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Spatial indeterminacy and the construction of environmental knowledge

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As concern about the sustainability of industrialised economies has increased, analysts have developed various indicator-based methodologies to explore environmental policy implications of human consumption and production activities. Critical and social constructivist theorists have challenged the presumption of objectivity underlying such research, however, by highlighting the role that social process and tacit assumptions play in accounts of human–environment interactions. While the ‘science wars’ hostility between realists and constructivists has abated and many in both camps agree that environmental analysts should be more open and reflexive about the empirical limitations of their work and its potential to encode social, political and cultural bias, practical guidance and clear examples for doing so remain rare. This paper is situated within this gap: it is at once an attempt by an environmental analyst to show what a ‘self-reflexive’ approach to environmental assessment might look like and a rumination on the opportunities and challenges that such an undertaking entails. At the same time, the paper makes traditional scientific claims to creating new knowledge and advancing methodological sophistication by identifying a general problem of spatial indeterminacy that limits the empirical basis of all manner of place-based environmental assessment. The paper uses a climate change-related case study regarding the attribution of carbon emissions from electricity use to various US states to show the strong, though generally unrecognised, representational and political implications that can be introduced through the common methodological responses to spatial indeterminacy. I argue that in such cases both positivist and constructivist approaches to understanding human–environmental relations are needed to thoughtfully navigate options for constructing indicators and analysing policy options.

Keywords: United States; carbon emissions; constructivism; environmental assessment; positivism; scientific uncertainty

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Interdisciplinary and Global Studies, 100 Institute Rd, Worcester, MA 01609, USA, Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2010

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