Javiera Barandiarán’s Science and Environment in Chile presents an empirically rich analysis of conflicts related to environmental impact assessments (EIAs) in Chile. Investigating “what kinds of democratic states [are] produced alongside EIAs” (25), the book engages in a thorough investigation of four case studies in Chile, each of which explores the politics of neoliberal environmental policy making. The book adds to existing literatures about the politics of scientific expertise with an exploration of a country case that exemplifies the separate pulls of neoliberalism and democratic demands for accountable governance. The central insight of the book’s four case studies—dealing with salmon farming, a paper and pulp mill, a gold mine, and a dam project—is that environmental policy making in neoliberalism is defined by tensions that rarely increase and often pull away from “the kind of institutionalized, reflexive, and critical intellectual capacities needed for long-term environmental protections” (30).
The book methodically examines two key themes throughout the case studies: the construction of scientific expertise and the “umpire state.” The book builds from the science and technology studies (STS) perspective in exploring boundary work and the relationship between scientific expertise and other social actors like the private sector and activist networks. It argues that Chile, as a democratizing state that embraced neoliberal policy positions, is an ideal case for using this approach. While many institutions, such as the National Commission for the Environment, play a central role in the story, they operate differently than the adversarial administrative proceedings or advisory committees that other studies have emphasized. Barandiarán shows that choices about legitimation strategies matter in the Chilean context. One example, highlighted in the case study about the Valdivia Paper and Pulp Mill, is in the choice of scientific experts from Chile or from outside the country. Foreign scientists are preferred because they lack local conflicts of interest, but the result is further weakening of domestic environmental science capacity. In other instances, scientists demonstrate their independence by highlighting results that go against funders’ preferences, which only reinforces the view that scientific work is largely directed by funders in the first place. The empirical work reveals the variety of tensions that occurs with the construction of scientific expertise.
The second focus is on the role of state institutions through this process, conceptualizing an umpire state as one “that sees itself as a broker between competing parties that produce their own knowledge claims” (6). The concept is exemplified clearly with the example of maps provided for an EIA related to the construction of five dams in the Aysén province. The massive EIA undertaken by Endesa, the company that owned the dam project, was undermined by the submission of illegible maps. When the legibility was addressed, the resulting downloadable file was an unsearchable PDF that caused computers to overheat. In contrast to an “empire” conception of the state, where effective maps are seen as a tool of state control, the umpire state sees “mapmaking … [as] a privatized formality—another box to check on the long list of requirements” (168). The idea of the umpire state is demonstrated in other case studies as well. In the example of salmon aquaculture, “state officials have to make decisions using data they are skeptical of and are also limited in how to change the conditions that underpin their distrust” (90). The umpire state is an excellent conceptualization of state action that highlights the complexities of the cases studied but also has comparative significance for scholarship on state power, sustainability, and scientific expertise.
The strength of the book is its empirically detailed case studies, but one weakness is that the theoretical contributions are limited in comparison. For example, the case study of the Pascua Lama Gold Mine finds that scientization, the practice of science-based claims crowding out other types of knowledge claims, does not explain the findings; the study instead contends that “scientific and non-scientific claims coexisted” (155). An alternative lens would emphasize the normative content of the scientific expertise that created the opportunity for space to be opened for nonscientific claims. Similarly, the HydroAysén case concludes by arguing that there may be an upward limit to the umpire state where it cannot remain a neutral referee due to social pressure. Where this upward limit is, how it manifests, and how the state, scientists, and other actors understand it are not analyzed in depth. Comparative work concerned with the construction of science or the neoliberal state and environmental policy making can nevertheless extend the concepts and explore new terrain.
Barandiarán’s careful empirical unpacking opens space for deeper reflections on the interrelationship between a neoliberal state and politics of science legitimation. It is an insightful and important read that takes existing concepts in studies of neoliberal states and STS and develops them methodically and carefully. The preface begins by seeking an intervention into the politics of “alternative facts” that many right-wing populist movements have brought to the fore; on those terms, the book achieves its goal with careful exploration but its analysis also provides tools for moving past those politics.