Although life’s imagined omnipotent climax is nothing more than a possible, perhaps probable, conclusion to evolution, it does seem to be our best choice of meta-purpose, the one that would then be used to guide the written definition of a universal purpose. Nothing else so focuses our attention upon ensuring that life (which includes us) has a future. When we select and use this meta-purpose we are forced to pay attention to the health of our planet, and our survival chances increase (to say nothing of the quality of life we live). No other purpose so aptly points out the criteria we need to use when making moral decisions (see Determining Moral Behaviours for illustrative examples) both today and in the future.
However, there is another, and, at first sight, strong, meta-purpose contender that has not yet been mentioned. In recent years, the idea of zero growth or sustainable development has been much debated. It would be quite possible to select this as our meta-purpose, and make moral decisions guided by the need to maintain the planetary status quo. It would be quite possible, but it would be an appalling choice.
In a zero-growth state, production levels just balance requirement levels. All life would exist in peaceful equilibrium, as some seem to believe was once the case. However, such a state never existed. Life has always exploited its environment for resources, and life forms that do not continuously attempt to take all possible advantages will be overtaken by others that do. Stagnant life does not survive.
A two-way disruptive process featuring life and its environment operates continuously. Environmental changes precipitate evolutionary changes, and life’s evolution disrupts its environment, particularly the number and kind of other life forms that live in the vicinity. In the past, life-effected disruptions were minor and local in scale; today, due principally to population and technology, they are not. We notice environmental degradation now due to its extent and magnitude. It is pervasive and escalating, because we have just about shut down or eliminated many of life’s formerly capacious buffering biomes, but also because we are running out of planet to exploit. This last factor, were we to adopt a zero growth rate, would soon create serious psychological consequences.
Mankind has not yet absorbed the fact that there is almost nowhere else on Earth to go. This planet has always provided new and interesting territory for humans to discover, explore and exploit. The open space and natural wealth found as our reach expanded provided avenues of escape for the oppressed and a challenge for the restless. This, in turn, helped to maintain the political and social stability of the countries left behind, and enabled the population explosion that has been our constant companion for the past three centuries. But we have reached our territorial limit. Today, only the oceans and space itself remain unexplored.
Psychologically we have not fully realized what this means. Subconsciously (particularly in the West), we still expect that limitless expansion—moving on, growing, and building a place of our own—will always be the intrinsic state of affairs. Life has been able to expand upon this planet, in one manner or another, for the past four billion years. Room to roam and exploit has always been at hand for all who so desired. It was always thus—but is so no longer. And, when we eventually have no place to walk that has not been trod before, have only food that has been artificially modified in some manner, have instant but sanitized and censored news and ideas, and have only vacations that are virtual, or made of fibreglass and plastic, how then will we feel?
I think that I would feel I was approaching the end of all that was good in life. I would begin to think about the end of the world and about death, for, in an entirely controlled world that was going nowhere, I would see no future and no hope. Indeed, this is just how things do begin to appear for many of us, in our final years. When there seems to be nothing new to put your hand or mind to, one becomes suddenly very old. And this is likely to be how the population of a zero-growth world would feel, once it is realized that the planet has been ravished and the opportune time to expand into space was missed.
Expansion is necessary for life’s continued development—even expansion into space, throughout our galaxy and into others beyond. Yet life on this planet may have only the needed resources and psychological energy for one shot. It would dishonour all that life has accomplished to throw this opportunity away.
There is another aspect to this discussion about the viability of a zero-growth future. Evolutionary change occurs only when possible and advantageous: when niches open up, when food supplies vary, or when a mutation confers a bonus. If niches never alter, change brings penalty, not reward. If we choose zero growth, if we immobilize our niche, we will cease evolving. Without challenge, we do not advance. H. sapiens will regress and degenerate into obscurity.
There is only one direction to go, and that is forward. Returning to past views returns us to wars about beliefs, and ignores or debases scientific truth. Standing still amounts to slow death. We must go forward. Forward, eventually into space, amassing knowledge, understanding, and gaining an ever greater ability to control as we go.
As I have written earlier, there seems only one logical consequence to going forward forever. Life eventually, surely, must become an entity possessing omnipotent capabilities—oB. If this is so, or indeed, even if this is just a possibility, then why not adopt this endpoint as a surrogate “meta-purpose,” use it to define a robust “universal purpose,” then make collective moral decisions aimed at achieving that purpose? What better choice could we possibly make?