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Documenting rubble to shift baselines: Environmental assessments and damaged glaciers in Chile


Worldwide, governments use environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to manage the environmental impacts of industrial activity. EIAs contain baselines that describe the specific environment where the project would go, and impact evaluations that identify ways to eliminate, reduce, or compensate the environmental harms the project would have. Although EIA baselines promised to democratize and improve decision-making, in practice, many affected communities, environmental activists, and scholars of EIAs find that baselines often obscure certain ecological impacts. Drawing on science and technology studies and environmental history, I reflect on why this happens and propose that it results from the ways in which EIA baselines reproduce modernist views of economic growth and progress. I analyze EIA baselines as a “memory practice” which meet the needs of the present by projecting a timeless, static past to be preserved. This naturalization of modernism can be challenged through two correctives: to compare projects rather than natures in EIA baselines, and to document existing and potential forms of “rubble” resulting from industrial activity. I illustrate these arguments with the case of glaciers and efforts to protect them from the impacts of the Pascua Lama gold mine located in the high-altitude Andes.

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