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Session 3 - 09.27.2010 Long-term trends and transitions in nature and society (Speaker: Robert Kates)

Population size has increased globally throughout most of human history, stimulating rising demand for environmental resources. This relationship has proven to be so strong that virtually all assessments of sustainability begin with it. Over the last two centuries, however, this driver of environmental change has been joined by that of increasingly high levels of individual consumption. This combination of forces has escalated demands on the environment to unprecedented levels and raises important questions about sustainability. What do current trends in population and human well being imply for those of the environment, informed by insights from past human-environment relationships? Can we bring about a future transition to sustainability, meeting the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population while sustaining the life support systems of the planet? This session addresses these and related questions. We begin with a review of the three major global transitions in human-environment relationships that have occurred since the appearance of Homo sapiens, setting the stage for understanding the broad character of human-environment relationships. We then summarize trends in population, human well-being and consumption during the latest and most important phase which started with the industrial revolution and continues today. This is followed by an overview of the implications of the recent expansion of demand for environmental services for stocks of natural capital. Finally, we look ahead to the prospects for completing transitions to sustainability.

Speaker Bio: Bob Kates
-- Speaker: 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?" 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 honors 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. See
Required reading from the Sustainability Science book
Chapter 1.2 Trends and Transitions --As you read the chapter and prepare for the discussion, consider the following study questions: 1. The Reading uses Deevey’s three phases of population growth over time and these are made possible by technology (stone, agriculture, industrial-scientific) expanding the capacity of the earth to support the growth. Is a fourth phase of population growth likely or possible in the future and what would its enabling technology be? 2. The Reading (Table 2.4) does not see a transition from continuing growth in consumption. Do you see a need for such a transition and how would it take place? 3. The Reading describes a set of trends and likely transition for key sectors of population, human development, consumption, and natural capital, but does not offer a sustainability transition. Do you forsee a sustainability transition, and if so, from what and to what, would constitute its changes?
Supplemental readings from the Reader
1) Raskin, P., Tariq Banuri, Gilberto Gallopín, Pablo Gutman, Al Hammond, Robert W. Kates, and Rob Swart. 2002. Where are we headed and Where do we want to go? In Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, pp. 1-45. 2) Parris, T. M., and R. W. Kates. 2003. Characterizing and measuring sustainable development. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 28:559-586.
Supplemental Readings from moderator/discussant Ann Kinzig, ASU
Supplemental Readings from Princeton students
Speaker presentations
Bob Kates slides "Long Term Trends and Transitions in Nature and Society", comments from moderator Ann Kinzig, and comments from the Princeton student group.
Comments (temporary location)
Video Recording: Long-term trends and transitions in nature and society
Video recording of the session