Robert attended McGill University in Montreal for his undergraduate and graduate studies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1960. For his master's degree, he researched tropical ecology in a remote part of Guyana with no roads or electricity. The Canadian Government awarded him a scholarship for PhD research on ecosystems in Brazil.
Robert became a professor in 1974 at the Universidade de Brasília, where he established a program to teach tropical ecology and environmental assessment. Then he moved to the Instituto Nacional de Pesquiasas da Amazonia in Manaus, where he designed Brazil’s first graduate course in applied tropical ecology. Its key case study was the trans-Amazonian highway. That led Robert to co-author with his friend and mentor Howard Irwin the book Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert. It attracted much favorable review, and became viewed as a seminal work in the birth of the international environmental movement.
From 1975 through 1978, Robert served as a consultant for World Bank projects. He worked on designing environmental and social programs for Itaipu, then the world's biggest hydroelectric project. He also worked on addressing environmental issues and Orang Asli forest dwellers for the first time in Malaysia’s national development planning. Separately, he was recruited by the New York Botanical Garden to help establish what became the Cary Center for Ecosystem Studies to complement the Cary Arboretum in Millbrook, New York.
In 1978, Robert was recruited to become the first full-time ecologist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. He was initially assigned to the task of screening every single proposed World Bank project, and selecting for scrutiny those with the largest potential impacts, for which Robert would draft recommendations. But Robert’s recommendations lacked policy to back them up, and project designers resisted implementing his recommendations.
As a remedy, Robert took a lead role in drafting environmental and social policies for the World Bank Group, notably covering Environmental Assessment (now Operational Policy 4.01), Indigenous Peoples (Operational Policy 4.10), Natural Habitats (Operational Policy 4.04), and Physical Cultural Resources (Operational Policy 4.11). He worked with numerous internal and external specialists, including George Ledec, Rajendra Pachauri, Achim Steiner, Emil Salim, Bruce Rich, Michael Cernea, Scott Guggenheim, Dee Rubin, Sandy Davis, David Maybury-Lewis, Francis Lethem, Catherine Watson, the Villas-Boas brothers, Adrian Cowell, John Hemming, Eunice Durham, Darcy Ribeiro, Lux Vidal, Jesco von Puttkamer, Robin Wright, Herman van der Tak, and many others.
In 1979, Robert joined an early mission for the Polonoroeste project. Vulnerable ethnic minorities were a key issue in the design of the project, and Robert worked to protect Amerindians by incorporating elements of the then-draft policy on indigenous peoples. So Robert’s focus on policies involved not just drafting text, but also testing its implementation. Even harder work was to persuade one committee after another to approve the adoption of the policies. To foster their implementation, Robert worked to develop numerous workshops, conferences, training programs, colloquia, lectures, and guidance materials. Distinguished specialists and a variety of stakeholders were involved in internal World Bank events and activities as well as external ones.
The policies and guidance materials pioneered by Robert essentially served as environmental and social standards for many countries that lacked appropriate regulatory frameworks to provide such standards. Other development banks and aid agencies became interested in adapting them for their own purposes. Robert pressed for those banks and agencies to coordinate among themselves and with the World Bank Group and others, using methods that have continued functioning to this day. Commercial banks became interested too, and Robert worked with a group of bankers called the “Gnomes of Zürich,” and with others in London and New York. He also helped organize workshops for major engineering and consulting firms who would have to comply with the policies.
The 1980s were a particularly good decade for Robert. He married Jonmin, and their son Arthur was born. At the same time, his work in the World Bank continued to evolve. A Projects Policy Department was formed in the World Bank, and Robert served as Senior Environmental Affairs Officer from 1983 through mid-1987. Then the Environment Department was created, and Robert became Division Chief for Latin America. He recruited specialists including George Ledec, now Lead Ecologist in the Bank’s Africa Region, and Maritta Koch-Weser, who went on to become President of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Next came a role for Robert in the Central Environment Department, where he recruited Herman Daly, a visionary ecological economist.
Robert’s work on the evolving World Bank Group policy on indigenous peoples led the institution to hire a cadre of anthropologists. A key issue was to prevent forced resettlement, and to mitigate its adverse impacts when it would occur. Robert also worked to complete the Environmental Assessment Sourcebook, which became a key worldwide reference on various aspects of environmental assessment. As a capstone to Robert’s work on the principles of environmental and social assessment, he served a term as president of the International Association of Impact Assessment in 1994-1995.
Robert developed ways to bolster his policy work with sectoral work. This included stopping the World Bank Group from financing projects involving tobacco and asbestos. It also included avoiding the worst types of agricultural and forestry projects, such as those featuring transmigration, logging and ranching in tropical forests, and land colonization. Two diligent collaborators were George Ledec and Cathy Watson. When internal resistance arose within the World Bank Group, they got their work published for a worldwide audience in the 1984 book Environmental Management of Tropical Agriculture. Later, after Robert worked on some of the world’s largest hydroelectricity projects, he played a key role in the establishment of the World Commission on Dams in 1997, led by Achim Steiner (who later became the head of IUCN and then of UNEP).
In the 1990s, when Robert had become Lead Environmental Advisor at the World Bank, he looked for practical ways for the institution to “walk the talk” that it delivered externally, by improving its environmental and social performance internally in its own operations. So he volunteered to chair the Staff Association’s environmental working group. He motivated the Bank’s facilities management to commission an independent audit of their environmental and social performance. The world-renowned expert Amory Lovins led the audit. Based on its results, Robert successfully pressed senior management to offer staff incentives for using public transit and bicycles for commuting. He also worked successfully to get coordinated internal sustainability programs to be implemented in both the World Bank and its affiliated International Finance Corporation.
Robert wanted project proponents to be held accountable to people adversely impacted by development projects. So he helped advance the work of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, and he was shortlisted to become the first Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman for the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation and Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. He also worked for many years on trying to get the International Monetary Fund to do something about the adverse social impacts of its operations, which tend to have much broader reach than do most projects financed by the World Bank Group.
Robert worked with Salah El Serafy and Herman Daly to develop a series of conferences throughout the 1980s on Greening the UN System of National Accounts, which were eventually revamped, with credit due to Salah, Herman, and Roefie Hueting, as well as Joe Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner and former Chief Economist of the World Bank. Robert also worked with Herman and Salah in addressing their concerns over the drafting of the 1992 World Development Report on development and the environment. They thought that the drafting was focused too narrowly, so they developed a parallel publication entitled Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development: Building on Brundtland. They managed to get the book to be published by the World Bank even before the World Development Report was published.
Robert worked to obtain major grant funding from the government of Canada to help the government of Indonesia develop its environmental ministry, under the stewardship of Emil Salim. Then, after Robert’s official retirement from the World Bank in 2001, Emil was appointed to head the independent Extractive Industries Review at the World Bank Group. Emil recruited Robert to play a key role, and they recommended various ways to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Also after Robert’s official retirement, he served as a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, where he co-authored a report on human rights. Elsewhere he worked pro bono on various environmental and social assessments.
Robert also continued to build on his previous work that had gotten the World Bank to concede in a livestock strategy statement in 2001 that development finance should no longer fund large-scale livestock projects. Robert co-authored with Jeff Anhang a 2009 article entitled “Livestock and Climate Change,” which assessed how replacing some livestock products – and reforesting land thereby freed from livestock and feed production – could be the only pragmatic way to stop climate change before it might be too late. This work became widely cited, including by Bill Gates and by Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign. Robert was invited by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to speak about this work in Rome and in Berlin, and by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to deliver a keynote speech in Beijing. To develop further awareness, Robert worked to launch a website called “Chomping Climate Change,” and worldwide interest in this work seems likely to grow well into the future.
In his lifetime, Robert wrote more than 20 books on environmental and social issues and many more monographs. The Library of Congress lists more than 40 of his titles. He was the first winner of IUCN’s Harold Jefferson Coolidge medal for lifetime achievement in the conservation of nature. In contrast to colleagues who avoided controversy, Robert pressed to work on the most difficult of environmental and social issues. He figured that the World Bank paid him to be a vigorous “sparring partner,” providing constructive criticism and sparking improvement. He was particularly happy to have been known as the “conscience” of the World Bank, in which role he befriended many environmental leaders around the world.
Robert enjoyed ascending mountains, and taking care of the grounds outside his home (both literally and figuratively). Among his happiest times were his daily walks with friends and family. Indeed, he was happiest of all being a devoted friend and family man. Robert leaves his wife Jonmin, his son Arthur, his sister Victoria and his much loved cousin Richard Galloway with whom he grew up. He was predeceased by his parents Arthur and Cynthia and his older brother Charles.