Bob Kates, a Pioneer in Sustainability Science— A Farewell at 89

Andy Revkin
3 min readApr 26, 2018


I first got to know the self-described “independent scholar” Bob Kates when I was working on the special “Managing Planet Earth” issue of The New York Times Science Times section in 2002. He was in the opening section of my core story and he was the kicker, as well — a sure sign that his ideas captured my imagination and held up after a lot of reporting. Here’s that closing poassage:

Managing Planet Earth, The New York Times, Aug. 20, 2002

Bob passed away peacefully on the day before Earth Day, 2018, at age 89, according to his family. I’m glad I was able to visit him last summer and several years before that at his simple Maine home overlooking Mount Desert Island from the mainland in Ellsworth.

Even though his mental faculties had faded, he had a gentle smile as we chatted amiably about the glorious vista and his view that a human-shaped planet need not be desolate.

On his website, he described the core question of his half century of scholarship in the simplest terms:

“What is and ought to be the human use of the earth?”

That remains the question of our time.

Insert: I forgot that Kates contributed these thoughts for a Dot Earth item on resilience:

Here’s a talk he gave on sustainability science at the Institute of Resource Assessment Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the University of Dar es Salaam.

I hope you will explore and help share his intellectual legacy. Here are just a few of the papers he produced in his final decade:

Kates, R. W. 2012. Natural Hazards, Climate Change, and Adaptation: Persistent Questions and Answers. South Australian Geographical Journal, vol.111, pp. 43–55.

Kates, R.W., W.R. Travis, and T.J. Wilbanks, 2012. Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109, №19, pp. 7156–7161, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1115521109

Kates, R. W., ed. 2011. From the Unity of Nature to Sustainability Science: Ideas and Practice. CID Working Paper №218. Center for International Development, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Kates, R. W. 2011. Gilbert F. White, 1911–2006, A Biographical Memoir. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Kates, R.W., 2011. What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 108, №49, 99. 19449–19450, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116097108



Andy Revkin

Pursuing progress on a finite planet at @columbia @earthinstitute. The rest? Family, friends, books, songs