Robert Kates

Presidential Professor of Sustainability Science,
University of Maine

Bob KatesBob Kates has followed an unconventional career path for an internationally renowned scholar. For starters, he dropped out of college and went to work in a steel mill in the Midwest.

Kates may have remained a steel worker if he hadn’t decided to bring his young family camping one weekend. In a state park in Indiana, he met a naturalist who inspired him to become an elementary school teacher. He signed up for night school, where one of his prerequisite courses was geography. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I never did become a school teacher,” Kates says, laughing. “My geography instructor said, ‘you’re really good at this. Why don’t you come back and do it in graduate school?’”

So he did. And in the 50-plus years since, Kates has become an eminent geographer who has pursued a single, powerful research question: “What is and ought to be the human use of the Earth?” His search for answers has led to new insights into everything from reducing world hunger to rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina.

Kates has spent a lifetime studying why and how people live in places vulnerable to floods, droughts and other hazards—and how hazards can turn into disasters when they affect human communities. He has created a resource assessment institute in Tanzania, led the World Hunger Program at Brown University, and headed dozens of collaborative projects addressing climate change and other complex challenges. Although his work is literally all over the map, it is driven by a unifying goal. “Research should in some small way help change the world,” Kates says.

For his contributions to science and society, Kates has received the National Medal of Science, a MacArthur Fellowship and many other honors. One might assume that he would have happily retired to savor his accomplishments, but that would be wrong. At 81, Kates is still pursuing his big question as an independent scholar and the first Presidential Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Maine, where he also chairs SSI’s advisory board.

“I failed retirement,” Kates jokes as he sits in the cozy living room of his home in Trenton, which overlooks the mountains of Acadia National Park across the bay. His kind, open gaze belies a fierce intellect as he reflects on his hopes and fears for the future of life on Earth—and his work on a new, interdisciplinary field of science dedicated to sustaining it.

Kates is a driving force behind sustainability science, which he helped to found a decade ago. This new academic field connects science to sustainable development and brings together researchers and practitioners from diverse disciplines including the natural sciences, economics, and the social sciences to collaborate on solving real-world problems. Everyone is invited to participate.

“People are always asking, ‘what do you mean by sustainability?’” Kates says. “But I like the ambiguity because it allows everybody to go into the common tent.”

Kates has helped to pitch this big tent. He co-chaired the National Academy of Sciences 2000 report Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability, which called for a new science of sustainability that helps “meet human needs while preserving the life support systems of the planet and reducing hunger and poverty.”  In 2001, Kates and colleagues laid out the core questions for this new field in a seminal article in Science.

In the decade since, sustainability science courses and programs have sprung up at colleges and universities around the world, including UMaine, where SSI was launched in 2009.  Funded by a 5-year, $20 million EPSCoR grant from the National Science Foundation, SSI provides support for 24 interdisciplinary research projects throughout the state conducted by more than 50 faculty and hundreds of students. These projects address issues including urbanization, renewable energy, forest management practices and climate change.

Kates responded enthusiastically when he was asked to chair SSI’s advisory board. “I was excited by this project and I wanted a meaningful way to participate and help give guidance,” he says. “SSI is unique in the country as an endeavor that is solutions-based and bridges disciplines between researchers, stakeholders and institutions.”

Helping to guide SSI is a natural fit for Kates, who has brought together diverse disciplines, institutions and individuals to tackle complicated challenges throughout his long career. For instance, while serving as the first director of the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University, he built international consensus on cutting world hunger in half, which laid the groundwork for the U.N.’s first Millennium Development Goal: cutting by half extreme hunger and poverty. His research on floods is contributing to a better understanding of the time frame that will be required to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans (Kates estimates at least 11 years).

Drawing on the lessons of Katrina, Kates continues to collaborate with colleagues from many disciplines on an increasingly urgent issue: building community resilience in an age of climate change. It is one of the latest iterations of his “grand query,” which has evolved over the years into questions ranging from why hunger persists in a world of plenty to whether or not we can make the transition to sustainability over the next two generations.

Kates sees reasons for both concern and hope. His three “big sustainability worries” are reducing poverty and hunger in Africa, responding to the changes in America’s role in the world, and slowing global warming. “The biggest challenge in the next 100 years is how to get off fossil fuels,” Kates says. “We’ll surely do it, but it may come too late.”

Can we make the switch before it’s too late? Kates, who has been working to accelerate the sustainability transition for years, points out that inspiration and knowledge already exists in social examples like the Civil Rights Movement and in individual examples like the successful campaign to get people to stop smoking. The third important element, he says, encompasses “conditions for take-off” including public values and attitudes, ready institutions and available solutions—like those being pursued by SSI.

Kates is now helping to educate future generations of creative problem solvers as the editor of the new online Reader in Sustainability Science and Technology, which provides a systematic introduction to the key concepts in this emerging field and examples of sustainability solutions from around the world. He is uniquely suited to this endeavor, notes William Clark, Co-director of the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In the foreword, Clark calls Kates “ the most articulate and consistent voice for a truly transformative sustainability science: one that is remorselessly pluralist in its methods, balanced in its treatment of the human and environmental components of the earth system, and passionate in its insistence on using science and technology to create a better world.”

In a world that is growing warmer, stormier and more crowded with a population expected to peak at approximately 9 billion by 2050, what has Kates learned in his own search for solutions? For one thing, he contends that it is possible to meet the basic needs of a burgeoning population. “Lots of people seem excessively worried about population, when we should be worried about consumption,” Kates says. “I don’t know why that persists, but there is enough to go around for our 9 billion people if we distribute it fairly, evenly and justly.”

Kates’ commitment to raising difficult issues like equity, which is informed by his years of human rights and other social justice work, inspires scores of colleagues, including Nancy Dickson, Co-Director of Harvard’s Sustainability Science Program. “Bob grapples with the question of what sorts of tradeoffs—present versus future, us versus them—are appropriate as we try to manage our environment,” says Dickson, who serves with Kates on SSI’s advisory board. “This question is about equity across places. For instance, is it fair that I dump my pollution on you? It’s also about equity across generations, like, is it fair that we emit greenhouse gases that will endanger our children and grandchildren? Bob doesn’t try to escape making value judgments about equity and fairness in answer to this question.”

A grandfather of six who moved to Maine 20 years ago with his wife, Ellie, to be closer to their children in Bangor, Kates thinks a great deal about the future and continues to work on its behalf at all levels of engagement. Close to home, he is on the faculty of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute and has served for years on the Trenton Solid Waste Committee. Near and far, the streams of his world-changing work converge in his passion for sustainability science.

As Kates looks back on his work, he recalls a recent conversation with a few of his closest colleagues. “I questioned where the sustainability transition is going and will it come fast enough to make a difference,” Kates says. “One of my colleagues said, ‘just look at ten years ago when we started. There are a bunch of developments in sustainability that we have now that we didn’t have then, like green chemistry.’”

Kates gazes out the window as a gull soars over the choppy bay. He smiles. “You know, my colleague is right, or at least partly right,” he says. “There’s a lot to sustain hope.”

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Robert W. Kates