Kates, Robert. 1987. The Human Environment: The Road not Taken, the Road still Beckoning. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77 (4/December): 525-534.


The main argument in Robert Kates’s article “The Human Environment: The Road not Taken, the Road still Beckoning” is that “There are four traditions whose identification provides an alternative to the competing monistic definitions that have been the geographer’s lot… [They are]: (1) a spatial tradition, (2) an area studies tradition, (3) a man-land tradition, and (4) an earth science tradition” (p. 525-26). Kates argues that the geographers attempted to establish a monistic description of the geography and therefore have been ignoring the essential pluralism of these four traditions. Kates states that “From the 1960s on, the spatial tradition came to dominate the field…the environmental revolution in the late 1960s” (p.525), which provided new opportunities to the geographers to use their skills, knowledge, and values for human survival.

Beginning with the poem “The Road Not Taken”, Kates states that the geographers could not provide the disciplinary leadership for the environmental revolution and urged for the development of “new methodologies of environmental perception, risk assessment, and climate impact assessment” (p. 526). He tries answering three questions: the Malthusian dilemma of population and resources, the human transformation of the earth, and the sustainable development of the biosphere. The Malthusian theory is “simple equation in which fundamental well being is determined by the numerator of resources divided by the denominator of population…the numerator was food and the denominator was the population of that territory” (p. 527). Since Malthusian theory was limited, Boserupian theory came into play which states “that technological change is itself spurred by increases in the population” (p. 529).  The population additionally plays a vital role in the transformation of the earth creating intensive pressure on the biosphere. Kates’s selective examples of work underway and suggestion for opportunities for geographic participation emphasize understanding the unprecedented burden placed upon the earth and making the necessary adjustments that will enable us to sustain such a great level of human activity (p. 531).  He argues that “the great questions of human-environment have at least three characteristics in common: they persist, they matter, they are not uniquely geographical” (p. 532). For Kates, there is a fine line between the celebration of pluralism and the view that almost anything goes, and hence he offers two thoughts: the first relates to our discipline and the second is external to our discipline (p. 532). However, we are more concerned with excellence in the human environment tradition.   

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