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On wildlife and the Metaverse, some ethical considerations (commentary)

  • The Metaverse may facilitate even more physical events and activities to take place online, thus cutting down on carbon emissions resulting from travel.
  • But it’s also known that AI language processing models this relies on will push Metaverse carbon emissions through the roof, since they require large amounts of electricity.
  • A community-driven blockchain provider and cryptocurrency option called Wild Metaverse, for example, will donate a percentage of profits to wildlife conservation. But will that be worth its overall cost to wildlife, a new op-ed wonders?
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

In the fight against climate change, will the Metaverse be helpful or hinder environmental efforts?  Essentially an updated internet and virtual world where participants can pose as avatars and interact with others inside a three-dimensional simulation, the Metaverse relies on artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), both of which require wasteful data processing. Hailed as a more realistic version of the internet, the Metaverse allows people to forge social connections while conducting business, purchasing real estate, exchanging crypto-currency, trading artwork and other digital assets in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and playing video games.  In addition to Meta (formerly Facebook), other heavy-hitters have expressed interest in creating their own worlds, including Microsoft (which recently made a bid to purchase video game company Activision), Apple and Disney.

On the one hand, the Metaverse may allow physical events and activities to take place online, thus cutting down on carbon emissions resulting from travel. Flight simulations could cut down on pollution, architectural simulations may help to shape the future of green cities, and scientific simulations might assist in the fight against climate change. On the other hand, though the Metaverse is still in its infancy, the new technology could spell increased problems for climate in the event such technology truly takes off. Indeed, the Metaverse will require a global computer infrastructure which is 1,000 times more powerful than present consumption. Reportedly, AI language processing models will push Metaverse carbon emissions through the roof, since they require astronomical amounts of electricity. With consumers demanding high resolution games, a switch to cloud-based software will further increase such emissions.

Example of the kind of virtual environments that gaming companies are currently creating. Image via Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool for photo realistic visuals and immersive experiences.
Example of the kind of virtual environments that gaming companies are currently creating. Image via Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool for photo realistic visuals and immersive experiences.

Meta’s ‘fowl acquisition’

Needless to say, some observers are skeptical that Meta, which has already played a role in misinforming the public on climate change, has now found religion on the environment. In a move which probably won’t mollify critics, Mark Zuckerberg has announced a partnership with software programmers which will bring “lifelike ducks” to Metaverse Horizon Worlds. The free app, which can be experienced on a headset, will allow users to hunt ducks in virtual reality with an “in-game weapon.” Reportedly, however, users and Meta employees are less than impressed with the ‘fowl acquisition.’

Time will tell whether crypto and NFTs, both of which drive up carbon emissions, can overcome their harmful environmental profile. At first glance it would seem slightly ironic that the United Nations, no less, recently partnered with digital artists to harness NFTs and the Metaverse to foster more awareness about the climate crisis (the UN claims it has partnered with a company promoting “sustainable NFTs” which will avoid “carbon-intensive” networks such as Ethereum). Wild Metaverse, meanwhile, is a “community-driven blockchain provider and cryptocurrency option” which allows users to purchase tokens.  The company claims that a percentage on individual token sales will be donated to wildlife conservation.

From the Arkverse to Untamed Planet

Though the Metaverse stands to drive up emissions, some argue we can cultivate empathy towards wildlife by developing digital identities or avatars for individual animals. Immersion in virtual worlds, the argument goes, will encourage greater appreciation of biodiversity. Some environmentalists have partnered with Metaverse communities to launch a game designed to protect sea turtles, with players’ actions leading to cleanup of actual plastic waste. Arkverse, which touts itself as more than just a “play-to-earn metaverse,” immerses players in a new world of creatures and environmental challenges. Designers say Arkverse, which has plans to launch thousands of NFTs depicting tigers, will encourage players to explore, design and share information about animals while simultaneously earning cash.

Untamed Planet is one of the more altruistic-sounding outfits to have emerged recently. Inspired by the promise of wildlife conservation, the company has launched Untamed Metaverse, a highly immersive 3-D game which allows players to explore wild landscapes. As they explore habitats, gamers may accrue NFT assets while meeting other like-minded players. In a move to mollify critics, the company says its NFT collection will be “minted” on the “more environmentally conscious” Solana blockchain, which yields a low carbon footprint (reportedly, one transaction on Solana uses less energy than three Google searches). Untamed Planet says it will donate, invest or distribute 50% or more of profits to fund real-world conservation efforts. Proceeds from Untamed Metaverse have helped to finance the adoption of a black rhino calf in Kenya, in addition to Congolese rangers striving to protect gorillas.

See related: Can computer games solve a puzzle for camera trap conservationists?

Sample footage from the game "Horizon" developed by Guerrilla Games.
Sample footage from the immersive computer game “Horizon” developed by Guerrilla Games.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

All eyes are now on Nintendo, a gaming giant which may launch its own stake on the Metaverse. The corporation has promoted Switch, a hybrid console “offering up an exceptional level of handheld graphical quality.” By investing an additional $80 on Labo Kit, consumers may covert Switch into a VR headset. If Nintendo pursues a Metaverse gambit, the company would bring a massive audience of more than 100 million gamers along with it. Perhaps, the emergence of Nintendo might also encourage wildlife-themed gaming. Indeed, back in 2020 the corporation released Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a popular online game which some consider to be a “type of Metaverse.”

Within the game, players create an island, cultivate vegetation, catch wildlife and donate fossils and species to a museum. Sounding like a travel agency promoting far-flung tourism, Nintendo remarks, “your island getaway has a wealth of natural resources that can be used to craft everything from tools to creature comforts.” As they explore virtual new worlds, players perform tasks to earn in-game currency.  Though gamers typically interact with a rotating spectrum of anthropomorphic animals, players can also catch a number of real-life insects and fish. “There’s something to do at every hour of the day,” gamers report, “whether it’s scrounging for resources for a building project, flipping fish and seashells for quick cash, or decorating the inside of your house and the grounds outside.”

Perhaps Animal Crossing could encourage a certain type of psychological well-being, in addition to “pro-conservation behaviors and attitudes” such as recycling.  What is more, players may develop greater awareness of marine and freshwater life while planting a wide range of flowers. On the other hand, can “surrogate” nature experiences replace real-word nature, with all its rich complexity?

Whatever the rewards of virtual wildlife, players will not derive mental health benefits from actual exposure to nature. By avoiding the real world and some of the more unpleasant aspects of nature, such as mosquito bites, players are exposed to a virtual environment which can seem “unpredictable but rarely chaotic.” Moreover, some have questioned the game’s emphasis on collecting animal species, which allows players to score virtual cash.

Example of the kind of virtual environments that gaming companies are currently creating. Image via Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool for photo realistic visuals and immersive experiences.
Another example of the kind of virtual environments that gaming companies are currently creating. Image via Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool for photo realistic visuals and immersive experiences.

Empathy and wildlife conservation

Philosophically, what are we to make of the Metaverse with its promise of virtual wildlife conservation? Recently, ‘technologist’ and social entrepreneur Gautam Shah weighed in on such matters during an online Ted Talk. Shah, a former IT consultant, quit his job to start Internet of Elephants, an “enterprise that develops groundbreaking digital tools to engage people with wildlife.” Through mobile games, augmented reality and visualizations tied to GPS and other data, Internet of Elephants tells stories about individual animals in the hope of raising awareness. By imparting animals such as orangutans with personal identities, as well as sharing information about migratory patterns and habitats, Shah believes we can cultivate empathy towards wildlife on a whole new level.

To be sure, the entrepreneur admitted to having reservations: “What I’m advocating could create a greater divide between people and the natural world.”  On the other hand, it’s only a matter of time before the Metaverse changes how we relate to one another, which is all the more reason to incorporate wildlife in new technologies. Gamers should experience landmark moments in the lives of individual animals, such as the arrival of a new-born cub. Some will learn about deforestation by literally witnessing it, while others may connect personally with conservationists in Borneo. Ultimately, Shah declares, we will monetize the Metaverse by promoting conservation, and that “this means that virtual worlds will directly benefit the real world as opposed to being detached from it.”

A dystopian counter-vision

Not everyone is so sanguine, however. Writing in Transform, a global magazine covering trends in brand development, creative director Paul Domenet adds a note of caution. The Metaverse certainly offers the promise of boundless creativity and potential, but “the shiny new lights of a new digital experience” seem jarringly at odds with the planet’s precarious ecological state. Ironically, he adds, “excitement and investment in this new digital world are surging faster than water levels.” Indeed, last year the World Bank provided $32 billion to climate investments, but the market size of the Metaverse has now reached more than $38 billion. Getting right to the point, Domenet writes, “Our problems are physical and can only be fixed physically, not digitally.”

The creative director is particularly concerned about widening social divides within the virtual world. Currently, the Metaverse is geared towards the affluent, “built by the super-rich,” and accessed through technology which few can afford.  In the real world, by contrast, poor people are the most vulnerable to climate change. We need a reality check, Domenet argues: either embrace the Metaverse, which turns us into children, or confront the climate crisis head-on in a more mature manner.

Fundamentally, we have the ability to choose how we live, and need not succumb to “the basic building blocks and boundaries coded by computer scientists in Silicon Valley,” Domenet writes. Solving the climate emergency could be “the pinnacle of human collaboration and problem solving… Or we can hide away, in a questionable alternative VR space where things are as we wish them to be. The more time we spend in the latter, the more we lessen our chances of solving the former.”


Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, as well as scores of articles about the environment.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Author Brett Scott discusses the many pitfalls of cryptocurrencies for conservation and journalist Judith Lewis Mernit shares her reporting on the Bitcoin mining surge in Texas that spiked energy prices, listen here:

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