endorsing the entire system, a system which we are trying to define alternatives to.''
Moreover, he says, elements of green politics -- like its emphasis on self-reliance and less governmental interference -- appeal to the right. ``Once you've embraced the left, you've essentially slammed the door in the face of people on the right,'' he says. ``And, frankly, we're in no position to slam doors on people.''
Even with their problems, Die Gr"unen's example has inspired green growth throughout Western Europe; green parties have sprung up in more than 10 West European countries, gaining particular force in Belgium and the Netherlands.
But even if US democracy were better suited for a third party, a green movement would still face a major obstacle: the sheer number and variety of ``green'' organizations in the US. Porritt thinks the various groups (from the somewhat conservative Sierra Club to the more liberal Friends of the Earth) must ``establish an effective green network of communication.'' Like bicycle spokes, he muses, they must fit together at the hub before things can start rolling. ``In the US, the wheel is just a lot bigger,'' he says.
The closest things to green networks in the US are the 15-year-old League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an unaffiliated political-action committee that supports ``greenish'' candidates in federal elections, and a recent initiative called Committees of Correspondence, which is struggling to form a basis for regional organizations working to introduce green politics into the US political process.
LCV, whose board of directors boasts leaders from all points on the environmental spectrum, has been fairly successful in achieving its limited goals: Of the 61 federal elections it spotlighted in 1984, LCV-backed candidates won 40. Chairman Alden Meyer thinks a range of groups can be useful to cover the environmental front, but he sees a greater need for various groups to ``sublimate their differences to greater concerns -- so we can speak with one voice on political matters.''
But FOE's Mr. Brower feels the spokes aren't coming together very well. He describes the US environmental movement as an infantry of soldiers who ``stand shoulder to shoulder and march off in different directions.''
Despite the obstacles here and abroad, Porritt sees hope for greens. He notes that Europe's socialist movement began in the late 1800s, but didn't significantly affect European politics until well into this century.
``I'm a radical evolutionary,'' he explains. ``The revolution has to happen gradually. . . . I can't imagine a green revolution where people reluctantly change.''