Just checked out the Second Life island of Svarga, lovingly designed by Laukosargas Svarog with its own virtual ecosystem. Laukosargas not only created virtual flowers and trees that grow, she also populated the island with bees that pollinate the flowers, clouds that bring rain, and sun-lit and shady areas with different growth patterns. It's the prettiest biology class you will ever attend.
I bought a bag a virtual seed, which was promptly gobbled up by the hungry birds that flit around everywhere. At night there are bats and glowbugs, which serve no purpose other than to look cool at the moment. Luckily no creatures bite and you can leave the Claritin in the medicine cabinet.
Laukosargas, quoted by Hamlet Au in NWN, notes how delicate the ecosystem is:
If I was to turn off the clouds the whole system would die in about six hours.... Turn off the bees and [the plants stop] growing, because nothing gets pollinated. And it's the transfer of pollen that signals the plants to drop seeds. The seeds blow in the wind, and if they land on good ground according to different rules for each species, they grow when they receive rain water from the clouds. It's all interdependent.
Svarga shows some of the amazing potential of SL to mimick real life and demonstrate the delicate balance of earth's various life forms. Which makes me wonder about the political and educational possibilities of these kinds of simulated environments. If you wanted to get all Al Gore in here, you could have the island's balance fall apart as more and more residents visit, using up resources and trampling the soil. Or you could give residents control of small plots on the island to learn how to balance resources and land use wisely. Any businesses that operate on the island might have real impacts on the ecosystem based on the resources they use and the waste they create. The possibilities are endless.
While global warming might be an inconvenient truth that people don't want to face, creating more interactive, fun ways for people to learn about how the Earth operates might help convince new audiences of the importance of sound environmental policies. At the very least, it would be more appealing than watching Al Gore give a powerpoint presentation.