Peter Vitousek '67


By Beverly Creamer

In 2001, Time magazine recognized Hawai‘i's Peter Vitousek '67 as one of America's best scientists, praising him for "tending to the planet's health" through his cutting-edge work on ecosystems and the nitrogen cycle.

It was a major acknowledgement for Vitousek, whose first inkling of the interconnectivity of man and his environment came in his boyhood, hiking the Ko‘olau mountains above Ma-noa Valley or listening to eighth-grade Punahou science teacher Fred Van Dyke, a master surfer, describe ocean swells as "physics in action."

"My work contributes to that sense of where we - as human beings - fit in terms of our influence on the world, and our power to change the world," says Vitousek.

Today, a professor of biology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Vitousek, 59, is considered one of the country's foremost ecologists. His research has touched on myriad areas where man's influence has damaged the globe, ranging from analyzing changes in Hawai‘i's fragile ecosystem, much of it from invasive species, to the way overuse of nitrogen, primarily in fertilizers, has led to gigantic "dead zones" in the world's oceans and contributed to global warming.

With his primary research laboratory being his entire home state, Vitousek tramps barren stretches of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park or the fields of Kohala, stopping to collect soil samples in Ziploc bags stuffed into his backpack.

His discoveries have shown how interdependent our globe is, and how no ecosystem, no matter how remote, is truly isolated from another.

While Vitousek has quantified some of the damage humans have wrought, he is nonetheless greatly encouraged by the growth of awareness over the last three or four decades and the many attempts to turn back the clock.

"In things like air and water quality in the developed world - Europe and North America - we've gotten better," he said. "The Japanese are putting a huge amount into cleaning up their environment. And there's every reason to believe that, as China goes through its development frenzy and settles down a bit, they will make the same investment.

"One has to recognize that people do invest really seriously in overcoming their negative influences on the earth when they're confident they have enough to eat. You can see a history of that in investments in more developed countries over the past 40 years, and that has to give you hope."

Vitousek also notes that human population will stabilize within this century. "There's no way to envision a sustainable world system with an exponentially growing population," he said.

Vitousek is the son of retired Family Court Judge Betty Vitousek and the late attorney Roy Vitousek Jr. '37. His grandfather, Roy Vitousek Sr., was Speaker of the Territorial House. Peter attended Punahou in grades 7 and 8, graduated from Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy on Hawai‘i Island, and went on for an undergraduate degree at Amherst College in Massachusetts where he first began reading about invasive species. He completed his Ph.D. in biological sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1975, joining Stanford nine years later after work at both Indiana University and the University of North Carolina.

As he looks back at his Hawai‘i childhood, Vitousek recognizes that the seeds of his commitment to global ecology were sown then. He vividly remembers hiking the Tantalus forests filled with native elepaio, or watching black Hawaiian crows swoop over Hawai‘i Island ranches where he roamed with his father.

"Spending time in the Ko‘olau mountains, I saw invasions and changes," he said. "The ‘elepaio is gone now. Then it was abundant. You could see it any day all around the house." Hawaiian crows, too, are now found only in captivity.

Even though he lives in California, each year Vitousek manages to spend two or three months back home in Hawai‘i on research projects. Currently, he and colleagues are planting taro and sweet potato in Kohala, trying to replicate Hawaiian dry-land taro agriculture techniques dating back 400 years.

"They had developed ways of farming that were unique in the world at that time," he said. "Most people were doing slash and burn, but Hawaiians were intensifying production with a very high level of structure. What did they know? How did they do it? There's lots to learn."

Vitousek lives his environmental commitment. Each morning in Palo Alto he rides his 15-year-old bike the mile or so to Stanford where he is also Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Clifford G. Morrison Professor in Population and Resource Studies.

And the car he and his family own?
A hybrid, of course.