Javiera Barandiarán is an interdisciplinary scholar who specializes in the study of environmental politics and policy in Latin America. Her primary interests are focused on exploring how governments engage environmental challenges through regulation and she brings a particular emphasis and expertise on the nation of Chile. In her groundbreaking book, one of the questions she grapples with is: what are the criteria that a state should use to decide in favor of or against proposed natural resources infrastructure projects? Because infrastructure developments have uneven impacts across the social and physical terrains of cities and nations, they are frequently controversial, producing political liabilities and enemies as often as they reinforce or engender political alliances. One solution to this problem has been to attempt to depoliticize these decisions. Engaging a wide range of literature in environmental politics and Science and Technology Studies (STS), Barandiarán finds that scholars typically conclude that liberal democratic states have tried to depoliticize these decisions by relying on technical experts, market incentives, allowing some form of public participation, or some combination thereof. In the case of Chile, that nation’s environmental reforms in 2009-2010 were meant to achieve this goal so that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process would gain broad acceptance and legitimacy. Instead, Chilean governmental institutions ultimately expanded the state’s role in the EIA process by appealing to “rules and regulations” rather than other means of decision making that are typically viewed as tainted by politics or elitism.

How did this happen? Since Chile was an early adopter of neoliberal economic principles (shortly after the 1973 coup), many scholars have viewed that nation as a “test case” of neoliberal environmental governance. That is, this was a context in which reforms were made through a centralized government that emphasized less regulation and more technocratic expertise to achieve environmental governance. But Barandiarán finds that the Chilean state pursued depoliticization through the power of law, rules, and regulations long before the age of neoliberalism, and that foundation is still in evidence today—something that scholars focused too closely on neoliberalism have missed. Today this continuing dynamic allows public servants to present the view that they are “slaves of the law” whose authority is rooted in the body of jurisprudence rather than in any political or ideological perspective. An appeal to rules allows politicians to present otherwise thorny issues as neutral, removed from state interests. Rules and regulations in Chilean politics are therefore used in ways that science is used in many other liberal democracies—as a supposedly “objective” approach to decision making that is based on technical criteria and therefore outside the realm of politics. Barandiarán argues that the problem with this practice is that state officials then are unable to effectively speak to or advocate on issues of significance to particular localities and ecologies. This arrangement creates an unintended crisis that leaves local communities and the state at a loss for effective representation on issues that affect vast swaths of the citizenry and ecosystems. Ironically, this process also results in a strengthening of state power through what was supposed to be an effort to achieve the opposite effect.

This is a powerful study because it traces the development and evolution of neoliberal policy making in a single nation over time, revealing that Chile departed from the typical orientation that states tend to embrace, and that there are infinitely varied formations and expressions of neoliberalism. Barandiarán also demonstrates the importance of her in-depth case study method for making visible the nuances, complexities, and unanticipated consequences of policy choices. She also reveals the ongoing significance of historical practices and legacy institutional cultures in shaping policy outcomes, often inhibiting transformative change.

Barandiarán offers a fascinating, compelling, and timely analysis of the conflicted role of science in Chilean environmental policy-making. Two of the four cases she examines are the gold mine at Pascua Lama and the HidroAysén hydroelectric power project (the other two are salmon aquaculture and a paper and pulp mill). She finds that while the state made its final decisions regarding these projects autonomously from recommendations by scientists, a surprising outcome was that the role and credibility of science were debated and challenged from within and from outside of that community. These tensions emerged over questions concerning how the scientific community produces credible evidence, how scientific research is funded (and by whom), and whether scientists can effectively speak to local concerns in communities in which they may be outsiders. Barandiarán’s research explores new and important questions about the precarity and significance of multiple forms of contested knowledge and evidence in these conflicts that circulate inside and well beyond the boundaries of grassroots social movements. This study also has clear implications for other contexts where scientific credibility and legitimacy are at stake and in question, such as the ongoing controversy over climate science in the United States. While the attack on science in the U.S. is driven primarily by forces outside of the scientific community, what links these two cases are the crisis of scientific legitimacy itself and the lack of spaces to debate and discuss this issue in productive ways.

I truly appreciate Barandiarán’s discussion of the fact (early in the book) that, as much as we would hope that state-supported science would be put to positive and progressive ends, for many of us we have witnessed that science and state nexus be used for abusive purposes, including the embrace of capitalism’s infinite economic growth imperative in the face of declining ecological health; the promotion of colonization of peoples and lands; and the production of racial science and eugenics. Scientific institutions are not always friendly and supportive of social and environmental justice, and this is a critically important reminder today when so many scholars, policy makers, and activists advocate for what I would describe as an uncritical embrace of science as authoritative institutional and cultural force, particularly with respect to concerns over anthropogenic climate change. The all-out assault on climate science by certain political and industrial actors makes this move particularly appealing but also is a reminder of the importance of being cautious about unwavering and knee-jerk support of science in much of the world which is, at root, inseparably linked to capitalist enterprises and institutions.

Barandiarán argues that, at times, the Chilean state behaves like an empire and other times it acts as Milton Friedman’s umpire. This reminds me of Allan Schnaiberg’s theory of the treadmill of production, in which the state acts as both a mediator of various stakeholder demands but is also ultimately committed to the capitalist project of infinite economic growth and the expansion of state and corporate power (which is another way of describing neoliberalism) (Schnaiberg and Gould, 2000). In other words, while the image of an empire sends clear negative signals to those of us concerned with social justice and ecological sustainability, an umpire’s job is ultimately to call the shots and reinforce the capitalist state’s power. After all, in sports, an umpire’s decisions can make the difference between winning and losing a game. The state as umpire does not necessarily mean the state is a neutral arbiter if the umpire’s job is to call the shots according to the rules of a game that is rigged in favor of private actors, as is made clear by the subsidiary principle and article 19 of the Chilean constitution. In other words, what I’m suggesting is that sometimes there may not be that much distance between the state as empire and the state as umpire.

One of the threads that binds each of the four case studies in the book is that they involve ecosystem extractive industries that are based in rural areas, and I would like to see more theorizing of rurality itself and how that plays a role in shaping these conflicts and their outcomes. In my view, rural spaces are more important than ever precisely because 1) humans are now a primarily urban species and rural areas are the sources of ecological wealth that fuels and makes possible that urbanization; and 2) because rural areas are frequently the dumping grounds or the sinks in which we deposit our ecological-industrial detritus. So there are clear political economic and political ecological dynamics at play and I wonder how rurality fits into this story and perhaps if there are particularly unique ways in which it functions in Chile.

One of the unsettling arguments the author makes is that what shaped these conflicts in surprising ways is the high level of distrust in government and science among the Chilean citizenry. In many ways, this is totally understandable in a nation in which neither institution has kept its promises and lived up to its potential. But this also begs the question as to what if any other institutions the citizenry do have faith and trust in? Are there alternatives that have either existed for generations or that are emergent, that the denizens of Chile can place their faith and trust in, or is there truly a gap in the national fabric in which there are few if any large institutions worthy of national confidence?

The book’s presentation of EIAs (environmental impact statements) reveals that the author is one of the world’s experts on this topic. I found the discussion of EIA’s fascinating for two additional reasons: 1) I wonder if scholars have raised concerns that the origination of EIAs in the U.S. and their global proliferation afterwards may have resulted in an Americanization of environmental decision making in other countries in ways that suggest a potentially problematic (if not imperial) influence from the U.S.? and 2) even under the best of circumstances, an EIA is limited in that it is supposed to “balance” environmental sustainability and protection goals against capitalist development goals. Yet, is this framing in and of itself a problem because the latter is almost always detrimental to the former, and any such “balanced” decision will likely leave an ecological imbalance? In other words, the vast majority of momentum is in favor of a sense of inevitability with respect to development projects—that is to say, the overwhelming number of proposed projects will in fact move forward in some form or fashion and that it is relatively rare for development projects to be stopped entirely. This brings us back to my point about the not so distinct lines between the state as empire vs. umpire because ultimately the state is predisposed to supporting capitalism and its constitutive development projects in one way or another because there is an underlying assumption that such an approach is geared toward ensuring progress.

In sum, Science and the Environment in Chile is an original and generative analysis of the ways in which state power, the institution and practice of science, and environmental policy goals exist in productive and often troubling tensions, and these in-depth case studies within the Chilean context have clear and important implications for communities struggling for environmental sustainability, justice, and democracy around the world. With the publication of this pathbreaking work, Javiera Barandiarán has established herself as a leader in the field.

Works Cited

Schnaiberg, A. and K. Gould. (2000). Environment and society: The enduring conflict. Caldwell, NJ: Blackburn Press.