Boulder, Colo. — Suppose someone asked you to list the world's three biggest problems: What would you choose? In 1969 Robert W. Kates, a research professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, put this question to himself. Ever since, the internationally acclaimed geographer, who describes himself as a ''professional worrier,'' has been researching and analyzing his choices. At the University of Colorado he recently provided a progress report on how the world has done in the three areas he pinpointed. It was refreshingly optimistic.
Dr. Kates's choice for the world's major ''problems of survival'' are: (1) the Malthusian dilemma of world population outpacing basic resources; (2) the growing gap between rich and poor nations; and, (3) the many difficulties that arise from inadequate social control over increasingly powerful technologies.
His analysis of these areas follows: Population growth
Since the 1960s the population problem has changed profoundly for the better. There is now general agreement that global population will level off at somewhere between 8 billion and 11 billion people, possibly as early as 2050, Kate reports. This is ''some cause for elation'' because the moderation in global birthrates reduces the task of providing a better life for the world's peoples, the scientist concludes.
Although the world's future population now looks as if it will be manageable, it still represents a considerable challenge. The world of 2050 will probably contain 21/2 times more people, with 21/2 times the human needs to satisfy. Also , the job will not be evenly divided, he points out. Africa is the exception to the trend toward declinging birthrates. Its population may burgeon tenfold in the next 75 years, creating a world where Nigeria has a greater population than the United States and there are almost three times as many Africans as Europeans. Exacerbating the problem is Africa's poor food production. In India , by contrast, food output has picked up, easing the population crunch.
Also, coping with a stable, rather than growing population may be particularly difficult for Westerners, Kates suggests: ''Western values are rooted in accumulation, achievement, and growth. The hierarchy of social organization permitted by upward mobility will need to change in a world of more limited needs and opportunities.'' The gap between rich and poor
The problem presented by even these more moderate levels of population growth are complicated by inequities in the division of the world's wealth. Here Kates sees less to be optimistic about. In 1969 the average salary of a person in the industrialized countries was 12 times that of a person in the developing world. Today it is 10 times greater, but this narrowing of the gap ''has happened by the humbling of the rich, not by the enriching of the poor,'' he reports.
This disparity between developed and developing worlds has been at the root of a great deal of the conflict in the last 14 years, the scientist argues. During this period there have been 43 wars that claimed at least 8.3 million lives, almost 7,000 separate acts of terrorism, and 67 countries have jailed some 5,000 prisoners of conscience. Most of this has either taken place in or has its roots in the developing world, he points out.
A majority of the poorest of the poor nations are clustered in central and eastern Africa. These tend be small countries that are land-locked, far from the centers of world power and possessing arid or mountainous environments.
Efforts at addressing this problem - attempts to set up a new economic order - have largely failed. Currently, the industrialized countries spend an average of less than a third of 1 percent of their gross national product (GNP) on official foreign aid.
African poverty, coupled with its rapidly growing population, is creating strong pressure for migration, particularly to Europe. ''These massive migrations will bring fresh energy, new culture, and old issues of power, exploitation, and racism to most of the wealthy world,'' he anticipates. Control over technology
In the last few years, Americans have been jarred with news of some new hazard almost weekly. This has led to a public perception that life today is more dangerous than it was 20 years ago. ''This is just the opposite of what experts in risk assessment feel,'' Kates reports. Actually, this is part of a process of catching up after several decades of neglecting the whole issue of risk assessment, he argues. The heightened awareness of the potential dangers of new products and processes has cut down the lag between technology development and hazard control considerably, the researcher maintains.
Prominent environmentalist Barry Commoner, among others, contends that since World War II the threat represented by new technologies has escalated dramatically.
Generally, the most dangerous technologies, Kates points out, are those designed to kill something. These include everything from guns and pesticides to chain saws and antibiotics.
Still, the scientist sees grounds for optimism. Technology-related accidents are either declining or holding constant; environmentally related chronic illnesses also are remaining steady; in the US progress has been made in reducing three of five major air pollutants; and removal of lead from gasoline has been accompanied by a steady decline of the levels of this toxic metal in children.
On the other hand, Kates is seriously concerned about the risks of emerging biological technologies. This is partially based on the magnitude of the potential dangers involved and partially on the way in which the technology is being developed. What particularly concerns him is that there are fewer and fewer researchers in the field not involved in commercial ventures trying to turn a profit from genetic engineering.
As a professional worrier, Kates admits he worries that he might be taking too rosy a view. But he concludes that nothing could be worse than a loss of hope and idealism: ''If we come to accept the inevitability of nuclear war, the persistence of hunger and disease, the mindless autonomy of technological change , then they surely will come to pass. It is only the curious mixture of faith and necessity that we call hope that can keep [these] problems in their places.''