Where am I?

She Speaks for the Trees

Jean Ponzi, environmental activist, advocate and educator, has been green since the 1980s — before “green” was even a buzzword and recycling was the norm. Her popular radio show, Earthworms, which has aired on St. Louis independent station KDHX for 25 years, is a labor of environmental love, and her position as green resources manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center is a practical passion.

This year, Ponzi served as the keynote speaker during Fontbonne’s annual Academic Convocation Ceremony, where she kicked off the university’s 7th annual Dedicated Semester focused on — what else? — sustainability. Tableaux caught up with this environmental enthusiast to learn more about her background, and to bring you her thoughts on how we, as a community, fair on the sustainability scale.

In the April 2014 issue of Tableaux, we ran a condensed version of an interview with Ponzi. Read the entire conversation below.


1. Tell us a little about how you came to be so passionate about green living. Why do you feel it’s so important? 

Because my passion shows through when I talk and teach, people may think I’ve cared about the environment all my life. But I’m actually a good example of how anybody can connect with Green from scratch, anytime, in a useful way.

My love of Green started like a blind date. I was introduced to ecological concepts through friends and co-workers while producing some educational videos for the Missouri Botanical Garden in the 1980s. One of the strongest ways I learn is through relationships, and ecology is all about relationships: plant families, natural communities, one being’s impact on others. One thing led to another, and I kept learning. I landed a part-time job wrangling logistics for ECO-ACT, an extraordinary Garden education program that’s still going strong. I was able to apply my communications and event-organizing skills at the Garden, one of my favorite places on Earth. Serendipity moves the plot of my story, but I was (somehow, thankfully) smart enough to recognize and use many learning gifts that came my way to grow personally and professionally. Twenty-five years later, teaching Green has become my vocation.

“Start where you are and keep learning” is a mode that can work for anyone. What matters to you? What’s most useful in your life, of all the possible Green options? Dive in there! And keep integrating your growing awareness about our impact on Earth’s systems and resources and ways to transform those impacts, into your daily habits.

We humans exert a huge impact on all of Earth’s communities. We have come to feel and think of ourselves as separate from the environment, but this is a false notion. Earth’s ecosystem services are providing our food, shelter, energy, water, livelihood and so much of our health and quality of life, yet we have cut off ourselves, our human society, from these connections that sustain us and are needed to sustain the lives of all our earthly relations.

Green living means being aware of – and respecting – our place on this planet, and changing our thinking and habits to zap our wasteful practices and moderate our choices to use our fair share of the abundant, yet limited, resources Earth provides.

2. Tell us about your work with the EarthWays Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden and your radio show “Earthworms.”

Working within the Garden, a globally respected institution, and within the community gem that is KDHX, I get to reach a lot of people with messages I care deeply about, in a time in human history where this material is needed. It’s a great gig.

All of my work has become interrelated, and it all supports me in various ways: with a paycheck and benefits, with a broad professional and social network, with a flow of continual learning. I am blessed with creative outlets to produce and host a show every week, and to take the Green resources I can teach about out to engage many kinds of audiences.

I produce and host “Earthworms” as a volunteer. This is my community service, and I’m proud and grateful to say at nearly 25 years, it’s my longest-running job. My work on the EarthWays team runs a close second: I’ve had this job since 1995, and I worked at the Garden for about 4 years in the ’80s.

3. You have been an environmental advocate for 25 years. In that time, what has been the biggest step toward sustainability that we’ve taken as a society, in your opinion?

The single biggest step I see is that human beings in our society are getting this Green stuff now! For most of the time I’ve been doing environmental communications work, these topics were totally marginalized: weird, hippy-dippy and fluffy at worst, or expensive, hard to find and annoying at best.

Today the basics like recycling and energy efficiency are mainstream, including being cost-competitive if not outright profitable. More complex options like renewable energy, rainscaping and transit-oriented development are becoming part of our public dialogue and resources. We are increasingly dealing with the really whopping issues of climate change and biodiversity. And food is center stage, uniting concerns about human health, social justice, sustainable practice and more in a context that everyone can relate to, that generates happiness and that we love.

This is a huge advancement for human society. There’s plenty more to learn and unlearn and do and fix, for sure, but we have made big progress in my working lifetime. Green is out of the shadows of obscurity and distrust. Sustainable thinking and practice has mechanisms to prove its worth in business, which is critical as long as money remains a human driving force. Kids who were in recycling education programs when I started my career are young professionals now, and their expectations are driving the business sector to integrate sustainability policy and practice into our economy – which can ultimately influence our societal and policy choices.

These are big moves, and we need them all and more. Our human impacts, and our sheer numbers, are still outstripping our capabilities to transform our relationship with the world where we co-habit with every other kind of living being and community. But we’re working on that transformation now, in many fields and endeavors. Coming correct in our relationship with life’s defining principles is, in my perception, the challenge of our time, for the entire human species. The to-do list is huge, yet I believe we humans are now dealing with it in significant scope and numbers.

4. We still have a long way to go until we reach a completely Green lifestyle here in St. Louis. What do you feel is the most important next step?

Engage with Green where it’s most interesting, most beneficial, and build your knowledge and involvement from there. There are so many possible steps, and so many areas of need. All these environmental issues get very overwhelming on top of everyone’s personal concerns. I don’t advocate any one “next step,” and one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit this situation.

A really great skill to develop, especially around buying choices, is asking good questions: Where did this come from? How far did it have to travel to get to me? In what conditions, ethical as well as environmental, was it made? What will happen to it when I’m finished with it? Who can still make use of it? Can it be reused, recycled, composted?

These are some of the key sustainability points. Ask some values questions too: Will this improve my life and the life of my family and my community? Am I being sold a line of lies or half-truths about needing and using this?

All of humankind is on a learning curve about this Green stuff. We get pretty full of ourselves, so cultivating humility, forgiveness, simplicity and the ability to laugh at ourselves is good practice, too. The great news is we’re a resourceful, intelligent species, and we’ve got the best possible teachers all around us in the natural world and in Earth’s systems.

5. Why do you think Fontbonne’s dedicated semester on Sustainability was important? 

The exceptional opportunity in your sustainability focus was embedded in the character of this place. Fontbonne seems to be a true learning community. I see students and teachers forming real, caring learning relationships. I feel the energies of collegial collaboration more than protocol. Your spiritual roots of caring for the dear neighbor speak directly to the mission of sustainability: motivating human beings to learn and care about the world we inhabit from a perspective greater than our own human concerns. Where we learn, and how we learn, can be as important to influence hearts and minds as the content of the lessons.

And I hope this semester’s explorations helped Fontbonne continue to Green-up your own operations, to ground Green thinking and practice in the daily workings of this learning environment.

6. What resources do you suggest to those who want to find out more?

An exploration of Green Living can take so many forms! I invite Fontbonne folks to use Missouri Botanical Garden’s Green Resources Answer Service to ask about resources specific to your needs, interests and concerns. Call 314-577-0246 or email us at greenresources@mobot.org. We’re at your service!  

And, of course, I invite folks to tune in to “Earthworms” Mondays 7-8 p.m. on 88.1 FM, live-streamed at www.kdhx.org, and available as podcasts from kdhx.org/ondemand.

7. If people only take away one thing from your radio show, speeches and work at the Botanical Garden, what do you hope that is?

Your efforts matter! Your choices – what you learn, what you do – make a difference in this life and on this Earth. And your contributions – coupled with the efforts, goodwill and knowledge of others – can help transform the ways our species relates to all of our dear neighbors.