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System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Gustav Cederlof, Alf Hornborg

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111–123
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Political Ecology
Issue number1
Published15 Mar 2021


  • Cederlof_Hornborg_JPE2021

    jpe_2303_cederl_f.pdf, 168 KB, application/pdf

    Uploaded date:16 Mar 2021

    Version:Final published version

King's Authors


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.

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