Is the metaverse an ecological disaster on the way?

The metaverse is presented by technology companies as the future of the Internet. But doesn’t that go against ecological considerations?

The potential uses of the metaverse are not lacking and are constantly brought up: collaborating on a professional project, making purchases, attending a concert, playing games or meeting all kinds of people. The environmental impact of these virtual worlds is very little discussed. And with good reason, the results are more than mixed.

Many resources to mobilize

In order to smoothly display 3D universes in real time and in very high quality, it will be necessary to have a lot of data centers and super powerful computers that will do the calculations 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Since the goal is usually to get them to work in virtual reality, that means all users – hundreds of thousands of people – will have to buy a headset. The manufacture of these helmets requires, as for our computers and smartphones, rare metals, which greatly contribute to the pollution from digital devices.

Since the metaverse is now connected to web3, we also have to consider the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, which have caused controversy for several years. Although the metaverse is being touted as the future of the Internet, it is unlikely to completely replace it. Similarly, most people would rather go to a concert in person and actually go on vacation. This will not replace existing uses, but will simply add to them and thus increase the pollution associated with digital technology.

Is it possible to compensate?

It would be illusory for companies in the metaverse to deny the environmental impact of the materials used and the servers necessary for its operation. Most of the discourse therefore revolves around ways to compensate for this pollution. Eg. can professional metaverses replace certain trips and limit the impact of transportation, especially the use of the plane for foreign travel. However, it is possible to fall into the same traps as with teleworking, i.e. there are definitely savings on transport, but since people are all in different places, it takes more time for electricity for lighting and heating or air conditioning.

Having an ad-filled metaverse can instead stimulate overconsumption in both the virtual and real worlds.

On the cryptocurrency side, the environmental issue has been such a controversy – a real thorn in the side of NFTs – that they have been forced to question themselves and find solutions. Ethereum has made real progress recently with The Merge. It remains to be seen how this will be if the metaverse becomes widespread and if cryptocurrencies have to handle tens of millions of additional transactions.

Another possible positive effect, according to metaverse advocates, is to replace some real objects with virtual ones. For example, to satisfy his desire to fast fashion in virtual while it is consumed in a more sober and virtuous way in reality. In theory, this may actually reduce pollution associated with the textile industry (production, transport, etc.), but again there is no guarantee that this will serve as a substitute. Having an ad-filled metaverse can instead stimulate overconsumption in both the virtual and real worlds.

To respect the Paris Agreements, it would be necessary to move towards more durable, more low-tech computing equipment and social networks that consume fewer resources by showing fewer images, videos and advertisements. Quite the opposite of the metaverse. As these virtual worlds struggle to convince users, isn’t it time to consider the future of the Internet from the perspective of innovation? and sobriety?

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