The Future History of Adelaide: Economic Activity

Sharon Ede
9 min readJan 13, 2024

This ‘future history’ of Adelaide was based on ‘Los Angeles: A History of the Future’ (1982) by Paul Glover, and is written from the year 2136. It examines how Adelaide became an ‘ecopolis’ — an ecological city — over 150 years, reversing the damage done to the region since European colonisation began in 1836. At the time, there was a proposal for a ‘piece of ecocity’ in Halifax Street, whose features and design principles are referenced as the first fractal of this change. This larger scale proposal did not eventuate, but a smaller scale exemplar, Christie Walk, can be found in the CBD at 105 Sturt Street, Adelaide.

This was written in 1995 at university, as a directed study for history, and reflects my thinking, understanding, available technologies and references at the time. The Ecological Crisis of the 1990s is referred to as ‘EC’ and phrases like ‘200 years EC’ mean 200 years after this Crisis.

Economic Activity

The culture of the Kaurna (and Aboriginal society in general) depended on the land for immediate survival, while the Europeans wanted the land for economic survival. Aborigines were dispossessed of their land, effectively rendered unemployed, and unequipped to participate in this new style of economy which had been imposed on their land (Pook, 1991 p48).

The Europeans brought with them a different style of economic activity. Adelaide was to become another source of both raw materials and markets which would drive the British Industrial system. The colony was heavily in debt, and on the brink of collapse, when a timely discovery of copper was made at Kapunda in 1842 and Burra in 1845 (Nance et al, 1989 p37).

Rescued From Nature

The rapid development of the colony was noted by JF Bennett in 1843, as he observed Adelaide and surrounds manifesting in this erstwhile untamed land:

…I can scarcely imagine a more interesting scene than to observe a country in the course of being rescued from a state of nature…

(in Williams, 1974 p15)

South Australia was indeed progressively ‘rescued’ from nature throughout the 19th century, and there was an abundance of resources to draw on in doing so. The colony went through a brief period of subsistence agriculture, but it was not long before the export economy of cash commodities developed. By 1855, there were 2,000,000 sheep and over 250,000 cattle in the colony (Whitelock, 1985b p51), and wool was accounting for 31% of exports (Williams, 1974 p32). By 1859, 360,000 acres of South Australian land was under cultivation, and wheat accounted for 43% of all exports (Williams, 1974 p32). By the 1870s, South Australia had overtaken Cornwall as the largest copper-producing region in the British empire (Griffin & McCaskill, 1986 p18). Wheat, wool and copper became the economic staples of the colony (Nance et al, 1989 p36).

Despite Wakefield’s 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.

(in Williams, 1974 p338)

The colony survived many droughts and other upheavals, but was struck a body blow by the Great Depression. The Depression exposed the weakness of the South Australian economy, which relied on too few primary commodities (wheat, wool, copper) which were very vulnerable to price fluctuations on the world markets (Jaensch, 1986 p249). The economy had to be diversified, value had to be added to raw commodities — South Australia had to industrialise. The number of factories in South Australia jumped from 397 to 853 between 1877 and 1904 (Williams, 1974 p423), but it was not until the Playford government of the mid 20th century that South Australia really began to industrialise. After the Second World War, the munitions factories at Hendon and Finsbury became the bases for new industries, and the car and whitegoods manufacturing industries developed as South Australia’s industrial economic staples (Griffin & McCaskill, 1986 p28; Williams, 1974 p426).

During EC times, Adelaide — like just about everywhere else on the planet — was subject to the vagaries of the global economy, which was controlled by people in places far removed from the Tandanya Bioregion. In order to understand the effect the global economy had on Adelaide, it is necessary to understand the nature of economic activity at the time, and to have some knowledge of the world financial and banking systems.

The economic ethos of EC times was ‘economic rationalism’, the theory that the least intervention by government would allow businesses and commercial interests to operate in a free market, with the increasing levels of wealth generated benefiting all in society. Wealth begets wealth, however, and the free market responded only to those who had the dollars/rupees/yen/deutsche marks/francs in the first place. Worldwide, people watched the yawning gulf between the haves and the have nots growing. Every activity became subservient to The Economy, which was often discussed in the media like it was a sick patient, needing further sacrifices from both society and the environment in order to prop up its ailing state of health. The Economy, of course, was not something above and over people and nature, it was people and nature! The Urban Ecology Australia slogan of EC times alerted people to this forgotten fact: ‘No Ecology, No Economy. No Planet, No Profit’.

Despite the fact that economic rationalists preached competition and free trade, they had some funny ideas about the means of exchange used for all this activity — money. Economic rationalists didn’t like competing forms of currencies within a nation — this was handy, as the national governments of the world had outlawed them! Once governments outlawed competing currencies,

..the definition of legal tender was at once nationalised and centralised…(in) 1971, the US government announced that its own paper money would no longer be convertible to gold. Paper money throughout the world had now lost its one last contact with reality.

Our present banking system is the biggest confidence trick of the century, because without confidence it doesn’t work…(our) monopolised, centralised ‘funny money’… is not related to reality, yet it is money which controls reality and destroys the environment.

(Turnbull in Morehouse, 1989 p143; Turnbull in Fisher, 1993 pp14–15))

This explains why Gross National Product (GNP), a supposed measure of a nation’s economic health, registered an increase in GNP when forests were overharvested, farmlands overworked and the soil exhausted, and rivers and oceans polluted (Myers, 1990 p158). Money had no ecological consciousness (Girardet, 1992 p34). With tongue in cheek, Paul F Downton proposed a car-crash led economic recovery during EC in order to boost GNP! It is quite beyond belief that the global economy was based on such fallacies, including such gems as the premise of working for infinite economic growth from a planet of finite resources:

As every economist knows, our economy is in no way connected to the physical reality of anything as messy as the natural environment. In the economist’s world, as resources are used up, new ones are magically created and there are no financial costs associated with the loss of air quality, pollution of clean water, or even the extinction of entire species of animals or plants.

(Downton, 1995)

With such a warped economic system driving the activities of almost everybody on earth, is it any wonder that EC occurred? Is it any wonder that governments became the puppets of transient groups of corporate cowboys? Is it any wonder that the city became the primary resource manipulation tool and the source of global ecological impacts? The city itself became primarily the domain of economic and commercial interests, usurping the other roles of the city which had been part of urban life for centuries.

Urban life is controlled by outside forces, such as multinational companies with shops and factories in the city but few allegiances to it. These forces dominate the economic life of cities and devalue them as social centres.

(Girardet, 1992 p180)

One of the most horrendous economic disasters in Adelaide and South Australia, besides the Depression, was the collapse of the State Bank during EC.

The mismanagement of the bank, coupled with the forces unleashed via the global economy, left South Australians with a massive debt of billions of dollars. Much of the effort that had gone into developing South Australia was lost, siphoned up and away. The debt resulted in the South Australian government selling off almost anything they could find to buy their way out of the crisis — hospitals, transport, water. People had lost control of their lives — local economic activity had become chained to the wheel of an out-of-control chariot which was careering towards total economic breakdown.

Local Control

A typical situation during EC was that:

The cost of environmentally damaging projects are often paid for by local communities while profits are often expatriated to benefit those who provided development capital.

(Rosen, 1994 p44)

People who became fed up with external control over local economic activity began to reclaim control of their local economies. Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) was established in 1983 by a Canadian, Michael Linton, as a means of reclaiming some community economic autonomy. The economic linchpin of the area where he lived, a timber industry, relocated. Unemployment was the result, but Linton realised that although there was no money in the area, there was no lack of skills or produce (Lowe in Fisher, 1994 p16). Linton devised a barter system which involved non-cash transactions — LETS — which was introduced into Australia in 1989. The use of the system grew in EC times so that 600 of these systems were operating globally (Lowe in Fisher, 1994 p16), including around a dozen in Adelaide. Other examples of LETS used during EC included Ithaca HOURS a currency with an expiry date! These forms of economic activity were the prototypes of our current, decentralised, competing currencies which relate to the real world by assessing the true costs of any activity.

During EC, Shann Turnbull (in Morehouse, 1989 pp156–157) proposed a currency based on the kilowatt hour:

The production of electrical energy has now become a basic activity for all modern communities…(and) the unit of electrical power output, the kilowatt hour (Kwh), has much appeal as a universal unit of value for an autonomous community banking and monetary system.

This idea generated (no pun intended!) in-depth discussion of shifting not only from a fossil fuel economy to a solar/renewable energy economy, but shifting from a Federal ‘funny money’ currency controlled from beyond Australia to a decentralised variety of currencies based on renewable energy. The changes, of course, came not from government or the banks, but from the gradual organisation of communities to produce local means of energy generation and LETS-style barter systems.

The Real Costs, A Real Economy

Economic activities of EC times calculated costs only on the basis of the immediate product or activity. The ‘life cycle’ costs — extraction and transportation of materials, infrastructure, energy consumption, health costs, disposal etc were not included in conventional forms of accounting and economics. The profits of activities were privatised at the expense of the commons, otherwise known as people and the environment. The economic systems focused on the middle, but not the beginning or the end of the production process. Judgements and calculations were made via systems in which less than half the story was being told! Economic decisions, it was realised, were not played out in a vacuum.

One example to illustrate this point is that for the same energy cost as one square metre of typical EC double-brick wall, 700 square metres of stabilised rammed earth could be produced (Hoyle, 1995).

Once the ‘external’ costs of increasing greenhouse gas emissions were factored into the equation, there was no economic competition between the two — earth walls were economically cheaper as well as being the more ecological option as they used less energy in their creation.

Ethical investment was one of the ways investors could ‘factor in’ social and environmental costs of economic decisions. People were able to vote against the blinkered economic system by investing money with ethical investment trusts. This way, they could ensure that their money would not be used to finance ecologically or socially destructive projects.

This type of investment, along with initiatives such as LETS, enabled us to switch to forms of economic activity based on reality and a currency derived from the value of renewable energy, controlled by the people which they affected. People with skills but no money who had previously been locked out of The Economy were now able to participate in work. The Economy which had distorted the value of things itself became redundant, its services no longer required, for EC had pushed the need for economic activity linked to real people and real places to the top of the agenda for change.


Downton, Paul (1995) ‘A Car Crash Led Economic Recovery’. Fact Sheet. Centre for Urban Ecology, Adelaide.

Fisher, Matt (Ed) (1993) The Catalyst: Newsletter of the Halifax EcoCity Project (Sept/Oct). Centre for Urban Ecology, Adelaide.

Fisher, Matt (Ed) (1994) The Catalyst: Newsletter of the Halifax EcoCity Project (Aug/Sept). Centre for Urban Ecology, Adelaide.

Girardet, Herbert (1992) The Gaia Atlas of Cities. Gaia Books, London.

Griffin, Trevor & McCaskill (Eds) (1986) Atlas of South Australia. Government Printer/Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Jaensch, Dean (Ed) (1986) The Flinders History of South Australia: Political History. Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Morehouse, Ward (Ed) (1989) Building Sustainable Communities. The Bootstrap Press, New York.

Nance, C; Speight, DL; Hutchings, A & Fitzpatrick, P (1989) Shaping the Heritage of South Australia. Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Pook, Henry (1989) Australia Unlimited: Work in Australian Society. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.

Rosen, Robert (1994) ‘Lets make a deal’. Habitat Australia (May). Australian Conservation Foundation, Sydney.

Whitelock, Derek (1985b) Conquest to Conservation. Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

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



Sharon Ede

Regenerative Cities Activist | Circular Economy Catalyst | South Australian Government | Award Winning Author | |