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By Alfredo Sfeir-Younis
Today economics is driven by consumption. Many people believe that if consumption were to decline, the whole world economy would collapse. Progress seems impossible without the continuous expansion of existing consumption. This expansion is the target of companies and decisions makers who cleverly bombard our five senses so we end up consuming more and more. During the last century alone we moved from $1 trillion to nearly $30 trillion in consumption expenditures per year. Imagine. Of this increase, the top 20% of income earners consume 86% of the total. The bottom 20% consume only 1.6%. In this context, the connecting of economics and finance with our five senses has become essential to economic development and progress.
A young friend of mine is a prosperous Chilean entrepreneur. His branch of business is fish products, and he is fully devoted to catering to consumers in developed countries, and especially in Europe, Asia, and North America. In explaining his successful business, he pointed out to me that the whole profit center rests in producing a salmon that consumers in those rich countries will buy and enjoy. All of this sounded concrete and rational to me.
In my very simplistic world, I thought that a fish was just a fish—that whatever nature would give us, was it. But in today’s economic systems we are far from Mother Earth’s way of operating. And experts in food production know that the nature and scope of most codes and regulations guiding the industry are heavily influenced by how the food looks rather than by any notion of what people need in order to consume safely and naturally.
Thus, the salmon demanded by consumers may be predefined by different sizes, shapes, or colors. In Asia, his clients want a large fish with a very intense and deep pink color. In America, restaurants demand a plate-sized fish, also with a very appealing color. Fish suppliers can actually produce whatever the consumers demand. I did not know this. However, it takes two years to satisfy a given client order. This is because of the need to feed the fish with a unique food formula and to add special chemical coloring to their food. Also, suppliers adopt a unique production process—raising fish in captivity—to provide the required fat content, meat content, etc.
In sum, they are able to “produce” a fish that matches exactly the consumer’s requirements for taste, smell, look, and texture. Everything is customized to satisfy our sensory needs. All in all, we witness an almost fully sensory-based economic process.
Another example of profit making based on strategically heightening our sensory capacities is in cigarette advertising. Producers and consumers of cigarettes know very well that smoking is a major source of cancer. And no one will make profits if advertising was essentially like this: Consume cigarettes, get cancer. This would be against the foundations of marketing and profit making. Thus, we see the most beautiful and powerful sensory forms of advertising for cigarettes.
Some companies use fun, playful, and animated characters to make us laugh and become more attracted to smoking. Others dig into the subtle levels of our self-confidence, sense of identity, machismo, sensual femininity, or ability to become someone else (e.g., when famous actors or actresses are used). This is sensory advertising at its most effective.
Finally, we all know about the exploitation of our sexual needs and perceptions in the realms of economics and finance. Just look at the advertising of clothing companies. To attract consumers, they use semi-naked young girls and boys. Sex has become a powerful entry point for many economic activities.
It is clear that most forms of consumer advertising are designed to stimulate our senses. Anything wrong? Well, it depends.
Our children are being “trained” to become the consumers of the future. They are opening their senses to have, to do, and to know. Thus, they are becoming objects of misguided values based on the exploitation of our five senses. No doubt the media and toy factories bear some level of responsibility.
This style of development is rapidly invading and penetrating societies in developing countries. In the numbers game it is essential to conquer these new markets. And sensory economics is already at the center stage of this process. Thus major efforts are being made to manipulate the sensory aspects of people in poorer countries so they become part of this massive consumption base needed to make the present system sustainable.
But will more consumption make the system sustainable? Is consumption the true source of economic and social sustainability? Will present production, consumption, and trade patterns lead this planet in the right direction? Specifically, will the system go in the direction of higher human transformation, social stability, human security, peace, and justice? Judging by the outcomes of development today, it seems that we are not going in the right direction. Just look at the figures on poverty, environmental degradation, gender and age discrimination, elimination of indigenous cultures and societies, and more. It is obvious that some major changes in direction are needed.
Is it the fault of our senses? Should we suppress our senses? Where should we focus in order to move in the right direction?
There are no quick fixes, but let me share some thoughts.
First, we must not focus on what we see at the superficial level but on the intelligence of our underlying vision. We must develop this inner intelligence at the very core of our five senses.
Second, we must be aware of the many filters that have become an integral part of our existence—as if these filters were needed. One well-known filter is the lens of what is politically correct. Another well-known one is the lens of what is fashionable. And there are many more. They distort our senses and limit our access to the unbounded field of pure intelligence within our human consciousness.
Third, we should look at how our economic, financial, and social systems remain at the gross level of our sensory-related behavior. As long as we remain at that level, we will continue to be part of the consumer herd that puts itself at the mercy of profit making and material development.
A fundamental condition for changing this situation is to embrace a sixth sense in the practice of sensory economics. This sixth sense is the one that manifests through our inner spiritual intelligence, our sense of identity, our sense of direction, our sacred existence. It is the polarity that goes beyond having, doing, and knowing. This sixth sense is that which moves us into being—the being of our core intelligence, the being of our ultimate form of existence. This sixth sense will expand our spiritual intelligence, an intelligence that is simple, exact, and anchored in our human reality, individually and collectively.
It is essential to note that the things we experience through our senses—looking, smelling, touching, tasting, and seeing—are essentially states of being. These states are always expressed both materially and spiritually. These are different states of our inner reality expressing both quantity and the quality in our everyday human existence.
These states of being are not random. They respond to unique dimensions, rules, laws, and instrumentality that are important to outline. They are universal—infinite possibilities, unbounded. They are inclusive—no one and nobody is excluded, they are for everything and everyone. They are absolute—each is in relationship to itself and not in relationship to something or someone else. They are nonjudgmental, not subject to value judgments of any sort. They are transcendental—beyond boundaries, beyond attachment. They are evolutionary, existing in relationship to natural law. They are collective and go beyond one individual.
We must increase our awareness regarding these dimensions. We must strengthen them to bring out this sixth sense we need so much if we want to change the direction of humanity. Some consumers and producers are indeed moving in the suggested direction. Markets are reacting to so-called “responsible” companies. These companies are becoming central to enhancing the natural environment and stopping the violations of human rights. Also, social entrepreneurship has now become central to the development of a new way of doing business, which, by the way, is also profitable. Focusing on the morals and ethics of economics and finance is also a signal that there are many people cultivating this sixth sense.
It is this sixth sense—our inner spiritual intelligence—that ought to dictate the shift in direction of the process of human transformation and to define benchmarks regarding the quality of our lives. The sensory human being cannot be rooted in what we sense at the surface but in the inner intelligence that lies beyond the filters imposed by those value and belief systems that may prove fatal to human destiny.
Good sensory economics—the economics of the sixth sense—must now be based on incentives and instruments that enhance our inner spiritual being.
[Published in Aquarian Times, Spring 2003]
Alfredo Sfeir Younis is an economist at the University of Chile, with masters and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Rhode Island. He worked for 29 years at the World Bank and within this financial colossus fought a battle to demonstrate that the accumulation of wealth and the market were not the magic formula or the only way for human development and peace. He is the President of the Institute for Human Transformation (IZTH) and a former candidate for President of Chile.