The metaverse remains mostly an idea, not an implemented fact. Yet debate is already underway about whether the metaverse will help or hinder environmental sustainability initiatives.
The answer to this question depends on exactly how developers choose to run metaverse platforms, and how people use them. As a result, the metaverse could be either a good or a bad thing from a sustainability perspective.
What Is the Metaverse?
The metaverse, as you have probably heard by now if you follow conversations about up-and-coming technology, is an immersive virtual world where humans will theoretically interact over the internet. For better or worse, the metaverse promises to let us live our lives in utterly virtual form, using networks and data centers to host virtual representatives of our actual selves.
Could the Metaverse Be a Sustainability Disaster?
Viewed from one perspective, the metaverse could become a sustainability nightmare. There are two main reasons why.
One is that the metaverse could lead to a dramatic increase in the energy consumed by cloud computing data centers, where many metaverse providers will likely choose to host the infrastructure and software that power their virtual worlds. While the lack of actual metaverse platforms in production today makes it hard to say exactly how much energy they'll consume, it seems a safe bet that it's going to require magnitudes more electricity to run a metaverse than to host, say, an Apache Web server or WordPress instance.
The second reason why the metaverse could complicate sustainability is that it may create new hardware requirements for the devices that consumers use to interact in virtual worlds. Providing high-performing 3D experiences is part and parcel of the metaverse's premise. And to do that, you need high-end GPUs, which are lacking in many smartphones and even in desktop computers. It's currently unclear whether you'll be able to use the metaverse if you have a humble onboard graphics processor, or if you'll need to upgrade to the type of dedicated graphics cards that are currently used mostly for gaming and other specialized use cases
If the metaverse does lead to a demand for new graphics hardware in consumer devices, the result will be more outdated phones and laptops discarded in landfills, and more energy spent building metaverse-ready devices to replace them. Plus, if the system requirements of the metaverse increase over time — which seems plausible, since metaverse providers will probably seek to outdo each other by delivering better and better 3D experiences — we'll end up with an ongoing cycle of device replacement. None of this is good from a sustainability perspective.
Can the Metaverse Actually Improve Sustainability?
Fortunately, the metaverse sustainability problems described above are not foregone conclusions. It's possible that the metaverse will be developed and used in such a way that will improve, rather than undermine, sustainability initiatives.
One obvious way to make the metaverse sustainable is to design metaverse platforms in such a way that they don't require specialized hardware resources or high computing power (on either the server or end-user side of the equation) to run. For this to happen, metaverse developers must be willing to sacrifice some glitz to keep resource profiles lower and more eco-friendly.
It may also help sustainability efforts if metaverse platforms are consolidated into centralized services. Instead of having hundreds or thousands of distinct metaverses in existence, resources would likely be used more efficiently if there were just a handful of metaverse offerings out there that were shared by a large number of organizations. This could happen if, for example, the public cloud providers were to roll out "metaverse-as-a-service" offerings that made it easy for businesses to spin up metaverse environments on demand, using hosting resources shared with other customers.
Is the Metaverse Inherently Sustainable?
There is also an argument to be made (and it has been made) that the metaverse will inherently improve sustainability by encouraging people to replace physical trips with virtual meetings in 3D worlds, or even to forgo real-world purchases in favor of buying things like metaverse clothing. These activities would lead to less consumption of actual environmental resources.
However, I tend to doubt that many people will operate more sustainably in the real world because they can indulge their sustainability-unfriendly desires in the metaverse. After all, traditional social media has long made it possible to maintain relationships across long distances and construct virtual identities, but consumer spending — which correlates with resource consumption — has only increased in the social media age.
But who knows? Maybe the metaverse will turn out to be the key to reducing real-world resource consumption. It's certainly a plausible thing to hope for, even if (like me) you think it's unlikely to happen.
It's too early to say what the metaverse's impact on sustainability will be. But it's certainly not too early for metaverse developers to be thinking about this issue — and making decisions that will help the metaverse become a boon, rather than a challenge, for sustainability.