Environmental effects of the metaverse

Creating a virtual world may wreak havoc on the real one

Jennifer Lopez is engaged to Ben Affleck. Britney Spears is finally free from her conservatorship. In some ways, this year is a rerun of the early 2000s.

Nevertheless, Big Tech is solely fixated on the future.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Meta (previously known as Facebook) are all jostling to secure an indispensable role in the budding metaverse—a virtual world where individuals can game, interact, and fully immerse themselves in experiences modeled after real-life. However, this virtual form of reality is raising numerous red flags.

In 2021, Tidio, a customer service platform provider, released a global survey stating that 77% of adults perceive the metaverse as a threat to society. Most people cited potential issues with addiction, privacy, and mental health as their main concerns. However, among all the survey participants, even those who detested the metaverse failed to recognize one of its primary (but lesser-known) red flags—its injurious environmental effects.

Recently, studies have discovered that a ubiquitous virtual realm could increase carbon emissions, electronic waste, and the consequences of climate change. Therefore, environmentalists are concerned that as Big Tech promotes a digital world, they are causing tangible, detrimental effects to the real one.

What is the metaverse?

Neil Stevenson, the author of several unsettling science fiction novels, first coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 best-seller, Snow Crash. Stevenson’s “metaverse” served as a virtual reprieve for his characters to escape an oppressive, totalitarian government.

However, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Meta, envisions his company’s metaverse to be much more than a reprieve from reality. For Zuckerberg, the goal is to create a metaverse that serves as a fully immersive online domain where people entertain themselves, relax, work, and live full-time. In his metaverse, users will create avatars that interact with one other in a simulated, three-dimensional reality.

Further, avatars will potentially have the ability to travel anywhere, attend concerts, play games, make money, and even buy or sell digitized land using cryptocurrency.

Joe Starkey, assistant director of technology at Minnehaha Academy, reveals that the metaverse is already a familiar concept in society. “The metaverse isn’t coming for us,” explained Starkey. “It’s already here and it exists in the form of games and open worlds like Fortnite and Minecraft. Minecraft is almost 10 times the size of the earth in terms of space and people are already purchasing outfits and accessories and attending concerts in Fortnite.”

What are the environmental consequences?

The metaverse relies on virtual reality (VR) technology that uses energy-guzzling artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud services. As a result, analysts caution that the metaverse could cause a hazardous influx in greenhouse gas emissions.

In a recent study, the University of Massachusetts estimated that training a single AI model for the metaverse will produce five times the carbon emissions of an average car in the entirety of its lifetime (626,000 pounds of carbon). Similarly, carbon emissions will rise by 30 percent before 2030 if the expected 30 percent of today’s 3 billion video gamers switch to metaverse-based gaming platforms.

To further raise concerns, the never-ending evolution of the metaverse coaxes individuals to continuously buy new technologies in an attempt to keep up. As a result, the amount of problematic e-waste (discarded electronic products) will skyrocket. When not recycled properly, products such as the lithium batteries that power the metaverse’s VR headsets release noxious chemicals into ecosystems.

Research by the United Nations revealed that the U.S. currently recycles less than a quarter of its deleterious e-waste—causing extensive pollution to soil, groundwater and landfills. This makes America especially vulnerable to the environmental repercussions of the metaverse.

Additionally, because the metaverse is a digital world, it requires a digital currency. Thus, the metaverse will increase the use of crypto currency— a virtual form of money that is regulated by complex computer calculations. “Mining” a single Bitcoin, the most popular crypto currency, already expends more energy than the entire state of Washington does over one year. As the metaverse becomes more prevalent, the electricity consumption of crypto currencies will only rise.

Luna Beck, Minnehaha Academy sophomore, is concerned about the environmental damage of increasing cryptocurrency use.

“There are already huge warehouses full of [energy-consuming] computers to make this digital currency,” explained Beck. “We should not be incentivizing it even more with the metaverse.”

What is the future of the metaverse?

To allay the concerns of environmentalists, Meta, Apple, Google, and Microsoft—all potential contributors to the metaverse—have started the transition to solely renewable energy. Additionally, many of these major technology companies have declared their intentions to achieve net-zero emissions.

But, for many businesses, that means they are still producing substantial carbon emissions that they simply offset by making “environmental investments.”

Beck doubts that Zuckerberg’s Meta will ever truly prioritize the environmental effects — not just the financial benefits — of the metaverse and recommends that consumers don’t participate in this digital realm.

“I would say don’t buy into the metaverse,” Beck urges. “We don’t want virtual meetings to take place in the metaverse. We don’t want zoom to just be replaced by the metaverse. If you’re looking for VR, there’s plenty of other more expensive but better solutions that don’t have a built-in virtual world with them. There’s plenty of other headsets that are standalone and don’t connect you to some [metaverse] server.”

What can consumers do?

Because of the technology industry’s ambiguity on their intentions for renewable energy, environmentalists recommend that consumers take charge in limiting the worldly implications of the metaverse.

April Miller, a green technology advocate, urges people to stop over-consuming technology and use their electronic devices longer before replacing them. Like Beck, Miller is critical of the metaverse and the threat that it poses to the Earth; however, she motivates individuals to focus on their personal environmental impacts.

“As long as the metaverse remains in its developmental stages, we can only guess how it will achieve net-zero emissions,” remarked Miller. “In the meantime, we should continue to focus on our own efforts to use technology more sustainably.”

Ultimately, J.Lo’s love life and Britney ‘s freedom may seem like a repeat of a former world—but at least it’s real. For now.

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About Grace Kassebaum

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