You have a meeting today in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest. Dense, rainy jungle surrounds you, but you and your team members remain dry. Getting everyone into a different environment has freed up their thinking and inspired a lively discussion. This is briefly interrupted when Atiaia the jaguar and her two new cubs stroll by, paying you no attention. The whole team pauses to admire them.
After a long day at work, you go to meet some friends for a drink. On the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the bar, you see Fio, a Bornean orangutan hanging from a fig tree. She’s looking a little skinnier than the last time you saw her. As you wait for your friends, Ika, a world-famous orangutan researcher from Malaysia sits down, and you strike up a conversation about Fio and the state of the Bornean rainforest.
Later that night, you attend a concert along with 30 million other people. Everyone is surrounded by ice and glaciers as the music plays. You spot Sasha, the gentoo penguin you’ve seen at other events and hoped would be there.
All this happens, yet you never leave St. Louis, Missouri, the city where you live.
All this and much more could become not only possible but commonplace. Whether the Metaverse sounds like a refreshing dream or a dystopian nightmare, there’s no denying it has people’s attention. Economist and technology advisor Mark Purdy envisions the Metaverse as “a network of 3-D virtual worlds where people can interact, do business, and forge social connections through their virtual avatars.” Disney hails it as “the next frontier in storytelling.” Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook (now Meta), describes it as the “future of how we socialize, work, and play.” And JP Morgan calls it an “all-encompassing” platform and a “one trillion-dollar industry.”
These comments focus on Metaverse business opportunities, but there are endless other potential applications, including the unexpected ways it could create positive environmental impact. As two people passionate about how data and technology can benefit the planet, we think it’s worth asking: Could nature and wildlife benefit from this potential future? Surprisingly, it could be that its biggest impact is creating richer relationships between human beings, and other species and ecosystems around the globe.
Relationships With Other Species
In a 2013 National Audubon Society report, the authors wrote: “Individual choice and behavior form the heart of social and environmental change.” They argue that changing consumer markets, public policy, and financing—all of which are necessary to achieve long-term environmental change—requires public engagement. Many other individuals and groups have made the same point over the years, and we agree. But we would take it a step further and say that public engagement is a prerequisite to any long-term environmental change.
The fact is that while advocates of conservation dearly wish for Albert in St. Louis, for example, to act, vote, and donate in support of orangutans in Borneo, he has no way of forming a meaningful connection to them or their habitats from thousands of miles away. How can he be expected to empathize with their protection? For most people, the plight of endangered wildlife is an abstraction; it’s not part of their daily lived experience.
What if Albert had the tools to develop a strong emotional connection to Fio the orangutan? What if he had regular opportunities to see and learn about Fio in real-time, to understand what threatened his survival or helped him thrive? Could millions of connections between individual people and individual animals entirely change how we support conservation?
Perhaps protecting all life on Earth means building relationships with all life on Earth.
Unique, Digital Identities for Wild Animals
Creating relationships begins with names. As Stephen Messenger, senior writer for The Dodo, noted in an article, “Names are like passkeys which unlock our empathy, in a single moment capable of transforming a stranger into someone deserving of our decency.” In the context of wildlife, consider the reaction to Cecil the Lion, whose death at the hands of a hunter enraged millions, or how Mountain Lion P22’s daily movements captivated the citizens of Los Angeles.
A story focused on the loss of 30,000 elephants each year will not inspire the same sense of connection and understanding of loss as will the story of Mweituria, a 30-year-old male elephant, living in Kenya, who likes to raid corn crops and teach younger males to do the same.
The data to create unique, digital identities for thousands of animals is at hand. Currently, scientists and researchers are tracking more than 200,000 individual animals by GPS, and the ICARUS initiative is tracking more than 800 species via satellite. We also have the technology to collect eDNA samples from rivers, soil, and dung; develop artificial intelligence (AI) analysis of “camera trap” images; and use acoustic technology to identify individual animals. Developing digital identities for these animals could provide the foundation for greater connection: names.
Wildlife Avatars and Shared Platforms
Of course, it’s not enough to just create these identities. They need to come alive in places where humans can discover them. As with data, the kinds of digital platforms and channels we need to bring wildlife and nature into our daily lives exist now. Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, for example, already includes 2 trillion renderings of the world’s trees, and the Adidas fitness app includes five real, GPS-tracked animals (including Pamoja the pangolin and Uuliin the snow leopard) as athletes that users can compare their own physical activity with.
Just as human avatars populate the Metaverse, game environments, and virtual conference spaces, so can avatars of Fio, Sasha, and Atiaia. We can digitally recreate the events of their lives—such as migrations, or changes in health or behavior—to create moments for human connection, and over time, emotional bonding. And because these events occur in places where Albert, for instance, is already spending time, it becomes easier to make wildlife and nature part of his daily life.
People could engage with these events in different ways. Some might connect to real-world deforestation by witnessing avatars of trees vanish in a video game. Others might help identify new trends in elephant movements by monitoring them every day. Some of us would join a convening of whale shark researchers in Djibouti to understand how policy changes are affecting their feeding behavior. Whatever way we engaged, we could begin to regard the stories of far-away animals and ecosystems as part of our own life stories. And this would influence what we buy, how we vote, and where we donate over time. These virtual worlds could both enrich and directly benefit the physical world, rather than remaining detached from it.
Some may well bristle at the notion of playing a video game or participating in an online community to rehabilitate rainforests in Borneo. It seems like a stretch. But hundreds of video games, such as Mojang’s Minecraft, have created communities all over the world between people that have nothing else in common. One of the world’s most influential game designers, Jane McGonigal, has described how the power of billions of gamers can be used for social good, in part because gamers often immerse themselves in collectively solving seemingly unsolvable problems.
Some also fear that technology could create an even greater divide between people and the natural world by either distracting them from it or replacing it altogether. Yet after two years of experiencing much of life virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are flocking to physical experiences. As one proxy for this, the US National Parks system is seeing unprecedented visitors. Virtual experiences need not replace physical ones. They can inspire exploration in the real world, much like a travel show. Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” for example, makes you want to visit the places he visits in person, not feel like you don’t need to go because you’ve already seen them on TV.
Finally, if tech giants manipulate the content we see on their platforms, it stands to reason that whoever controls the representation of wildlife and nature in the Metaverse could misrepresent or adapt it to suit their own ends. This will always be a threat, but it makes it all the more important for gaming and tech companies, the media, NGOs, and others to proactively influence the way nature and wildlife are positioned in virtual environments.
How We Get There
Here are a few specific ways we can begin incorporating more wildlife and nature data in existing virtual products and experiences to help ensure that our physical world makes its way into Web3 and the Metaverse as they evolve:
- The Green Game Jam, orchestrated by the Playing for the Planet Alliance creates a competition for game companies to incorporate environmental actions, themes, or donation mechanisms into their games. The next step is to think beyond annual campaigns and move toward more-perpetual representations of nature and wildlife and mechanisms that tie gameplay to real-world outcomes.
- Tech platforms such as Microsoft Azure’s Planetary Computer or Google’s Earth Engine, which catalog global environmental data on the cloud, can combine biodiversity, climate, and natural resource data to generate “digital twins” of all natural resources, giving everyone real-time visibility into the health of the planet.
- Conservation media and entertainment storytellers can go beyond traditional channels like film and TV, and instead begin to invest in games and the Metaverse as storytelling platforms of the future.
- Big conservation NGOs can prioritize consumer engagement as a project or outcome in itself, just like any other on-the-ground intervention they fund. They can use the power of their brands, reach, and influence for motives to experiment and measure new ways of keeping audiences connected with nature.
- Wildlife scientists and smaller NGOs can think about the data they are collecting and the value it represents beyond science. They can think about the stories their data holds that the world should know about and how they might fund their operations by licensing it.
Connecting for Conservation
If all of us could travel to Borneo, Brazil, and Antarctica, and spend a few hours with animals in environments far from where we live, we wouldn’t need another way to connect with them. But many species are out of sight and out of mind and disappearing faster than we know. Widening the tent and making it easier for everyone to be part of conservation could help counter the impacts of bad business, bad policy, and a dearth of financing over time. It begins with a seismic shift in how we create relationships with other species and ecosystems.
In a recent article for The Guardian, Tony Juniper, chair of the government advisory group Natural England, wrote, “We humans are as much creatures of nature as the birds and bees. Remembering that in our day-to-day lives will help to restore our largely broken relationship with the rest of creation and benefit not only animals, but us too.” Technology and the Metaverse can and should play a significant role in bringing wildlife into our daily lives, and it could be that the most compelling and effective way to protect the worlds of Fio, Sasha, and Atiaia is to virtually invite them into ours.
Read more stories by Gautam Shah & Ryan Boudinot.