Limits Literacy

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In June’s imminent Footprint Forum near Siena, Italy, the results of a new international survey about the barriers nations face when responding to the ecological crisis will be presented:

The Volans Survey: Limits Literacy Around the World

Much evidence indicates that humanity is running rapidly into severe ecological constraints. Yet, most public policy continues to depend upon economic expansion. If not resolved, this contradiction may lead to painful disappointments. In light of emerging resource constraints, some countries are starting to shift their investment patterns – but they are still in a tiny minority, and the trends are not bending.

Can this contradiction be resolved? How do policymakers currently incorporate ecological limits into their decisions? If they don’t, what are the barriers to doing so? If policies do indeed incorporate ecological limits, could it be that their positive effects just have not become visible yet? The Volans Survey explores these issues and maps the current beliefs about investment strategies in national public policy. (1)

The phrase ‘limits literacy’ is useful for talking about one of the fundamentals of bringing about a postgrowth world:

Do people understand and accept the concept of ecological limits?

How can we convey this to people, who typically tend to comprehend things as they manifest at the local scale?

The task of the post-growther will be aided by unearthing the local lore relating to limits.

In my state of South Australia, the obvious story is that of Goyder’s Line:

Goyder’s Line is a boundary line across South Australia corresponding to a rainfall boundary believed to indicate the edge of the area suitable for agriculture. North of Goyder’s Line, the rainfall is not reliable enough, and the land is only suitable for grazing and not cropping. The line traces a distinct change in vegetation. To the south, it is composed mainly of mallee scrub whilst to the north salt-bush. In general Goyder’s Line represents the demarcation of a long-term rainfall average of 10 inches (254mm). (2)

Whitefellas came to this part of the world to create a settlement in 1836 —  they gradually dispossessed the indigenous Kaurna people from the plains where Adelaide is now located.

It would be fair to say there was a somewhat cavalier approach to land in the early days of the new colony. Despite careful plans of systematic colonisation and controlled land expansion, one observer of 19th century South Australia noted that land speculation had taken off:

Young men of spirit were not satisfied to retire into the bush and look after a flock of silly sheep when it was possible to buy a section of land at one pound an acre, give it a fine name as a village, sell the same thing at ten pounds an acre… and live in style at the Southern Cross Hotel. (3)

Up until 1855, agriculture in South Australia was for subsistence, and after this time commodities were grown for export (4).  But soon, fine farming land was being turned over to development, fueling a growing colony that would establish farmland to feed the colonials and sell crops back to England to earn revenue.

The principles and ideologies that underpinned the plan for the South Australian colony included the establishment of a yeomanry in the new colony. The yeoman had become a romantic symbol of pre-Industrial times and so the objective was to settle the ‘small’ man — the farmer — on the land. After the Strangways Act of 1869, which allowed farmers to purchase up to 640 acres on credit with a 20% deposit and a four year term, the hunger for land became insatiable. (5)

In the mid 19th century, it may not have been apparent to those chafing at the bit to venture into marginal lands, but South Australia suffers frequent droughts. Up until the late 20th century, there were 34 years of drought in just over 150 years of European occupation. (6)

In the mid 1860s, Surveyor-General George Goyder had, through documenting types of vegetation, determined the line of demarcation based on rainfall which separated agricultural land from pastoral land, thus establishing the northernmost limits of agriculture:

With barely 30 years knowledge of this new country to go on, farmers needed reliable information. In 1865 George Goyder provided it. He discouraged farmers from planting crops north of his line, declaring this land suitable only for light grazing. (7)

Map of Goyder's Line

But Goyer’s warning was increasingly disputed after several good crops of wheat and decent rains.

The government’s response under such pressure was to pass the Waste Lands Amendment Act of 1874, which threw open all land north of Goyder’s line — land previously “out of bounds.”

However, drought in the early 1880s vindicated Goyder’s warning, and many farmers were ruined,  forced to abandon their farms and retreat from northern, marginal lands:

Goyder was proved correct and the land was indeed unsuitable for crops. Many farmhouse ruins can still be seen near Goyder’s line.

There have been periods of development north of the line, but invariably nature has won out. Entire towns and farms were abandoned when there was a return to longer-term average rainfall. The line has proven remarkably accurate, an amazing feat since it was surveyed in just two months in 1865 by Goyder, then the surveyor-general of South Australia. (8)

Goyder’s Line is part of the South Australian psyche, and is cultural shorthand for nature’s limits and what happens if they are breached.

What about the community, region or state you live in?

Do you have a tale to tell of where local limits were breached? What’s your  “Goyder’s Line'” story?

Share it with Post Growth and we will compile them into a toolkit called ‘Limits Literacy’!

Image 1 sourced from One Steel Waratah

Image 2 sourced from Dick Whitaker’s blog


1. Global Footprint Network: Footprint Forum 2010 Roundtables – accessed 26 April 2010

2. Wikipedia: Goyder’s Line’s_Line, accessed 26 April 2010

3. Borderwatch, 1864 in Williams, Michael (1974) The Making of the South Australian Landscape.  Academic Press, London.

4. Williams, Michael (1974) The Making of the South Australian Landscape.  Academic Press, London.

5. MacGillivray in Nicol, Robert & Samuels, Brian (eds) (1992)  Insights into South Australian History: Volume 1. Historical Society of South Australia, Adelaide.

6. Australian Bureau of Statistics (1995) South Australian Yearbook, 1995.  Government Printer, Adelaide.

7. Wikipedia: Goyder’s Line’s_Line, accessed 26 April 2010

8. Wikipedia: Goyder’s Line’s_Line, accessed 26 April 2010

Published by Sharon Ede

Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst and is founder of Share Adelaide Share Adelaide. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.