Facebook was rebranded as Meta to show its new focus on developing the metaverse. Dima Solomin, Unsplash

Me, you, and the metaverse 

Will virtual-reality ‘worlds’ prove distraction or driver for climate action?

It all looks rather lovely in Mark Zuckerberg’s mock-up of the metaverse – a network of three-dimensional virtual-reality ‘worlds’ in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and each other. 

The ‘virtual home’ from which he appeared to speak, at the company-formerly-known-as-Facebook’s October 2021 virtual reality (VR) developer conference, features a cozy fireplace that’s casually levitating a couple of feet off the ground. Out one window there’s a lush tropical landscape; out another, snow-covered trees surround an icy fjord. After tapping through a number of outfit options for his avatar, Zuckerberg meets up with friends to play poker in a spaceship; one friend has taken the form of a robot, and another is floating in the air.

Meanwhile, in non-virtual reality, those friends are likely hanging out in their homes, wearing pricey headsets and using plenty of electricity. Tech company Intel estimates that a fully-fledged metaverse would require a thousand-times increase in power from our current collective computing capacity. And that’s against a backdrop of recent global temperatures being the hottest they’ve been in the past two millennia, with the extent to which they’ll rise further dictated by what we do – and don’t do – in the next decade.

So when Zuckerberg shared his vision of the metaverse, many climate activists rolled their eyes. “It’s much easier to sell a VR headset that’s going to whisk people away to a magical universe than to try to solve these larger socio-economic and environmental problems that exist in our world right now,” says Andreas Karelas, author of the book Climate Courage and executive director of renewable energy nonprofit RE-volv, who wrote a fiery and much-shared opinion piece following the announcement, entitled ‘There’s no ‘metaverse’ where climate change doesn’t exist.’ 

The metaverse was first conceived in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk science fiction novel Snow Crash – purportedly one of Zuckerberg’s favorite books – as a distraction from a dystopian reality of political, social and environmental collapse. And Karelas is concerned that a similar misallocation of attention is happening now. “If Silicon Valley were to throw its money, time, energy and tech innovation into addressing some of the challenges that we face – like developing clean energy and figuring out sustainable agriculture and better management of land and water – we’d be in a much better position,” he says. “But the incentives aren’t aligned. Tech companies in Silicon Valley, like all of the capitalist economy, are chiefly looking to drive up shareholder value and quarter-over-quarter profits.”

A landscape in the virtual reality world Second Life. Mandy Mystic, Flickr
A landscape in the virtual reality world Second Life. Mandy Mystic, Flickr

Green fantasies

But could the metaverse, done right, actually serve the climate cause for the better? Vanessa Keith, a registered architect and the principal of award-winning New York–based design firm Studioteka, thinks it could – by addressing the “crisis of imagination” that she says currently hinders climate action.  

The virtual worlds that Keith and her colleagues are creating for their massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) ‘2100: A Dystopian Utopia,’ which is based on her 2021 book of the same name, are rather different to the cozy, calming VR scenes that populated Zuckerberg’s presentation. In a 4-degrees-warmer 2100, storm surges pummel New York City with increasing regularity and intensity, and the United Kingdom is an archipelago of hilltop islands. Wildfires lick at our last remaining glaciers, major amounts of arable land have been lost to sea-level rise and desertification, and large-scale climate-induced migration puts immense pressure on the planet’s still-livable urban areas.

But these landscapes are also imbued with hope. As players create new ways to protect the featured cities from climate-change threats, they can scramble through rewilded boulevards, swim under suspended waterfalls, and scale the sides of a vertical farm. Every square inch of the high-density cityscapes has a purpose, whether it’s electricity-generationfood production or biodiversity-building. In this version of the future, inequality is not a feature. “It’s not a world of favelas and mega mansions,” says Keith. “It’s a world where we say, ‘Okay, we’re in this dystopian situation. What are we going to do to come together as a species, not just to save ourselves, but to do something for the entire ecosphere and to build back and change our relationship to the planet?’ ”

That element of hope is not accidental. Keith was born in Jamaica, an island that’s extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events. “It’s a luxury to give up [on climate activism], and I don’t feel like I have that luxury,” she says. “The messaging around climate is really hard right now – and it is depressing, I won’t lie about that – but I don’t think that’s necessarily going to get us where we need to go: we need to focus on creating some sort of positive future that we can push towards.” 

VR may offer particular potential for helping people envisage those futures, says Keith. “When you see yourself in this environment, and it’s from a first-person perspective, there’s something that’s really powerful for the imagination,” she says. Her team is also looking at ways that the virtual experience could align with tangible impacts on the ground – for example through game points going to support causes and players being linked up with volunteering opportunities. They’re also ensuring the game is hosted on ‘green’ servers, which use renewable energy and carbon offsetting to reduce their environmental footprints.

A virtual reality demonstration in the U.S. Gabriel Cristóver Pérez, Knight Center
A virtual reality demonstration in the U.S. Gabriel Cristóver Pérez, Knight Center

In whose hands?

Like many other technological developments before it – such as the Internet, cellphones, and television – the metaverse has the potential to be used both in ways that serve our collective future and in ways that detract from it. Each of these tools can help to spread knowledge, empower people and build community – and to sow disinformation, distraction and disconnection, depending on who uses them and for what purposes. “I think we’re in an opportune moment to make that decision as a culture,” says Karelas, “and it needs to come from culture, because otherwise the tech companies will try to push us down whichever road is most profitable for them. So we need to show that what we want is more community and less isolating technology.”

Keith emphasizes the importance of engagement as this particular technology takes shape. “I don’t think the metaverse belongs to Facebook; I think it belongs to all of us,” she says. “And if enough of us who have a positive vision for the future get involved, then it’s not going to be a hellscape. It’s at that point of a new technology where it’s really open: it’s dystopian and utopian. That’s the weirdness, right? So how do we pick and choose and filter and work together, and change hearts and minds, and do all the things that we need to do over the next ten years to get ourselves and our planet back on track?”

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