environment lifestyle

Death by velleity – the gap between what we want and what we do

A few years ago I came across a useful old word that we don’t use any more: velleity. It’s a desire that isn’t strong enough to lead to action. A velleity is something that you would like to happen, but not enough to actually make it so.

My life is practically a daily parade of velleities of all sizes. I might like noodles for lunch, but I can’t be bothered to go to the shop to get any. I’d like to be better at the guitar, but not enough to practice. There’s a street sign on my road that points the wrong way. While I would like it corrected, I am not sufficiently exercised about it to complain to the council. I could give you 101 examples, but you know what I’m talking about. You will have plenty of examples of your own. I’m pretty sure that if you divided the whole of human experience between desires we acted on and desires we didn’t act on, the balance would tip decisively towards velleity.

I was reminded of this today by a survey that landed in my inbox with a press release from the Mushroom Bureau. (Yes, there’s a Mushroom Bureau, and yes, it sounds like a shady business.) They have commissioned a survey on how many people pay attention to where their fresh fruit and vegetables come from. Levels of ignorance about where food comes from are striking. Among the more eye-catching findings is that one in 20 British people think that potatoes grow on trees.

Here’s the contrast that matters though. When asked if they are making an effort to cut down on food miles, 63% of British shoppers said they were. But only 19% say they have ever looked at where their fresh produce was grown. That’s not 19% routinely looking, but who have ever – even once – looked at the label to see where their fruit and veg came from.

Which implies that there are millions of people who say they want to reduce their food miles, but have never looked at a label to inform their decision. This is the very definition of a velleity, and it’s all too common when it comes to ethical living choices.

Most people would like to reduce their carbon footprint, drive less, and generally ‘do their bit’. Whether that desire is strong enough to lead to action is another matter. For instance, every January sees a flurry of stories about how vegan diets are more and more popular. I regularly read that almost a third of British people are cutting down on their meat consumption. And yet government and industry statistics show no fall in per capita meat consumption. Or a survey in 2018 that said that 30% of potential car buyers in Britain thought it was ‘likely’ that their next car would be electric, while that same month only 7% of new cars sold were electric.

There is a big gap between what we aspire to and what we do in reality. It’s not that we don’t want electric cars. We just don’t want one enough to do the research and learn new habits around driving one. We want to eat less meat, and we want to cut down on single use plastics. We just don’t want to enough to do anything about it.

I’m not judging. I am well acquainted with low level desire. But it should highlight how decisions for the climate and the future of civilization shouldn’t be left to our good intentions. There’s a place for guiding or sometimes even removing our choices, for using regulation or incentives, to make sure that we actually live up to our own desires.

Because you could lose a whole planet down the gap between what we say we want, and what we’re prepared to do.


    1. That may well be true! I think there’s always the risk that activist groups dream big and don’t deliver. I guess that’s why it’s important to have good processes to make sure that we only say yes to the most strategic actions that have broad agreement around them, and don’t get distracted by 101 interesting side projects.

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