Just days before last week’s Climate Week extravaganza in New York, an industry worth $195 billion announced a 99.95% cut in their absolute energy use. Yet, during the hundreds of events calling for exactly that kind of giant reduction, very few leaders mentioned the achievement.
Why? If it had been Ikea or Unilever announcing such a carbon saving, we’d of screamed it from the rooftops. But the sustainability movement doesn’t pay much attention to cryptocurrencies, and it was Ethereum (which trades more value than Visa) who changed their rules and slashed their footprint.
For too long, the sustainability movement has either ignored, or deplored, the virtual world. Sustainability seeks to save our physical lives on earth, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, the air we breathe and the wobbly climate we now live within. The metaverse, on the other hand, is a relatively new endeavour that promises a pixelated escape from that fragile earthly reality.
For many serious people, the metaverse seems like a ridiculous distraction from our planetary problems, rather than a solution to them.
Except, the metaverse is already driving sustainability, and it has the potential to turn material consumption on its head. Because all those pixels could drive out all the planet-damaging stuff from our economies.
Today, there’s a burgeoning cohort of conscious consumers enjoying the immaterial joys of the metaverse. According to a recent survey of nearly 5,700 consumers in the U.S. and Europe, those who are more likely to purchase sustainable products are also more than twice as likely to also shop in the metaverse. Perhaps more of my environmentalist friends are already in the metaverse than they’d like to admit.
This transfer from material consumption to online shopping is superbly more effective than exhortations not to shop at all. Primarily because of status anxiety.
For those of raised in capitalist democracies, status symbols have been stable for decades. It could be a red sports car, or a designer sneaker, an expensive perfume or a 5-star hotel stay, a private jet or a seat at a 10-course tasting menu. These work as status symbols in our societies because they perfectly denote one simple asset: wealth. Biologically, wealth is a display of excess, evidence of a potential mate’s success in the game of life. Just like a peacock’s flamboyantly useless feathers display its abundance of energy – thanks to its skill at finding food and avoiding predators – so too do expensive suits and diamond rings evidence their wearer’s bountiful resources. The point here is to be deliberately wasteful – and it’s perfectly natural (Charles Darwin even dubbed wasteful behaviours as ‘honest signalling’).
Which has become catastrophic news for the environment. Wasteful excess of wealth as a status symbol is nothing new – it’s as old as pineapples rotting on 17th century dinner tables and gold jewellery being buried with Ancient Egyptian pharaohs. But as our population booms, disposable income increases in rich countries, and the wealthy become wealthier, our signals of status have weighed heavier on the planet’s limited resources. Indeed, scientists have shown that affluent lifestyles are accelerating the environmental crisis. And the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report doesn’t hold back in condemning those behaviours, “Conspicuous consumption by the wealthy is the cause of a large proportion of emissions in all countries, related to expenditures on such things as air travel, tourism, large private vehicles and large homes.”
Which presents a bit of a pickle. Humans drive for status is hardwired, part of our biological and societal nature. But, that natural drive is driving our natural life support systems to destruction.
And so, to my grand claim, that the metaverse and Web3 can save us.
What if our status displays only existed online? What if likes and follows replaced limos and flashy watches? What if conspicuous consumption of ‘real world’ stuff could simply die on the vine?
This radically dematerialised future is within reach. More than 62% of the world’s population now use the internet – a number that’s hard to keep track of when 27,000 people are going online for the first time every hour (yes, hour). Facebook alone includes 3% of us; if it were a country, its population would be bigger than China’s and India’s combined. More people have cellphone subscriptions than have access to basic sanitation services.
The internet’s rapid encroachment on daily life for the majority of the world can hardly be overstated. A typical internet user spends more than 40% of their waking life online. There we are gathering and displaying our likes, followers, gaming level, retweets – our virtual status markers.
What was once resolutely physical is already becoming merely pixels or tokens. Three years ago, the world’s first digital dress sold via blockchain for $9,500. Its forward-thinking owner describes a feeling that is, perhaps, reflective of this digital native culture: “500 years ago we jumped on a ship to sail to the edge of the map, but all of the physical world has been discovered already. It is really exciting to discover a space that hasn’t been explored yet”. It is a space in which there’s no need for something to be ‘real’ to be relevant or commercialised – and Web3 will speed that transition. This even applies to Insta-influencers themselves: Miquela is a robot with 3 million followers. And Travis Scott’s avatar attracted 12.3 million live viewers during a concert ‘performance’ in 2020.
To protect the planet, it is imperative that these digital spaces cause less environmental harm than their predecessors. The energy usage from mining associated with digital hardware is a major concern, but widespread attention on the issue is already driving a transition from the energy heavy ‘proof of work’ principle towards less energy-intensive ‘proof of stake’ chains – with the Ethereum announcement setting a huge precedent. And while manufacturing devices and running data centres uses significant amounts of land and energy, it can’t compare to the global supply chain resources, manufacturing impact, use and wasteful disposal of clothes, cars and other physical status-bearing goods.
Social media as an environmental solution is also not without its psychological perils. Internet addiction is becoming a recognised disorder, with rates among young people ranging from 2% in some European countries to 51% in the Philippines. Last year, ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen alerted the world to the harms caused by the platform and highlighted that huge control lies in the hands of a few. Social media is still in its first few blinking and yawning moments of existence – these risks are real and need addressing as it finds its feet. As it does, its fullest and most beneficial potential could continue to reveal itself.
We should bear in mind that moving status online will never be about everyone becoming less superficial or more virtuous. There will be cheating, unfairness and manipulation, just like there is in the physical world. It is certainly not a case of social media, gaming and the virtual world becoming a space solely focused on sustainability, values or important debates. If it were, that wouldn’t work for dematerialising status symbols.
The virtual world doesn’t need a purpose beyond what it already has. By becoming superbly good at what it is already becoming: a more important status symbol than material consumption. Young people’s upbringing in the digital space is already priming them to blur the lines between the digital and physical, to create status virtually and send those signals using social media, without needing to consume precious physical resources.
Which only leaves the question – will we all go virtual in time to save the planet?
Cityscapes of Metaverse