The Metaverse: Sustainability Friend or Foe?

In this next year virtual living in the metaverse is set to take real form. From Walmart to Facebook, businesses are gearing up for a new way of connecting with their customers and are beginning to implement an existence far beyond the reality that we hold in front of us. An exciting and extremely intelligent development in technology, the metaverse could be the answer to alleviating many of global warming’s biggest contributors.

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What is the metaverse?

Think of it as an extension to virtual reality. It’s like stepping into your own Sims life but in 3D. Through the use of highly advanced headsets, a virtual world connecting countries, retailers, and people will be available from the comfort of your sofa. For a price of course. This will allow those within the metaverse to do many things that are already accessible online, such as shopping, working, and playing sports. The only difference will be that rather than engaging through a 2D screen, the simulation will feel like the real world around you.

How will it take Shape?

Although not always entirely visible, there are already specialists employed in businesses and corporations that are working to understand what the digital landscape will look like in 10 years’ time. A somewhat daunting prospect to the average consumer, conducting life in a virtual form can be hard to wrap our heads around. However, this is only an extension of the type of computerised interaction we are already used to.

The metaverse will be created through a mixture of AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality). To do this, a string of technologies will be required, some of which most of us already have and some that we don’t. As AR such as Google Maps Live View uses real-world settings, these sorts of things can be accessed through smartphones, as they work off what is already there. However, virtual reality requires a more complex range of tools to be able to work. Headsets and VR goggles will be necessary to create alternate universes. Not only a potentially uncomfortable thought, to be sitting with heavy headwear on all day, but also an expensive one. VR headsets such as the Oculus Quest currently cost around £300 and that is without any of the added programme costs or apps that could possibly be needed to set up a life in the metaverse. So, is it worth it?

The ecological benefits

There are a number of benefits that come with transitioning into virtual reality, not just for entertainment but also for society and for our planet. If the technology is utilised correctly, it could change the world entirely. Essential surgery could be conducted from miles away, and WFH could be revolutionised, meaning that parents would be able to spend more time away from the office and with their children, whilst virtually still in-office meetings.

By taking away the restriction of having to physically be somewhere to be able to undertake essential work, quality of living could be enhanced ten times over. And that’s not all.

One of the most profound benefits that will come of the metaverse is the difference that it will make to travel pollution. As the metaverse will allow us to switch between roads, cities, and even countries in a matter of minutes, the requirement of travel will become far less than what it currently is. Right now, transportation is one of the biggest polluters to our planet, producing roughly 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is made up mainly of tourism, which equates to 75% of travel’s greenhouse gas emissions. With the introduction of electric and hybrid vehicles, there has already been some positive impact made. However, it goes without saying that this mode of transportation is not accessible to everyone as it is extremely costly.

Although no real figures have been implemented for how much travel within the metaverse will cost, it should be seemingly less than the cost of a real flight/ car, making travel more accessible.

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Furthermore, creating a form of travel or transportation that does not require physically moving means that CO2 emissions will be reduced massively. Similar benefits can also be found within the fashion industry. Through AR, fashion brands will be able to offer the unique experience of trying on and purchasing clothing and interior all within the metaverse. This means being able to try on and envision yourself in clothing, in the environment you desire (no more horrible changing room down lighting) and see if it’s completely right before purchasing.

Wastage is one of the biggest ecological disadvantages to online shopping that we currently face. Each year, 5 billion pounds of waste is generated from returns alone, as returned clothing is often sent to landfills as it cannot be resold. Creating a digital shopping experience that can actually allow us to try on clothes before buying could help drastically reduce that number, by aiding us to shop more consciously. Thus, helping the planet recover when it is most necessary.

The damaging side effects

Unfortunately, the metaverse isn’t all hope and glory. There are also many implications that will come with conducting a life completely virtually.

As you’d probably already guessed, the metaverse is going to take a lot of computing power to run. We’ve all heard the noise our laptops make when too many tabs are open on Google and Microsoft Teams has just opened, tipping it all over the edge slightly. Well, imagine that x1000, that’s quite literally how it will be running the metaverse.

As told by CNBC “At the end of 2021, Intel estimated that Web3 metaverse projects will eventually demand at least 1000x the computing power we have now.” This power must be generated from somewhere, which more often than not is from a battery. By relying on raw materials, these items are not a sustainable source of energy and when the computing products then reach the end of their life span will result in an overwhelming amount of electronic waste.

There is also somewhat a worry that by creating an idealistic version of reality, that we can access through headsets, we will lose interest in interacting with the real world around us. Addiction to social media and phones is already rife, with 1 in 3 young people already addicted to their phone. If we were now adding in the ability to travel, visit friends, go to work, and connect that with social media that feels real, disconnecting from a virtual life would seem physically impossible.

As biophilic individuals who require nature and connection with life to survive, it seems fundamentally dangerous to push us towards a way of living that restricts us of these things. Furthermore, as beings that are extremely susceptible to what we perceive to be real, when blurring the lines between reality and fiction there is a strong chance that we could also get lost in the pretend. By disconnecting from the reality of everyday life, are we only ignoring the issues that are in front of us, to find comfort in the simulated world we have created?

Like any means of digital communication, virtual reality and the metaverse have both positives and negatives, especially when it comes to the wellbeing of our planet. However, it can be applied in the right way and not bought out by consumerism (like most technology), there is a chance that it could help provide a greener future for us all.