Robert W. Kates (January 31, 1929 – April 21, 2018) was an American geographer and independent scholar in Trenton, Maine, and University Professor (Emeritus) at Brown University.[1]


Kates was born in Brooklyn, New York. Unusually for an academic, he never completed an undergraduate degree. He studied Economics at New York University from 1946-8, but dropped out. He married Ellie Hackman (d.2016) at the age of 19 and went to work in a steel mill in Indiana for 12 years, working with the labor union and other movements.[2][3] He had a chance encounter with a naturalist in a state park in Indiana when on vacation with his family, and this meeting inspired him to train to become an elementary school teacher, a job he thought would free up summer vacations for the family. To realise this career he signed up for night school at Indiana University, Gary in 1957, when aged 28. One of his classes to become a teacher was in geography. Having found his calling and his discipline, he sought study advice from Gilbert F. White at the University of Chicago. White gave him some key texts to read, Kates returned to discuss them, White recognized his abilities and steered him through an MA and eventually a PhD in Geography (1962). Kates taught at the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University from 1962 until 1987.[4] At Clark he founded CENTED (the Centre for Technology, Environment, and Development), now part of the Marsh Institute, where he remained a Distinguished Scientist. He worked in Africa with Clark colleagues, and also developed and directed a resource assessment centre at the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (from 1967–68).

Kates helped to establish the international Initiative for Science and Technology for Sustainability, was Executive Editor of Environment magazine for many years, and was a Senior Associate at Harvard University.

From 1986 to 1992 he was Professor and Director of the interdisciplinary World Hunger Program at Brown University. Kates retired relatively early, became an 'independent scholar' and moved to Trenton, Maine overlooking the Narrows in the early 1990s. Kates had three children, 6 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.[5] He remained professionally active until his mid 80s and in 2008 (at age 79), was appointed the inaugural Presidential Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Maine, Orono.[6]


Kates's research focused on long-term trends in environment, development, and population, and he is particularly known for his work on natural hazards mitigation, driven by a Quaker belief in relevance to human society. Kates defines his central question as "What is and ought to be the human use of the Earth?" This led him to address the human use of natural resources and human response to hazards. His approach was to set up "natural" experiments, and then to develop a set of comparative observations or analogs. This led to several studies of natural and technological hazards, rural resource and water development, and methodologies for studying people's perception of the environment, the assessment of risk, and the impacts of climate on society. Since retiring from Brown University he continued to work on:

Following the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Kates returned to his earlier work on hazards and published a research perspective on the reconstruction of New Orleans (Kates et al., 2006).


Among several honours:

Kates was awarded honorary DSc degrees from Clark University for his many contributions to hazards research (1993) and from the University of Maine (2004).


Kates's work on hazards, and his 'human ecology' approach, some of it coauthored with Ian Burton (Burton and Kates 1978), attracted critique from scholars including Michael Watts (1983a, b) and former student Ben Wisner (1976, 2004). The insight of these critiques is that "natural" hazards are in fact exacerbated by political and economic forces, and they should be seen as "social", not "natural". To suggest that severe drought - or even the flooding of New Orleans - are "natural" underplays the ways that powerful political and economic interests make people more vulnerable. Humans cannot "adapt" or, in Kates's language, "adjust" successfully to hazards when a population is highly vulnerable or even exploited (Watts, 1983a). Mitigating natural hazards is therefore a social justice issue, not a case of adjustment. This has been much-debated in Wisner et al.'s At Risk (2004). Kates generally chose not to respond openly to his critics.[9]


Recent Articles



Institute of Development Studies.

  1. ^[bare URL PDF]
  2. ^[bare URL PDF]
  3. ^ "Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at UMaine".
  4. ^ "Robert Kates Obituary (1929 - 2018) Worcester Telegram & Gazette".
  5. ^ | Obituary
  6. ^ "Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at UMaine".
  7. ^ Interview with Robert Kates, Pathfinder in Sustainability Science. Maine Policy Review 21(1)
  8. ^ "American Geographical Society to Award Charles P. Daly Medal to Dr. Robert Kates". American Geographical Society. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  9. ^[bare URL PDF]