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Honors Program
Course Description

Honors Program: A pathway to excellence.


"What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts." --Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno

The history of the environment under Polish communist rule is a story of exploitation, degradation, and disregard. The region immediately in and around the medieval city of Krakow, in particular, became an ecological disaster area. Industrialized and hyperurbanized in order to become a showpiece of Marxist progress and development, Krakow instead became a polluted symbol of human callousness and irresponsibility.

The transformation of Krakow from what communists regarded as a conservative, sleepy, and bucolic backwater into a modern Marxist metropolis began with the construction of Nowa Huta in 1949. Built on farmland that was only seven kilometers from Krakow's old town square, Nowa Huta quickly became a new bustling industrial district of the city. By 1956 the population of this district reached 100,000, and at the center of Nowa Huta stood the sprawling Huta im. Lenina (Lenin Steelworks). Each year the mill forged millions of tons of steel. Little or no thought was given to the mill's impact on the environment.

Studies conducted in the 1970s show that the Lenin Steelworks generated stupefying levels of pollution. Millions of tons of cadmium, lead, zinc, iron, and other heavy metals were annually emitted directly into the atmosphere and local waterways. When compared to current EPA standards for acceptable heavy metal soil concentrations, Krakow's soil contained 143 times the norm for cadmium, 20 times the norm for lead, 27 times the norm for zinc, and 14 times the norm for iron. The entire ecosystem was choked with poisonous levels of SO2 and NO2, and the health and populations of local flora and fauna were decimated. It is no wonder that under such conditions Krakow became ground zero for an unprecedented public health emergency with skyrocketing rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and a variety of other medical maladies.

Yet despite being officially deemed an "ecological hazard area" by the government, local, regional, and national communist authorities did absolutely nothing to mitigate the deadly and devastating pollution that plagued Krakow and its environs. How can one explain such official irresponsibility?

As a system of thought, Marxism continued and accelerated the Enlightenment's objectification of Nature, and the Enlightenment's hubristic trust in human ingenuity. Guided by such an ideology, perhaps it is not surprising that Poland's Marxists would have failed as good environmental stewards. Yes, Krakow's industrial pollution was destroying flora and fauna, centuries-old architecture, the Wisla River, surrounding farmland, and the lives of human beings, but communist leaders argued that such immediate sacrifices would eventually and inevitably usher in a better and more rational world. Through proletarian struggle, trust in the process of dialectic materialism, and because of the historical imperative, a workers utopia was destined to emerge. Any systematic problems or mistakes that may have been made by authorities were explained away as fixable deviations. Human reason would ultimately heal, reorder, and improve both human society, and ultimately, Nature itself.

Does the environmental history of Krakow, and Polish communism, suggest that today's neoliberal treatment of climate change, mass extinction, and ecocide are equally flawed? Is it fair to compare both systems and histories? Can we apply lessons from Krakow's history under communism to today's wider ecological problems? In many respects, neoliberals dogmatically cling to the notions of perpetual economic growth, progress, and a consumption driven culture the same way that Marxists trusted in the "science" of dialectic materialism. Is such trust in an ideology, in this case that market solutions can ultimately avert ecological disaster, misplaced? Economically competitive and "sustainable" green technologies such as solar power and electric automobiles are promoted as magical solutions to our world's environmental problems. Tremendous hope has been invested in divestment schemes, class-action law suits, carbon credit trading, and fuel taxes. They promise to wean the planet of carbon fuels. Ecotourism is touted as a means to saving vulnerable species and wilderness, and in a worst-case scenario, human inventiveness will ride to the planet's rescue with geoengineering. Somewhere a vague future of perpetual green progress and economic growth awaits. We just need time, and we just need to trust the "market" and human wisdom. All will eventually be well.

It is my contention that there is little difference between the impact and the promises that Marxists and neoliberals have made to both citizens and Nature. Both trusted/trust human cleverness. Both polluted/pollute. Both are obsessed/obsess about progress and development. Both systems enjoyed/enjoy an almost monopolistic control of political, economic, and academic power in their respective societies. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both ideologies come out of the Enlightenment's anthropocentric tradition, and both have laid waste to Nature. If we look at the history of Krakow's environment under communism, it then may be fair to conclude that this planet's neoliberal future appears grim.


Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Kramer, John M. "The Environmental Crisis in Eastern Europe: The Price for Progress." Slavic Review 42, (1983): 204-220.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.
Oleksyn, Jacek, and Peter B. Reich. "Pollution, Habitat Destruction, and Biodiversity in Poland." Conservation Biology 8, (1994): 943-960.
Olsakova Doubravka. In the Name of Great Work Stalin's Plan for the Transformation of Nature and its Impact in Eastern Europe. New York: Berghahn, 2016.
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking, 2018.
Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017.
Safina, Carl. Beyond Words What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Picador, 2016.
Steiner, Gary. Anthropocentrism and its Discontents The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees What They Feel, How They Communicate. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016.
Zechenter, Katarzyna. "Evolving Narratives in Post-War Polish Literature: The Case of Nowa Huta (1950-2005)." The Slavonic and East European Review 85, (2007): 658-683.


List the courses for which this course might substitute (especially gen eds).
Environmental Sustainability, ENSC 191*
Seminar/Workshop, HSTR 294*
Cold War Europe, HSTR 360
European Intellectual History, HSTR 423
Seminar/Workshop, HSTR 494
History & Philosophy of Science, PHL 241*
Seminar/Workshop, PHL 294*
Seminar/Workshop, PHL 494

Instructor: Dr. Bill Janus

Time: Fall 2019, Stringer.

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