Robert W. Kates

1929 - 2018

Robert W. Kates, geographer, sustainability scientist, beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, died in Trenton, ME, April 21, 2018. He was 89 years old.

He was a professor of Geography at Clark University, Director of the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University, Senior Research Associate at Harvard University, and most recently Presidential Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Maine.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 31, 1929. Following high school, he studied at NYU. He married Eleanor (Hackman) Kates when he was 19, a marriage that would last 68 years. They moved to Gary, Indiana, where Bob worked in a steel mill for twelve years, and where their three children, Katherine, Jon, and Barbara were born.

Thinking it would be nice to have a job with summers off so he could take his family camping, Bob enrolled in night courses with an eye to becoming a schoolteacher. An instructor who noted his apparent academic aptitude introduced him to University of Chicago geography department chairman Gilbert White, who would become Bob’s life-long friend and academic mentor. Dr. White facilitated Bob’s admission to the University’s post-graduate geography program, despite his lacking an undergraduate degree.

It would be an understatement to say that Bob thrived in this academic environment. Thirteen years following receipt of his PhD in 1962, Kates was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of his groundbreaking work in a variety of geography-related fields. He was a recipient in the first annual MacArthur Fellowship in 1981.

Over his multi-faceted career, Bob Kates received multiple awards and honors including the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1991, Honorary Doctorates from Clark University and the University of Maine, the American Geographical Society’s Charles P. Daley medal, the Stanley Brun Award for Creativity from the American Association of Geographers (AAG), and most recently a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Dimensions of Global Change section of the AAG.

He served as the president of the AAG, and was proud to be a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Bob’s academic career was prolific and spanned several interrelated areas. His earliest work was in natural hazards and human perception of environmental risk. His research took him worldwide, from studying reconstruction efforts following the Alaska earthquake in 1964 to helping create what is now the Institute of Resource Assessment in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Later his work broadened to how, in his words, “hazards, nature, technology and society interact to generate both vulnerability and resilience.” This led to work in population studies, hunger reduction, natural resource management, climate change, and foundational contributions to the emerging field of sustainability science.

A geographer by training, Bob’s curiosity and creativity were not constrained by traditional academic disciplines. He loved to ask big questions: “Why does hunger persist amid a world of plenty, and what can be done to end it?”; “How has humankind transformed the earth; indeed, can life be sustained?”; “Can there be a transition to sustainability that over the next two generations would meet human needs, while maintaining the essential life support systems of the planet?”

To help answer such questions, Bob enlisted hundreds of people from the world of academics, policy-makers, and international organizations to work on answers and solutions. His ability to combine ideas that at first glance do not seem to belong together was matched by his ability to engage and recruit wide circles of people from diverse fields to work together. His work style was collaborative: He helped author several books and hundreds of papers, many of which were in conjunction with others.

Confronted with the daunting scope of the problems he studied, Bob’s mode was to fuse academic rigor with a commitment to find achievable goals that could, in his words, “in some small way help change the world.” The question he often shared with his family, underlying all the rest, was “How does one do good in the world?” His lifelong concern with social justice and human rights made him unwilling to divorce practice from theory, to dismiss incremental improvements in people’s lives, or to lose hope.

For example, during his time directing the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program, Kates helped develop a program not only to define the scope of global hunger, but also to develop an international multi-component plan to address it. The typical “Kates question” that shaped the program was not how to end world hunger. Instead, it was “What could be done to cut world hunger in half, in the following decade?” What concrete measures were possible, what resources were required, what it would cost, who could pay for it, then how to advocate for action? Bob’s prodigious energy, organizing talent, and inveterate optimism made such undertakings possible.

Bob was predeceased by his wife Eleanor in 2016. He leaves his children: Katherine Kates and her husband Dennis Chinoy, Jonathan Kates, Barbara Kates and her husband Sol Goldman. He leaves six grandchildren: Sam Kates-Goldman, Miriam Kates-Goldman, Shanyu Wang Kates, Sara Kates-Chinoy and her husband, Eric Nelson, Jesse Kates-Chinoy and his wife Mariemm Pleitez, Hannah Shepard and her husband Wade Shepard. He also leaves four great grandchildren: Petra Shepard, Rivka Shepard, Jack Nelson and Ezra Nelson.

Bob loved his family dearly as his life’s bedrock, and welcomed each new member, by birth or by marriage, into the family circle. He was gratified to live long enough to see his grandchildren launched on their various life adventures.

His health declined over the last several years. When his energy and capacity waned, he reluctantly relinquished his engagement with long-time friends and colleagues, and took comfort in the love and care of his family. He continued to relish a tasty grilled steak, a good mystery novel, Patriots football games, and the view from his deck overlooking Trenton Narrows. He died suddenly and painlessly the day before Earth Day.

To foster continuing work regarding his quest, “What is, and ought to be, the human use of the earth?”, gifts in Bob’s memory may be made online to the Robert W. Kates Fund for Creative Graduate Studies at to benefit the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine. Or donations can be mailed to the University of Maine Foundation, Two Alumni Place, Orono, ME 04469 with a note that it is for the Mitchell Center Robert Kates Fund.

A memorial service will be held sometime this summer.