Mark N. Christensen was instrumental in founding the Energy & Resources Group at UC Berkeley in the 1970s, in the midst of a major energy crisis, just before moving to UC Santa Cruz, where he served as chancellor from July 1974 through January 1976.
His research focused on energy, the environment and development, with a special focus on energy conservation and renewable-energy resources. Though he retired from UC Berkeley in 1994, he continued advising doctoral students and working on issues involving the Carmel River.
Born in Green Bay, Wis., on July 16, 1930, Christensen received a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1952 from the University of Alaska and a PhD. in geology in 1959 from Berkeley. Christensen came to UC Berkeley in 1954 for graduate study in geology with Professor Charles Gilbert. Like his mentor who went by “Gil,” Christensen soon became known as “Chris.” He undertook research on the geologic structure of the Mineral King area of California, completing his Ph.D. in 1959.
He joined the UC Berkeley geology department faculty in 1959 and earned the campus’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1962. He served as head of the campus’s Academic Senate from 1970 to 1972, the year he was appointed vice chancellor, a position second only to then-Chancellor Albert Bowker
It was while serving as vice chancellor that he helped facilitate an interdisciplinary program of teaching and research in energy and resources. He helped short-circuit an often lengthy process to create the Energy & Resources Group in 1974, not only with authorization to grant a PhD, but as the only group other than a department able to hire faculty directly.
“Thanks to the energy crisis and highly unusual steps taken by Christensen, he got the effort launched in six months, when it could have taken six years,” said colleague Richard Norgaard, UC Berkeley professor of energy and resources.
Upon his return to UC Berkeley from UC Santa Cruz in 1976, Christensen joined the group as professor of energy and resources. Chris co-taught the program’s flagship course ER100/200, Energy and Society, emphasizing the behavioral, social, and institutional factors as well as frameworks for understanding their interaction with energy and the environment. In ERG, Chris focused on students, serving on numerous Ph.D. oral exams and dissertation committees as well as on the Academic Senate’s Committee on Special Scholarships. He served ERG tirelessly in many administrative capacities and on committees in search of new chairs and faculty. He was the primary research advisor for numerous ERG master’s students while also remaining very active as an advisor in the undergraduate Environmental Sciences major. He served tirelessly in many administrative capacities and on committees in search of new chairs and faculty.
As professor and teacher in ERG, Chris was a complex thinker, bringing together equal parts natural science, social science, philosophy, and vision. At times, especially in large lecture courses, his arguments were difficult to follow, characterized by what might be called a certain degree of “nonlinearity.” The large lecture format was too limiting for the way he thought about issues. On a one-to-one basis in his office, or in a small group gathered around a table in T-4, Chris was a polymath and truly amazing. He encouraged ERG students to resist the “technical fix” and to think politically. He challenged the conventional wisdom. He reasoned in an organic fashion, drawing on his experience, his broad and ecumenical reading, and the myriad of conversations, discussions, and experiences he had in Alaska, Greece, and so many other places. His mark on ERG and its students was an enduring one, even for those who did not know him.
Combining research and public service, Chris engaged in energy forums and policy discussions, at times under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service, in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Norway, Romania, Syria, and Yugoslavia. Concerned with security, sovereignty, and the environment, Chris emphasized soft energy paths, contributing to a broader understanding of the potential for energy conservation and distributed renewable energy systems. His work frequently led to repeat engagements and participation at higher levels of policy debate. For example, at the invitation of several Hopi leaders, he provided them with an assessment of their energy options that led to further service on the Advisory Board of the Hopi Foundation. One of his last gestures to the campus was chairing the Reactor Hazards Committee in the latter 1980s during the decommissioning of the reactor in Etcheverry Hall.
Chris retired in 1994 and moved to Carmel where he continued to engage in environmental issues. He led the formation and served as the first chair of the Carmel River Watershed Council/Conservancy, a forum for property owners, environmental advocates, and other interests concerned with water quality and riparian management of the Carmel River, as well as research and public education.