A few weeks ago, a group of scientists at Stanford University developed a virtual reality system that uses immersive technology to stimulate participants’ sense of empathy by transforming them into a virtual cow. Sound a bit contentious? Well, after the enormous success of VR-based Pokemon Go app and eye-opening films like Blackfish or Cowspiracy making waves (even among people who may not have animal welfare or environmentalism at the top of their priority list), it is hardly surprising that the two would be combined to pack more of a punch in an environment so receptive to realistic computer simulations.

A look at the most recent data from the British Social Attitudes survey reveals that while over three quarters of Brits think climate change exists and is man-made, public concern regarding the harmful effects of climate change has consistently been in decline for the last couple of years.

Similarly, YouGov data collected in several countries during the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris suggests that Britain and the US are at the bottom of a 15-country list when it comes to support for tackling widespread climate change, and a 2015 international survey from GlobeScan shows that concern regarding the environment is moving to emerging economies such as Brazil or Turkey.

Source: YouGov, May 2015

Source: YouGov, May 2015

Source: Seriousness of Climate Change Survey, GlobeScan 2015

Source: Seriousness of Climate Change Survey, GlobeScan 2015

Looking at the above stats, perhaps investing in enhancing VR methods doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Or does it? A few years ago, the term ‘green fatigue’ was coined to describe the phenomenon of bombarding consumers with so much (at times contradictory) information, that it resulted in inaction on their part. One such example of inaction were falling rates of recycling, revealed in a piece of research done by SITA UK, a kerbside waste collector.

In 2011, NatCen research suggested that the trend of declining concern around the link between climate change was related to the economic uncertainty experienced in Britain at the time. 5 years later, although we have seen a period of recovery, economic uncertainty is once again prominent in the public dialogue as economic forecasts for post-Brexit scenarios seem to change by the day. It is possible that getting the public to take action may prove challenging – attitudes towards reducing things like car use are moving towards more liberty to drive as much as one wants even if it causes damage to the environment and less towards measures like car drivers paying higher taxes. In the context of boosting post-Brexit trade agreements, it is likely public opinion will again shift towards valuing the liberty and capacity to do business overseas rather than backing measures that are perceived as potentially limiting to said trade deals.

At the same time, it was millennials who embraced Pokemon Go’s virtual reality and it is very likely that it will be them who drive support for environmental projects and initiatives, which could well include making members of the public pretend they are a piece of coral on a dying reef if need be. Being as we are at a point of ‘generational equipoise’, when four equally sizeable and generally quite distinct generational cohorts have to co-exist in peace.

Will environmentalism be another facet of intergenerational conflict?

It may be wise to first observe what the prospects of the economy are in the long run, but as digitalisation (and implicitly, virtual reality) technology matures to the point of becoming ‘normal and ordinary and a natural part of the way the world works’ (to cite Douglas Adams), we can certainly expect to see more initiatives that favour immersive experience over analogue imagination.