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On second life and sustainability _Paul Ehrlich

by on September 2, 2009

(posted for Paul by Doug)

The enormous increase in the human population—it’s doubled just since 1965—has had its chief impact on our life-support systems through increasing aggregate consumption. In recent years, the connection between consumption and environmental deterioration has become increasingly clear, and consumption (as measured by GDP) has been expanding faster than population in much of the world. Many environmental scientists, including ourselves, believe that overconsumption—consumption that reduces the sustainability of civilization—will prove much more difficult to cure than the overpopulation that so  multiplies its effects. Unfortunately, there are not yet consumption condoms or buying-spree morning-after pills.

One possible way to rapidly divert the urge of people in the rich world towards less damaging consumption is to channel more of the acquisitiveness into Second Life, the computer-simulated virtual reality world.  Second Life has been luring more and more people, represented their by cartoon figures called avatars, to, among other things, participate in virtual consumption.  In the first quarter of 2009 “residents” of Second Life (SL) –, logged 124 million hours – and more importantly, that was up from 7 million in the first quarter of 2006, 38 million in 2007, and 87 million in 2008.  There were more than $120 million resident-to-resident transactions, and increase of 65% from the same quarter last year.

People can buy land on SL, hire an architect to build them a monstrous house in worse taste than any dot-com millionaire ever imagined, fill it with fine food and virtual bottles of 1961 Petrus, fancy furnishings, stuff a huge garage with Buggatis, and “live” better than the richest person in RL (real life).  Residents can buy fancy clothes and hairdos for their avatars.  It’s a superconsumer’s paradise, at a tiny fraction of the environmental damage done by the equivalent consumption in RL.  There are many questions to be answered about eventually luring the overconsumption of billions of people into Second Life or the equivalent, and some downsides that are already evident.  But environmental scientists need to be aware of them, and also be aware of the potential for pursuing MAHB goals in virtual reality.  It’s genuinely a new world of behavior to explore.

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4 Comments
  1. George Hoguet permalink

    Firsst, thank you for your work and especially this initiative. In terms of Second Life, a term new to me, isn’t this escape into fantasy just a further deepening of the isolation and disconnection from one another that is also at the source of our cravings? And will taking out our desires for big fantasy Stuff actually reduce our desire for real “stuff”, or will it be like the artifical sweetners that reduce our calories but keep us craving for that second piece of pie?

    In his recent presentation at the TED conference, Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface flooring, revised your famous Ecological footprint equation ( I=PxTxA) to add a denominator that includes T2xH, where T2 is the new technologies/innovation to help us reduct the impacts (advanced materials, smart grid, etc) but where H = Happiness, contentment, the realization that we don’t need all that ‘Stuff”. Mr Anderson also made the A (Affluence) is the nominator a small “a” recognizing that we have made affluence a goal in itself, a proof that we have somehow “made it”. What I think we need is not only an Apollo Project for Innovation, as some are calling for, but a Social Change project – perhaps this is MHAB – that truly builds upon Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Happiness vision, helping all of us to deeply experience the true Happiness in connecting with one another,dumping these iPods, iPhones, iGames, and getting back to scrabble and botchi ball with our neighbors.

  2. prehrlich permalink

    You make good points, and as many people use SL they’re certainly true. We find, however, that it can be a wonderful place to meet professionally, and also a wonderful, peaceful place for friends to get together in a “retreat” mode with minimal carbon footprint. As time allows we’ll be looking much more into this, and doubtless posting more. You and some friends might try it out — just google Second Life, hit downloads, and make yourself an avatar. It takes about 10 minutes, costs nothing, and you have to find a place to meet (some fooling around), but then try a chat. Whatever your conclusions about it, you should know about it if you’re concerned with the fate of civilization.

  3. adam davis permalink

    For something as large and audacious as MAHB, thinking out of the box will be essential. I don’t know if ‘channeling acquisitiveness’ into 2nd Life will have any effect on things here on Earth, but I’m absolutely persuaded that “synthetic realities” will be increasingly popular and significant.

    The first thing to ask is why so many people are spending time there in the first place. These synthetic realities are far more than simple ‘games’; they provide full emotional experiences for people as they develop characters who are engaged in struggles and quests that, to the participants, are meaningful.

    The rules that govern these synthetic realities are strikingly akin to public policy. There are large groups (sometimes tens or even hundreds of thousands) of relative strangers interacting together at any one time, and the rules have to ensure that things are – essentially – fun. If things are too unfair or lopsided for one type of character or another, it’s not fun to play.

    In some sense, there is now a real competition going on for people’s attention between these synthetic realities and the ‘real world’, and it’s not that difficult to see why millions of people are choosing to spend time there instead of here.

    There is a very significant opportunity for MAHB to interact with the designers of these new and innovative sets of rules… both to understand possible implications for policy, and to understand ways in which we can make engagement with these ‘big issues’ less depressingly serious and more fun.

  4. Fernando J. Soares permalink

    I would be very cautious in applying SL model into reality. The distance between them is huge. For instance there is no real risk associated with playing SL. You can be whoever you want to be and “dispose” of yourself in a click, to become someone else.

    From a psychological point of view, buying stuff in SL is no way near buying stuff in real life. Success is still very much defined in terms of wealth, which is usually observable in terms or ownership, assets, style, brand and so on. What SL could do is to estimulate a change in how one defines success. However it is risky because they could lose a lot of players.

    In addtion, adverising companies also could help to change how people define success. Everybody wants to win. Nobody wants to be a loser. In other words, it will depend on what imagery is through us by all sorts of media. SL is jus one of them and is possibly a weak one compared to TV advertisement, bilboards, magazines and newspapers.

    Our behavior is determined by what is inside ourselves as much as what is surrounding us. If we only could get leaders to help change the surroundings…

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