Self-reflection #

Robert Kates#

I begin with a self-reflective introduction to what is now 50 years of professional life, much of it taken from: Kates, Robert W., 2001. Queries on the Human Use of the Earth, Annual Review of Energy and Environment, Vol 26:1-26.

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 devlopment 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.


Because I was trained in geography, a field-oriented observational discipline, my basic unit of inquiry has been the empirical field study, combining first-hand observation of an environment with survey research or participation of its inhabitants or users. These have included studies of natural hazard adjustment in many states of the United States and in Australia, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Tanzania, and West Africa; resource use studies in Tanzania and the United States; studies of environmental perception by inhabitants or users of hazard zones, climate regions, and urban and rural landscapes; and studies of technological hazards, including auto safety, chemical production, nuclear power and reprocessing, and greenhouse gas emissions.


My basic mode of analysis, however, has been to ask large but relatively well-focused questions, and then to organize and employ a set of comparative observations, seeking generic answers. Over time, the questions have grown larger, and the methods have became more varied, moving from cross-sectional field study, to creation of large data sets, to historical reconstruction and analysis. Throughout, there is a preference for seeking an appropriate “natural” experiment, a set of imperfectly controlled, but suggestive, comparative observations or analogs. Together with many others, we have compared natural hazard loss, perception, and adjustment in 20 countries; reconstruction following disaster at four sites and most recently following Hurricane Katrina; developed a taxonomy of 93 technological hazards; reconstructed the past 6000 years of population growth and decline in four regions; explored the causes of underdevelopment among 25 least-developed countries; identified and assessed the impacts of climate changes across the United States and the emissions of greenhouse gases at four sites; taken stock of 10,000 years of human-induced global environmental changes; reconstructed the history of hunger; compared agricultural intensification in population dense areas of Africa; sought the links between poverty and environment from case studies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; charted the long-term trends affecting sustainable development and assessed the values, attitudes, and behavior affecting sustainability; and currently examine the potential for enhancing community resilience to hazards in four cities of the Southeastern United States..


Characteristic of interdisciplinary research is the need to extend existing or to develop new methods to address emergent societal problems. For example, the need of hazard management, urban planning, and architecture to take into account the perception and knowledge of its residents, users, or clients led to the development of ways of studying “environmental perception.” As the range of hazards expanded, I went on to prepare introductory monographs on risk assessment and, with Jesse Ausabel and Mimi Berberian, on climate impact assessment. Anticipating impacts from human-induced climate change with Tom Karl and Bill Travis (Riebsame), we developed an assessment method using extreme natural variations as proxies. As interest in complexity and nonlinear dynamics spread, Bill Clark and I explored ways of constructing future scenarios that are surprise-rich by combining quantitative decision science approaches to eliciting surprising future outcomes with qualitative narratives as to how these might come about. Now as part of the most interdisciplinary effort of my professional life—sustainability science—we collectively pursue methodologies for studying complex, coupled, human environment systems.


I have always been interested in theory but felt that existing theories of either nature, society, or technology did not capture the interactive domain that characterizes the human use of the earth. In searching for conceptual insight, I have drawn flow diagrams and built models, reviewed and organized existing theory, and grasped a few important insights or theories of the middle range. These relate to the nature of hazards and resources, to the interactions between nature, society, and technology, to the prevalence and persistence of hunger, and to the human-induced transformation of the earth.

To take one example from our hazard studies, hazards and resources are uniquely related: People encounter hazard in the search for the useful. For hazards, nature, technology, and society interact to generate both vulnerability and resilence. Thus, there are no uniquely natural, social, or technological hazards, nor can hazard consequences be meaningfully examined separate from human response. Over time, the thrust of societal development is toward reducing the social costs of hazard to society (lessening hypothesis), but in periods of rapid transition, societies become peculiarly vulnerable to hazard (transition hypothesis). Succesful lessening of hazard, however, may serve to increase the catastrophic vulnerability to a perturbation that exceeds the level of adjustment (levee or catastrophic hypothesis).


None of the great questions of science or society maps easily onto disciplines, and their consideration requires not only new methods and approaches but also new forms of institutional relationships and collaboration. I have had the opportunity to develop an African university program of resource-related research applied to development policy; to help develop in the United States an interdisciplinary research program on technology, environment, and development; to lead an effort by the scientific community to ease the human rights suffering and imprisonment of colleagues around the world; to begin a program of basic research addressed to world hunger; to create low-cost networks that enabled researchers, both north and south, to collaborate and exchange research findings on pests and pesticides, another on hunger, and a current forum on sustainability science; and, more generally, to encourage meaningful collaboration between the natural and social sciences on the major issues of global environmental change, sustainable development, and the rapidly growing effort on sustainability science.


Finally, all the foregoing research should in some small way help change the world. Sometimes these bits and pieces of insight come together to suggest larger policy changes. These have included efforts to include disaster prevention as part of programs of international development and assistance; to make more equitable people’s exposure to the hazards of technology; to have Rhode Island become a national leader in environmental conservation and waste reduction, Maine become a leader in climate change prevention and adaptation, and adaptation to climate change receive the attention it deserves. Most important has been the effort to cut world hunger in half and to encourage a transition toward sustainability.

Robert W. Kates
Trenton, Maine
January, 2009

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