The peaceful nation of Tuvalu plans to create a version of itself in the metaverse, in response to the existential threat of rising sea levels. Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs , Simon Kofe, made the announcement via a chilling digital address to leaders during COP27.
He said the plan, which represents the “worst-case scenario”, involves creating a digital twin of Tuvalu in the metaverse to replicate its beautiful islands and preserve its rich culture:
The tragedy of this result cannot be overstated […] Tuvalu might be the first country in the world to exist only in cyberspace – but if global warming continues unchecked, it won’t be the last.
The idea is that the metaverse could allow Tuvalu to “fully function as a sovereign state” as its people are forced to live elsewhere.
There are two stories here. One is about a small Pacific island nation facing an existential threat and seeking to preserve its national identity through technology.
The other is that the much preferred future for Tuvalu would be to avoid the worst effects of climate change and preserve itself as an earthly nation. In this case, it may be his way of attracting the attention of the world.
What is a metaverse nation?
The Metaverse represents a booming future in which augmented and virtual reality have become part of everyday life. There are many visions of what the Metaverse might look like, the most well-known coming from Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Read more: What is the Metaverse and what can we do in it?
What most of these visions have in common is the idea that the metaverse is about interoperable and immersive 3D worlds. A persistent avatar moves from one virtual world to another as easily as it moves from room to room in the physical world.
The goal is to obscure the human ability to distinguish between the real and the virtual, for better or for worse.
Kofe implies that three aspects of Tuvalu’s nationality could be recreated in the metaverse:
territory – the recreation of the natural beauty of Tuvalu, with which one could interact in different ways
culture – the ability of Tuvaluans to interact with each other in ways that maintain their common language, norms and customs wherever they are
sovereignty – if there were to be a loss of terrestrial lands over which the Tuvalu government has sovereignty (an unimaginable tragedy, but which they have begun to imagine), then could they have sovereignty over virtual lands at the square ?
Could it be done?
If Tuvalu’s proposal is, in fact, literal and not just symbolic of the dangers of climate change, what might it look like?
Technologically, it is already quite easy to create beautiful, immersive and richly rendered recreations of the territory of Tuvalu. Additionally, thousands of online communities and different 3D worlds (like Second Life) demonstrate that it is possible to have fully virtual interactive spaces that can sustain their own culture.
The idea of combining these technological capabilities with governance functionality for a “digital twin” of Tuvalu is feasible.
There have been previous experiences of governments taking location-based functions and creating virtual analogues. For example, Estonian e-residency is an online-only form of residency that non-Estonians can obtain to access services such as company registration. Another example is countries creating virtual embassies on the Second Life online platform.
Yet there are significant technological and social challenges to bringing together and digitizing the elements that define an entire nation.
Tuvalu has only around 12,000 citizens, but getting even that many people to interact in real time in an immersive virtual world is a technical challenge. There are issues with bandwidth, computing power, and the fact that many users have an aversion to headsets or suffer from nausea.
No one has yet demonstrated that nation states can be successfully translated into the virtual world. Even if they could be, others argue that the digital world makes nation states redundant.
Tuvalu’s proposal to create its digital twin in the metaverse is a message in a bottle – a desperate response to a tragic situation. Yet there is a coded message here too, for others who might see the retreat to the virtual as a response to losses from climate change.
The metaverse is not a refuge
The metaverse is built on the physical infrastructure of servers, data centers, network routers, devices, and head-mounted displays. All of these technologies have a hidden carbon footprint and require physical maintenance and energy. A study published in Nature predicts that the Internet will consume around 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025.
Read more: The Internet consumes extraordinary amounts of energy. Here’s how we can make it more sustainable
The idea of the metaverse nation in response to climate change is exactly the kind of thinking that brought us here. The language that is embraced around new technologies – such as “cloud computing”, “virtual reality” and “metaverse” – comes across as both clean and green.
These terms are loaded with “technological solutionism” and “greenwashing”. They hide the fact that technological responses to climate change often exacerbate the problem due to their high consumption of energy and resources.
So where does that leave Tuvalu?
Kofe is well aware that the metaverse is not an answer to Tuvalu’s problems. It explicitly states that we must focus on reducing the impacts of climate change through initiatives such as a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.
His video on Tuvalu’s move to the Metaverse is a huge hit as a provocation. He received worldwide press – as did his moving plea at COP26 as he stood knee-deep in rising waters.
Still, Kofe suggests:
Without a global consciousness and global commitment to our shared well-being, we could see the rest of the world join us online as their lands disappear.
It is dangerous to believe, even implicitly, that shifting to the metaverse is a viable response to climate change. The metaverse can certainly help keep heritage and culture alive as a virtual museum and digital community. But it seems unlikely to function as an ersatz nation-state.
And, in any case, it certainly won’t work without all the land, infrastructure, and energy that keeps the internet running.
It would be much better for us to draw international attention to the other Tuvalu initiatives described in the same report:
The project’s first initiative promotes diplomacy based on the Tuvaluan values of olaga fakafenua (community living systems), kaitasi (shared responsibility) and fale-pili (being a good neighbor), in the hope that these values will motivate other nations to understand their shared responsibility. address climate change and sea level rise to achieve global well-being.
The message in a bottle sent by Tuvalu is not about the possibilities of metaverse nations at all. The message is clear: support community life systems, take shared responsibility and be a good neighbour.
The first of them cannot translate to the virtual world. The second forces us to consume less, and the third forces us to care.
Read more: Ending the climate crisis has a simple solution: stop using fossil fuels
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