Limits Literacy: Local Metaphors For Global Challenges

A framework for talking about ecological limits.

Denisbin via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The phrase ‘limits literacy’ is useful for talking about one of the fundamentals of bringing about a post-growth 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).

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. (1)

Up until 1855, agriculture in South Australia was for subsistence, and after this time commodities were grown for export (2). 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. (3)

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. (4)

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.

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.

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? Tell us in the comments!


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

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

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

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

This article was originally posted in 2010 on the post growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI on our website.



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