Virtual reality could save the planet

"I don't get it," my friend Marco said over lunch, "why does our whole economy have to be based on growth?"

He was reacting to a recent World Wildlife Fund report. The study found that wildlife populations had fallen 58% since 1970. I have four children; it is possible that when they are my age, they will live on a dead and lifeless planet

On Reddit, one user articulated the despair many of us feel:

This kills me because I feel powerless to do anything about it. I usually pass over headlines about us trashing the earth because it cripples me.

The problem is that our economic model is incompatible with the ecological model.

For example, Apple is the biggest most profitable company in the world, but analysts still want them to increase revenue every quarter. Lack of growth is a failure in our society.

Growth is only achievable through increased consumption. You either need to find new markets (people who haven't bought your products yet) or you need to convince existing consumers to buy more.

It's that consumption that's killing the planet. iFixit's excellent report on the problem shows that 60% of e-waste ends in landfills. In their environmental report, Apple admits that 77% of their greenhouse gasses occur during the manufacturing of their devices.

Progress is being made, but a brand new iPhone is not yet "environmentally neutral."

What's scary is we don't have a good solution.

Voters continue to require economic growth from politicians.

Consumer demand is still driven by the desire for more.

But... the planet can't sustain it. We can't keep flying on airplanes, throwing away Venti coffee cups, and upgrading our iPhones every two years. We need a new societal paradigm.

One societal shift that's showing promise is digital consumption.

Back in 2009, a

Cleantech study concluded that purchasing three e-books per month for four years produces roughly 168 kilograms of CO2 throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle, compared to the estimated 1,074 kilograms of CO2 produced by the same number of printed books.

As mentioned, digital consumption devices aren't yet net-zero. However, switching to reading ebooks is six times better for the environment (from an emissions standpoint).

The benefit is that the bits themselves aren't real. They're virtual. They don't require mining natural resources or disposal in a landfill.

Yes - the devices and cloud infrastructure require resources to build and maintain. However, as Apple has shown, a company with resources can reduce that consumption dramatically.

It's not likely that human nature is going to change. We're going to continue to desire "more."

However, we could change how we consume.

We could move from "real" goods to "virtual" goods and experiences.

As someone who sells digital products, I've seen consumers switch from filling real bookshelves, to virtual ones. James Altucher famously reduced what he owns to two bags. Less stuff, less waste.

Digital books could be just the beginning.

Virtual reality offers us a new opportunity

What would happen if most of our consumption were to move into a virtual world?

As VR headsets become more commonplace, we could move beyond digital bookshelves, movies, and music collections. Here's a view of the future that could save the planet:

  • Our homes will become smaller, simpler, and more utilitarian: the average American's ecological footprint is 50% larger than a European's. We live in bigger homes, and fill them with more stuff. VR could precipitate a cultural change where we're more concerned about our virtual homes than our real ones. Remember the Sims game? If you can build the home of your dreams in a virtual world, why build one in real life?

  • Spending on virtual art, furnishings, and upgrades will go up: we've seen this behavior in online gaming for decades. When you give people a virtual space to decorate, they'll spend money to improve it.

  • You won't buy cars anymore: 90% of North Americans drive to work, but many hate it. Long commuting times, traffic, and high costs lead to stress. There's no need to drive to the office if everyone can interact in virtual reality. This is good news for the planet: it's likely your trip to work is adding 4.3 tons of carbon to the atmosphere.

  • You won't take as many trips by airplane: we've fallen in love with the idea of flying wherever, and whenever we want. But what if you could avoid flying to Vegas for that conference? If you're coming from New York, that trip will put 1,105.8 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. Virtual conferences should still allow you to shake hands and watch the keynote without having to leave home.

What about the electricity required to power these virtual reality headsets? According to Reddit user TealcLOL, the power draw of the Vive is remarkably low ($0.86 / month compared to his PC which is $23.60). It's likely that VR will eventually be powered by our mobile devices (like the Google Daydream) which will use even less electricity.

Unlimited virtual consumption

In her excellent essay, Karen L. Higgins, Ph.D. articulates the problem facing humanity:

Economic growth not only depends on use of energy resources but also on the striving to stand out. In today's world, consumerism is rooted in this deep human need for significance – more things impart more importance to the individual in the eyes of self and others. This phenomenon creates yet another reinforcing loop. When consumerism fails to satiate this need, it does not just evaporate. Instead, it further amplifies the buying of products and services that fuel economic growth.

Virtual consumption solves this problem. In a digital realm, we don't need to fight human nature. Our need to stand out doesn't have to be directly tied to using natural resources. We can continue to consume, and the economy can continue to grow.

I realize that for some, this vision of the future is frightening. But it doesn't have to a dystopian Matrix-like reality. Instead, when we take off our VR goggles, we'll be able to walk outside and breathe fresh air (and maybe see an animal or two).

Published on October 31st, 2016
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