This article examines an epistemological dilemma at the center of social and environmental impact assessment: where and when the "system boundaries" that define the extent of an energy technology with socio-environmental impact should be drawn. We demonstrate how system boundaries give rise to different epistemological problems, first, when socio-environmental impact is studied across commodity chains, notably in life cycle assessments (LCA), and second, when socio-environmental impact is given a spatial, or areal, dimension. More than just posing epistemological problems, however, we argue that system boundaries present an ethnographic problem and that they should be exposed to cultural as well as political analysis. As cultural artefacts, system boundaries sustain different power-serving worldviews, and the way system boundaries are drawn in discussions on energy transitions calls into question how the existence of energy technologies relies on a geographical displacement of environmental load, including flows of resources, land, and emissions. We observe a human inclination to perceive objects as co-extensive with their physical boundaries, for example through commodity fetishism, but in truncating the global material relations that sustain energy technologies, the socially uneven resource flows that metabolize them are obscured.
Keywords: System boundaries, energy technology, environmental impact assessment, life cycle assessment, epistemology, fetishism
How to Cite:
Cederlöf G. & Hornborg A., (2021) “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact”, Journal of Political Ecology 28(1). p.111-123. doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.2303