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The Metaverse: Managing the Climate Crisis

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

The metaverse, what is it and can it have a positive effect on the way we deal with climate change? The metaverse is being described as the new internet or new reality that will replace the way we use technology and communicate. Companies such as Facebook, now Meta as well as Microsoft and games companies such as Roblox and Epic Games are all investing and innovating in the world of metaverse. Broadly speaking, the technologies that make up the metaverse can include virtual reality and augmented reality. The concept would not require that those spaces be exclusively accessed via VR or AR and can be accessed through many devices. Visions of what the metaverse will entail range from virtual houses in which groups of friends can hang out, virtual meeting rooms where conferences and interviews can take place as well as virtual entertainment and sports taking place. There has been speculation over the possible environmental benefits that the metaverse could have, in the short and long term. The potential to off-load tasks and activities that are costing out planet into a virtual reality, saving recourses and limiting pollution. There is also interest in the metaverse as a tool to influence people into treating the planet better.

In terms of the short-term possibilities, there has been research into the way acting out actions in the virtual world affects people’s real-world thinking. A substantial body of research from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab has shown that using virtual reality to change human behaviour works. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab tested giving people the virtual reality experience of cutting down trees including feeling the sensation of the chainsaw vibrating, hearing the thud of the tree crashing to the ground and obviously witnessing the destruction of the object. Researchers at Stanford found that those who took part in the VR tree cutting simulation were on average more likely to conserve paper afterwards. This is a concept that could be investigated further and utilised as an educational tool in showing people the context and consequences of things we take for granted in our lives. People using the early stages of the metaverse could go about a virtual, faked reality and witness the consequences of human actions without there being any real-world damage. These experiences could be integrated into video games, particularly massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). Many games already feature cutting down trees, creating or using factories etc, by tweaking the sensory effects these actions cause the player then video games and the metaverse can have a positive effect on climate awareness. Games companies like Roblox and Epic Games who make the popular game Fortnite are currently researching and developing metaverse technology, this is something to look out for in the coming years.

In terms of the long-term impact the metaverse could potentially have on climate change there are essentially endless possibilities in terms of how the technology could develop and be used. Most of what will follow is purely speculative and offers only a potential glimpse into the future with the metaverse. There is a suggestion that if the metaverse takes off in the way those who are developing it want it too then we could all potentially be plugged into the metaverse more often than we go outside. It will essentially act as a world in which humans are free to indulge in ways that would otherwise be costly to the planet. Shopping for non-essential items that are often environmentally costly to make and easily discarded could move into virtual reality. Motorsports and games would move into the virtual sphere, stopping all unessential vehicle use. Concerts and performances would be hosted virtually cutting down on people travelling into city centres. Things like non-fungible tokens, digital currencies and experiences will be available to buy from the corporations from which we regularly buy goods and services in the real-world.

All these changes could potentially cut down on the carbon footprint of consumerist society, however, a future of non-virtual solitude is not a positive one. Short-term and long-term there will surely be benefits to new technology and ideas such as the metaverse, whether we need to go full sci-fi film to realise change is another question. Hopefully there will be more real-world change in the coming years that means out future will not involve staying indoors, plugged in for the majority of time.

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