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Robert W. Kates (born 1929) is an American geographer and independent scholar in Trenton, Maine, and University Professor (Emeritus) at Brown University. In 2008, he was appointed the inaugural Presidential Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Maine, Orono.

Kates was born in New York City. He never took an undergraduate degree, but while working in Illinois, he sought study advice from Gilbert F. White at the University of Chicago. White recognized his abilities and steered him through an MA and eventually a PhD in Geography. Kates taught at the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University from 1962 until the mid 1980s. From 1986 to 1992 he was Professor and Director of the World Hunger Program at Brown University.

Kates's research focuses 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 has led him to address the human use of natural resources and human response to hazards. His approach is 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 has continued to work on:

  • the sustainability transition
  • long-term population dynamics
  • global environmental change
  • the prevalence and persistence of hunger.

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).

Kates helped to establish the international Initiative for Science and Technology for Sustainability, was Executive Editor of Environment magazine for many years, and is still a Senior Associate at Harvard University. In previous years, he worked in Africa with Clark colleagues, and also developed and directed a resource assessment centre at the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. At Clark University he founded CENTED (the centre for technology, environment, and development), now part of the Marsh Institute, where he remains a Distinguished Scientist.

Among several honours he is a recipient of the 1991 National Medal of Science, and the MacArthur Fellow (1981–85). He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Academia Europaea. He was awarded an honorary DSc from Clark University for his many contributions to hazards research.


Kates and White's work on hazards, and their 'human ecology' approach, some of it coauthored with Ian Burton, has 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 - as "natural" underplays the ways that neoliberalism, and 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).

Selected publications

  • Kates, R.W. 1962. Hazard and Choice Perception in Flood Plain Management. Department of Geography Research Paper no. 78, University of Chicago Press.
  • Kates, R.W. 1965. Industrial Flood Losses : Damage estimation in the Lehigh Valley. University of Chicago Press.
  • Burton, I. and Kates, R.W. (Eds.). 1965. Readings in Resource Management and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Burton, I, R.W. Kates and R.E.Snead. 1969. The human ecology of coastal flood hazard in megalopolis. Dept. of Geography. Research paper no. 115. University of Chicago Press.
  • Russell, C.S., Arey D.G and R.W. Kates. 1970. Drought and Water Supply: Implications of the Massachusetts Experience for Municipal Planning. RFF Press.
  • Kates, R.W. (Ed.). 1977. Managing Technological Hazard: Research Needs and Opportunities. Boulder: Institute of Behavioral Science.
  • Hass J.E, R.W.KAtes and M.J. Bowden. 1977. Reconstruction Following Disaster. MIT Press.
  • Kates, R.W. 1978. Risk Assessment of Environmental Hazards. SCOPE Report 8. John Wiley.
  • Burton I and Kates R.W. 1978. The Environment as Hazard. Oxford University Press. Second edition with a new introduction: Guilford Press, 1993.
  • Kasperson R.E. and R.W. Kates. 1980. Equity Issues in Radioactive Waste Management. Greenwood Press.
  • Berry L. and R.W. Kates (Eds.). 1980. Making the Most of the Least: Alternative Ways to Development. New York and London: Holmes & Meier.
  • Kates, R.W. and J.X. Kasperson. 1983. Comparative Risk Analysis of Technological Hazards. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 80: 7027-7038.
  • Kates, R.W. 1984. Technological Hazards Management. Oelgeschlager Gunn & Hain.
  • Kates R.W., Hohenemser C. and J.X. Kasperson (Eds.). 1985. Perilous progress: Managing the hazards of technology. Westview Press.
  • Kates, R.W. and I. Burton (Eds.). 1986. Geography, Resources and Environment, Volume 1: Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White. University of Chicago Press.
  • Kates R.W. and I. Burton (Eds.). 1986. Geography, Resources and Environment, Volume 2: Themes from the Work of Gilbert F. White. University of Chicago Press.
  • Newman L, (gen.eds. Kates, R.W. et al.) 1990. Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation. Blackwell.
  • Turner, B.L. II, Hyden G, and R.W. Kates (Eds.). 1993. Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa. University of Florida Press.
  • Turner, B.L. II, W.C. Clark, R.W. Kates, J.F. Richards, J.T. Mathews, W.B. Meyer (Eds.). 1990. The Earth as Transformed by Human Action: Global and Regional Changes in the Biosphere over the Past 300 Years. Cambridge University Press.
  • Burton, I. and Kates. R.W. (committee chairs). 1999. Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. National Academy of Sciences.
  • Kates, R.W., W.C. Clark, R.Corell, J.M.Hall, C. Jaeger, I. Lowe, J.J. McCarthy, H.J. Schellnhuber, B.Bolin, N.M. Dickson, S. Faucheux, G.C. Gallopín, A. Gruebler, B.Huntley, J. Jäger, N.S. Jodha, R.E. Kasperson, A.Mabogunje, P.Matson, H.Mooney, B.Moore III, T. O'Riordan, and U.Svedin. 2001. Science. Science 292, 641-2.
  • Raskin, P, T. Banuri, G.Gallopín, P. Gutman, A. Hammond, R.W. Kates, and R. Swart. 2002. Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. Stockholm Environment Institute.
  • Kates R.W. et al. 2003. Global Change in Local Places: Estimating, Understanding, and Reducing Greenhouse Gases. Cambridge University Press.


  • Watts, M.J. 1983a. The Poverty of Theory. In Hewitt, K. (ed.) Interpretations of Calamity: from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Boston: Allen & Unwin. 231-262.
  • Watts, MJ. 1983b. Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press. [runner-up for Herskovitz Prize, 1984]
  • Wisner, B. 1976. Man-made Famine in Eastern Kenya. Discussion Paper 96. Falmer, UK:

Institute of Development Studies.

  • Wisner, B, P. Blaikie, T. Cannon, I. Davis. 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters. London: Routledge.


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