Robert Kates, In Memoriam

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Robert W. Kates

Planet citizen among the pioneers of the modern environmental movement


The central question of my scientific work has been: what is and ought to be the human use of the earth? It has been pursued collectively, with mentor, colleagues, students, and friends, As with most grand queries, ours is studied not grandly but in reduced ways, as a set of more specific research questions related to hazards, environment, hunger, and sustainable development. Regarding hazard, I tried to understand why people persist in occupying areas subject to natural and technological hazards and how adaptation made this possible. An extended stay in Africa to research both environment and development led to new queries. Why does the Malthusian dilemma persist with concerns evolving from food sufficiency for the population to resource scarcity to the basic life-support systems and the chemical cycles of the biosphere? How has humankind transformed the earth, indeed can life be sustained? Why does hunger persist amid a world of plenty, and what can be done to end it? Can there be a transition to sustainability that over the next two generations would meet human needs and reduce hunger and poverty while maintaining the essential life support systems of the planet? All these themes and the research methods used to pursue them come together in an emerging sustainability science.

Looking back, I seem to have pursued these more specific research questions in some six intense periods lasting about 7 years each of work, place, and opportunity. The periods do blend together, however, the new always begins before the old is done. The constituent questions never are fully answered; as all grand queries do, they reappear in new and profound ways. But they also overlap as we all carry our history with us and thus in my current seventh period (almost 50 years since my first publication), I still work on all of these. I have returned to hazards with studies of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, community resilience to hazard, and of adaptation to climate change. I have returned to hunger and poverty in my concern for their increase in Africa. And I continue to revisit the grand challenges to sustainable development and sustainability science.

Reflecting on 50 years of professional work, I find the high points to be a series of empirical studies, comparative analyses, methodological developments, conceptual insights, institutional initiatives, and policies advocacy, listed roughly by date of initiation. Having published with 116 colleagues and worked with even more, all of this work is the work of many...

Environmental protection

Environmental movement

Memories of Bob by Andy Revkin

Andy Revkin

Pursuing progress on a finite planet @insideNatGeo.

April 25, 2018

Kates, R.W., 2011. What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 108, №49, 99. 19449–19450, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116097108


Africa -

Climate and Society -

Environment and Society -

Environmental Perception -

Hunger and Food Security -

International Development -

Natural Hazards -

Population and Resources -

Sustainability Science -