Amid an ongoing and worsening scandal about the role Facebook has played in misinforming the public — on everything from COVID-19, to the presidential election, to climate change — the company’s CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergHillicon Valley — Amazon draws COVID scrutiny Meta exec who co-founded Diem digital currency leaving the company Two lawyers who filed suit challenging election results ordered to pay nearly 7K MORE did what any responsible CEO would do: Change the name of the company in a seemingly knee jerk publicity stunt. In the context of unending bad press, it looks like an effort to distract the public from the negative impacts the company is having on our democracy, mental and physical health — and the planet.
Now the company will be called “Meta”, short for the “metaverse,” a term originally coined in Zuckerberg’s favorite sci-fi dystopian novel, “Snow Crash.” In a recent demonstration of the metaverse, Zuckerberg invites our future selves to put on a virtual reality (VR) headset and go about our daily lives — meeting with friends, playing basketball and going to concerts — all without having to do any of it! We can just sit behind our VR glasses and pretend we are.
It’s worth noting that the book where the metaverse idea (and many of its features) come from, is a dystopian vision of the future where human society is falling apart, government is failing, there’s rampant poverty and crime, and people are avoiding the bleak reality behind VR glasses. How about we just read the book instead of trying to build this future?
In a recent Wired article on the social implications of VR, Matthew Gault wrote, “Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?”
It seems like the ethos of our leaders at this moment in history —not just in tech, but corporations broadly, and certainly in politics — is to run away from our problems and hope for some magical solutions to solve them. Or at least distract us. As Gault describes, “a nightmarish vision of the future where the world burns around us while we retreat into fantasy worlds.”
Lack of leadership on climate change is a prime example of this type of thinking and we see its faulty logic coming from leaders in every direction.
We can’t buy a new planet on Amazon
I came across this wise tweet recently: “We can’t buy a new planet on Amazon.”
Yet, if you look at the billionaire space race involving Richard Branson, Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskUS-China space cooperation is up in the air more than ever Joe Biden's Big Labor push not winning voters Elon Musk warns SpaceX employees of bankruptcy risk if Starship engine production doesn't increase: report MORE and Amazon’s very own Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosDorsey's exit shakes up Twitter future The dangers of anarchy in space Health risks of space tourism: Is it responsible to send humans to Mars? MORE, it would seem that their plan is to set up camp on Mars and live there happily ever after. Meanwhile, the rest of us would stand by and watch fossil fuel companies make this planet unlivable. It’s a perfect demonstration of escapism philosophy — rather than dealing with the thing that’s hard (fixing our climate crisis) we will retreat into a fantasy where somehow we’ll miraculously be able to live on the beautiful planet of Mars one day.
Of course, it’s worth noting, each of them is also investing money and effort in solving climate change. But if they truly accepted the reality of the climate crisis and cared enough to want to help humanity avoid this fate, they would spend the obscene sums of money going toward their rockets on preserving our only home. Not to mention the climate-harming emissions coming from their unnecessary commercial trips to space.
In politics, it’s more of the same. Politicians like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinTrump haunts Biden vaccine mandate in courts IRS data proves Trump tax cuts benefited middle, working-class Americans most Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems press drillers over methane leaks MORE (D-W.Va.) acknowledge the reality of climate change, claim to want to do something about it — and yet want to keep earning money from coal, promoting natural gas and calling for investments in unproven carbon capture to carry on with business as usual. Even President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE believes that he can be the climate president and still open up 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling.
While oil companies increasingly acknowledge climate change and spend millions advertising to the public how green they are, they’re fully aware that their products are wrecking our planet. As oil executives testified before Congress recently about their role misinforming the public on climate, Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaKhanna advocates for 'honest and reflective patriotism' in America Democrats call on Education secretary to address 'stealthing' at federal level Showdown: Pelosi dares liberals to sink infrastructure bill MORE (D-Calif.), said “you can either come clean, admit your misrepresentations and ongoing inconsistencies and stop supporting climate disinformation — or you can sit there in front of the American public, and lie under oath.”
They chose the latter. It seems they hope to put on a good face, distract us from the facts, and pray that this will all go away, a strategy they’ve successfully employed since the 1960s.
But what the billionaires, oil execs and political leaders are missing is that climate change is already here. You can’t create a metaverse where climate change doesn’t exist. Where it doesn’t threaten our very existence. It’s already happening.
This year alone we’ve had 18 weather disasters in the U.S. that caused over $1 billion in damage each, and the year is not even over.
Time to face the facts
The Pentagon recently released a report stating the impacts of climate change on national security will be devastating globally, “posing complex threats to the United States and nations around the world.”
A new report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence described scenarios where “fisheries devastated by rising ocean temperatures and acidity, grain harvests depressed by changes in precipitation and rising food prices conspiring to trigger ‘widespread hoarding’ that leads to a global famine — all by the early 2030s.”
That’s not something you can conveniently ignore behind a VR headset.
The U.S. Department of Treasury recently issued a report declaring climate change “a systemic risk to the financial system.”
In the face of these climate risks, will tech leaders, billionaires and politicians take the steps needed to avoid the worst and prepare for the inevitable? Or will they simply hope the metaverse arrives in time to stop people from rioting?
I am a fairly optimistic guy when it comes to climate change, because the clean energy technologies we have now are being deployed at an ever-accelerating rate. But that doesn’t mean we can simply point to this fact and wish for the best.
As a species, we have to collectively wrap our heads around the realities of climate change and work through them together. Not succumb to the allure of an illusion being sold to us that we can create an alternative reality where our problems don’t exist.
Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas