Act: Inspiration

Dave Jacke on Ecological Design and Abundance

December 2, 2020

For Dave Jacke, a designer of ecological landscapes since the late 1970s, human culture and our “inner landscapes” are the floating variables for our future on Earth. “Western culture, psychosocially, is extremely underdeveloped,” Jacke says in the just-released Episode #9 of my podcast, Frontiers of Commoning. “We humans believe we are separate [from natural systems]. That is kind of like the developmental stage of a two-year-old.” 

The question facing the human species is whether we can sufficiently adapt our cultures to make them compatible with living ecosystems. This was a primary topic in my discussions with Jacke.

“Very few people alive today have any idea of what a healthy ecosystem looks like,” said Jacke, “because all of us have grown up in damaged ecosystems. We do not understand the abundance that is possible.”

But paradoxically, our “under-development” is a reason for hope: “If the human species were as developed as we could be, genetically, as we face all the perils we face, we’d be screwed. But the fact that we have so much room to grow, psychosocially, is our greatest reason for hope,” Jacke claims.

Jacke has been a serious student of ecology and design since the late 1970s when he embarked on a career designing and installing landscapes for homes, farms, and communities in the many parts of the United States, as well as overseas. He is a passionate teacher and consultant about designing human cultures using ecological principles — sometimes known as “applied ecology,” or what some folks call permaculture. He pursued this work through his firm Dynamics Ecological Design based in Montague, Massachusetts. [Email: davej/at/]

In the permaculture world, Jacke is perhaps best-known as the lead author of the two-volume book Edible Forest Gardens (2005), written with Eric Toensmeier. The 1,068-page book lays out the vision of the forest garden and explains the basic ecological principles that make it work (Volume 1) before offering more concrete guidance on how to design, establish, and maintain your own forest garden (Volume 2).

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An edible forest garden is a “perennial polyculture,” which means that many different plant species grow together and naturally regrow every year without replanting. As Jacke and his coauthor explain,

“A forest garden is an edible ecosystem, a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production.”

What’s refreshing about Jacke’s approach to regenerative economics and landscapes is its integrated grasp of ecosystems, human technologies, culture, and our inner lives. Jacke points out that as soon as humans make their tools, they begin to treat any natural objects through the lens of that technology. This immediately focuses and limits our perceptions of the natural world – a tendency that becomes more entrenched as economic and social institutions arise to develop the technologies.

Jacke warns that healthy cultures acknowledge that a boundary is crossed when we convert the multi-dimensionality of nature into tools for human use. A tree that lives a complicated, embedded life of interdependence within an ecosystem is seen as something quite different when it is reduced to timber. It becomes a dead “resource” that reflects human uses alone.

The movement for “appropriate technology” that flourished in the 1970s sought to emphasize this point – that the tools we create and use influence how we end up seeing the world. Too often, our tools have objectified the living world into “the environment” — an inventory of inert resources with little connection to life. It’s important to acknowledge to ourselves that the very idea of “value-neutral tools” is a self-deception. Our tools invariably reduce our appreciation for the complexity of “nature.” Which is why we must constantly remember that our tools and “nature” co-evolve together.

Informed by decades of practice in ecological design, Dave Jacke is a deep thinker about the subtle interactions of ecosystems and humanity, and the role of the commons can play in mediating this (perceived) divide. Here is the link to the full podcast interview.


Teaser photo credit: By Wenrolland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: ecosystem restoration, permaculture design, the commons