Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Necessary and Sufficient
distributed 8/15/08 - ©2008

I remember my confusion when I encountered a three-word technical phrase in a sociology textbook. I had to struggle to figure out what the phrase meant, but now I use it often. In sharing the phrase with others, I've tried to come up with a coherent explanation.

The phrase is "necessary and sufficient", and I think it is one that should be put into common use within the faith-based environmental movement. Before I get into how we might find it useful, let me try to dash through a definition by analogy.

Think about baking a loaf of bread. There are some things that you'll definitely need, things that are "necessary." The four that turn up in virtually every recipe are flour, water, yeast and sugar. Without these necessary elements, you will not be able to bake bread. (OK -- If you are Jewish and Passover is coming, you'll leave out the yeast, but there's a reason why matza is always described as "unleavened" bread.)

A discussion of baking could focus on just a few of the things that are necessary, but we'd run into trouble with such a partial list. Flour and water are necessary, but if that is all we have, we'll end up making paste instead of bread. Flour and water are necessary, but not "sufficient."

If we have all four of the key ingredients, then we have hit the magic combination of necessary and sufficient. "Necessary and sufficient" defines the minimal list of essential supplies that we need for our project, with nothing extraneous or distracting.

If we want to get fancier, lots of other things can be added to the recipe -- fruits, nuts and herbs, or eggs, or special kinds of flour -- but those are not necessary. It is, of course, possible to add in things that are unnecessary and damaging. Drain cleaner is one thing that should never be added to the bread dough.

"Necessary and sufficient" helps us in considering complex issues. Are all of the things being discussed really necessary? If not, trimming out the optional ones can clarify the conversation. Are we bearing in mind all of the necessary elements -- is our list sufficient? Leaving out some necessary pieces will guarantee that our plans won't work.

Theologically, this principle is well expressed in the familiar text of Micah 6: "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" That list of necessities is sufficient. Burnt offerings and "rivers of oil" are not necessary, and are even damaging. As Micah reminds us, it is easier to be faithful if we stick closely to the things that are necessary and sufficient.

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Within the last few days, I've become aware of at least two situations where "necessary and sufficient" can help us in discerning how to care appropriately for God's creation.

  1. As US gasoline prices have flittered around the $4 mark this summer, we've seen a remarkable shift in public and political attention to energy issues. Two months ago, I commented on the public's growing awareness that quick-and-easy strategies to lower gas prices are not sufficient, and perhaps not even necessary or helpful. The conversation moved fairly quickly from a superficial "gas tax holiday" toward a more complex clustering of options.

    In recent weeks, the political debates about energy policy have dealt with questions about what is necessary, and what is sufficient. A long-term shift from petroleum toward renewable energy now seems to be acknowledged as necessary. Conservation -- in the language of "make sure your tires are properly inflated" -- was dismissed by the McCain camp, but quickly was redefined as necessary, too. There is also a widespread agreement, through, that conservation alone is not a sufficient response.

    The various legislative proposals differ in what other energy sources are considered necessary. Is it essential to include nuclear power, "clean coal" and oil shale in the mix? Some insist that they are necessary, others see them as unnecessary but potential options (like raisins and cinnamon in a bread recipe), while still others react like Drain-o is being added to the dough.

    In the last few weeks, there have been distressing changes in the political calculus about drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf. Many politicians who once had insisted that such expensive and environmentally risky exploration is not necessary have started to look more at political necessity than policy needs, and have put this in the necessary list. Most of the opponents to expanded drilling in coastal areas or the Arctic have labeled the proposals as ineffective and unnecessary options (it will take a long time, and not lower prices appreciably). Very few have had the courage to say that increased drilling is actually dangerous, because it maintains and deepens our dependence on scare oil.

    Recent news of political wrangling also highlights the need to be clear about our complete question. "Necessary and sufficient -- for what?" The lists we compile will be quite different if we're looking at how to lower gas prices, develop a secure and sustainable society, or get re-elected.

  2. Eco-Justice Ministries is about half-way through an August series of workshops in Colorado on the theme, Greening Your Church: Getting Started & Going Deeper. We've been having a wonderful set of conversations in far-flung locations. (We have more workshops scheduled in Boulder, Fort Collins and south suburban Denver in the next week!) In this religious context, too, a lot of our discussion has been about what is necessary and sufficient.

    Quite a few of the people coming to the gatherings arrived with a mental notion of "green churches" that centers on resource use. They were interested in reducing energy consumption, in recycling, and doing away with disposable coffee cups. I celebrate their interest in those important concerns, but we quickly critiqued that list.

    Knowing that the coffee cup issue is one that is a frequent stumbling block for congregations, we've been suggesting to workshop participants that this one does not need to be considered absolutely necessary. Some churches can be doing good work toward "greening" and still toss out cups.

    More substantially, our workshops are grounded in a notion of "green churches" that says that matters of resource use are necessary, but not sufficient. It is imperative that congregations be good stewards of electricity and natural gas, but much more is required. We've been insisting that a church must also "green" its worship and education, and engage in some form of public witness or advocacy.

In our training workshops, we're finding an awareness of "necessary and sufficient" to be of great practical help for church leaders. That technical phrase also can help to clarify what is at stake in the realm of political policy.

I encourage you to look at some of the settings and issues that are both important and confusing to you. Try to sort out what is really necessary, and try to limit your efforts to the things which are sufficient. I think you will find that those three worlds help you become more focused and more effective in your work to care for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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