Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Necessary and Sufficient for Social Change
distributed 5/4/18 - ©2018

I ran into a potentially explosive situation when talking to an adult class in a local church. We were exploring the broad topic of "what can be done about the environmental crisis?"

The danger cropped up when I saw several people in the class who were passionate about their favorite kind of action, and somewhat dismissive of other approaches. The advocates for political change pushed against the ones who favored individual acts of responsibility (recycling and changing light bulbs), while others were convinced that new technologies were the solution. The discussion was about to turn into a fight.

At that point, I intervened with a question. "Who has heard of the phrase from sociology and philosophy, 'necessary and sufficient'?" Only a few hands went up, so I had an opportunity to shift the tone of the conversation toward a more expansive set of strategies. The message from that morning is a good one for all of us to remember.

+     +     +     +     +

Think about baking a loaf of bread. There are some things that you'll definitely need, things that are "necessary." The five that turn up in virtually every recipe are flour, water, yeast, sugar and salt. Without these necessary elements, you will not be able to bake bread.

A discussion of baking could focus on just one or two 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 five 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 fancier kinds of bread, lots of other things can be added to the recipe -- fruits and spices, or eggs, or butter, or special kinds of flour -- but those are not necessary. It is, of course, possible to add in things that are both unnecessary and damaging. Drain cleaner comes to mind as one thing that should never be added to the bread dough.

The point of this short philosophical diversion was pretty clear to the class members. For environmental change, each of the actions that had been named -- politics, individual responsibility, and technology -- is necessary for real progress. The argument that almost broke out about which strategy was most important was defused with the knowledge that all of them are necessary.

The class members also realized that -- with the huge and complex problems we're facing in today's world -- no person, no group, will be able to do all of the necessary things on the list. To have sufficient action, we need to look to a diverse movement.

The need for multiple approaches to environmental change has been expressed in a different image. Movement leaders like Bill McKibben have said that there's no "silver bullet" to solve the climate crisis. There is no one policy or technology that will fix it. Instead, they say, we need "silver buckshot" with dozens of unique approaches all aimed at the same target.

The lesson is worth remembering. Many ingredients are necessary in the recipe for social change, but not every possible ingredient is necessary, or even helpful.

+     +     +     +     +

"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 and focus our efforts.

To use a classic example, in many churches there's a passion about ending the use of single-use foam coffee cups. (I've heard that named in several conversations over the last couple of weeks.) The highly visible sin of Styrofoam is put at the top of the Green Team's priority list, and considered a necessary step in becoming an environmentally responsible congregation -- even as many congregations find it an amazingly difficult transition to achieve.

But as the Union of Concerned Scientists book, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, pointed out almost 20 years ago, disposable cups are far from the biggest environmental problem for churches or the larger society. The scientists suggest that weather stripping a drafty building will do far more to help the environment, and save the church money, too. Making the switch to permanent coffee mugs is a good thing to do, but it isn't necessary.

It is important, on occasion, to review the efforts that we've considered essential, and see if experts rank them in the necessary category. Perhaps we can be more effective in reaching our goals if we work on a different kind of project that captures the most necessary elements.

+     +     +     +     +

Theologically, the principles of "necessary and sufficient" are 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?"

The prophet sums up right living in just three qualities. Each is necessary, and the short list is sufficient. Micah is explicit that burnt offerings and "rivers of oil" are not necessary, and are even damaging (like Draino in the bread dough!). As Micah reminds us, it is easier to be faithful if we stick closely to the things that are necessary and sufficient.

There is much to be done in the work of protecting God's creation. May we focus our efforts with close attention to those things which genuinely are necessary.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form