What does climate change have to do with the metaverse? On the surface, perhaps not much. But I think it’s worth examining the implications of how these trends intersect, as both are wide-ranging, world-changing trends that are already happening.
First, it’s worth choosing a definition for the metaverse, as it’s a broad term that can mean many things. I tend to subscribe to the belief that the metaverse is more of a time than a place, where our digital lives and our interactions with digital worlds become more important than our physical lives (this idea comes from Shaan Puri). Using this definition, considering how much time we spend playing video games and on screens in general, we are well on our way to the metaverse.
When I think about how climate change and the metaverse interact, the first word that comes to mind is “constraints”.
When I grew up, one of the most engrossing aspects of playing video games was the lack of constraints. Video games, and by extension much of our digital lives, are virtual playgrounds, where anything and everything can happen. This lack of constraints, I believe, is intrinsic to the concept of the metaverse.
In reality, however, the metaverse has constraints. Today’s metaverse, though perhaps in its infancy, is powered by football fields of data centers, filled with millions of servers running off of a significant percentage of the world’s electricity production. Most people will never understand the magnitude of computing needed to power their digital lives.
Meanwhile, climate change represents the feedback loop of a society and economy living with no constraints in a physical world. For decades, we’ve burned fossil fuels and consumed resources like they are endless. Reckoning with climate change also means reckoning with the quality and quantity of our consumption, as well as acknowledging the constraints our systems are actually working against.
There are a number of views on how to interpret these constraints, ranging from technocratic visions of energy abundance, where in many ways our society can continue to grow while fixing the climate, to warnings that we must push for “degrowth” and reduction of our consumption in order to reconcile our relationship with the planet.
Regardless of where you stand on this debate, it seems clear that most visions of the metaverse are inherently tied to an assumed future of energy abundance - how else can we support these virtual worlds with no constraints?
Right now, the organisations deploying billions to build the metaverse are largely the same organisations whose data center businesses power the metaverse, suggesting that there’s already significant momentum towards a future that is intrinsically linked with energy abundance.
There are positive and negative climate implications of this (for example, computing is arguably one of the easiest energy sources to decarbonise, and we can digitise physical processes that were even more resource-intensive - if you live in the metaverse and never leave the house, you’ll never use your car!), but I’d argue that the most important takeaway is that this trend is happening, whether you like it or not, and with it comes a narrative about our society (that of a future of energy abundance) that affects how we collectively think about climate action.