How long can giant super-malls last?

By Andy Savitz

Ethical Corporation • July 4, 2008

Mega-consumption may soon have had its day, argues Andy Savitz in the first installment of a new, regular EC column

I recently visited St. Paul, Minnesota, with my seven-year-old daughter to attend the wedding of a friend.

At the suggestion of the bride, we stayed at the Radisson Hotel Bloomington, near the airport.

"It’s connected to the Mall of America Water Park. Your daughter will be in heaven."

Now, I like Minnesota a lot, especially the Twin Cities: fabulous public universities, the highest literacy rate in the nation, and millions of my kind of people—progressive Democrats, and nice folks too.

But this trip threw me for a loop, literally and figuratively.

We checked in and went straight to the water park.

"America’s Biggest Indoor Water Park" does not nearly begin to describe the incredible size, variety, and complexity of its many features, which involve pumping millions of gallons of water up and down three-story water slides, surfing safaris, lazy rivers, family rafting excursions, gigantic buckets that fill until they tip over and douse you, artificial beaches with three-foot waves, and much more.

I could only think; “From the people who brought you NASA.”

If you’re among those who are concerned about the wastefulness of shipping bottled water around the world, we are talking about waste of another order of magnitude here.

Picture—as just one example—thousands of jets of water being pumped up a 30-degree incline so hard and fast that a 200-pound man can actually "surf" along it without ever slipping towards the bottom.

And this thing runs from nine a.m. until ten p.m. every day, whether someone is riding the wave or not.

It's well known that Americans, who make up just five percent of the world's population, consume twenty-five percent of its energy resources. Who knew how much of it went to hanging ten in Bloomington?

Don’t get me wrong, my daughter and I had the time of our lives—screaming hilarity, endless giggling, and serious father-daughter bonding as we spent about twice the monthly income of the average Kenyan to cavort indoors while outside was one of the most beautiful early summer days imaginable.

I thought the water park was a guilty pleasure until we dried, changed, and crossed the street to experience the Mall of America (MOA).

Start with the fact that the largest mall in America, (which must mean the world, right? Er, wrong: A little research reveals that the Mall of America is actually seventeenth on the list of the world’s largest malls. It's less than half the size of the South China Mall in Dongguan, China) has an amusement park at its center five times the size of the water park.

We had a ball, riding several different roller-coasters, including the looping “Orange Streak.” but decided to skip the nausea-inducing Splat-O-Sphere after watching it haul 75 people up sixty feet, then drop them fifty-nine feet and six inches, back down.

Of course, shopping is the main attraction. The mall directory lists over 520 retail stores and restaurants on three floors, each the size of your average state park.

The first-time shopper orients herself by locating the four humongous anchor tenants—Macy’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and Sears—each of which occupies all three stories and its own corner of the mall.

I have written about over-consumption, but we need a new word to describe what happens at MOA. The term mega-consumption comes to mind. You can shop at 17 jewelers, get footwear at 24 shoe stores, and dine at any and all of 74 eateries.

Looking for a souvenir to bring home? MOA houses 37 gift shops, from the ubiquitous Yankee Candle and Disney store to regional establishments like Love From Minnesota and the Minnesota Wild Hockey Lodge.

We were in Minnesota for exactly 41 hours (25 of them awake), easily enough for three trips to the mall.

We found great clothing bargains for my fashion-conscious daughter as well as a lifetime supply of SpongeBob SquarePants memorabilia.

We had her picture drawn by a pen and ink artist. We bought sports wear for my son. We ate fried foods, we ate salted foods, we ate sticky foods. We ate ice cream and cookies.

I'm still trying to recover from the trip. Not just from the expense and the indigestion, but from the vertiginous sense of terror and glee, that the mall and the water park inspired in me.

What people will see and think when they visit the same site two hundred years from now? My guess is that the water park will be long gone, a victim of rising energy prices and water shortages.

But the mall may still be there, unless virtual shopping has replaced the real deal—or society as we know it has collapsed under its own weight due to causes it will take some future Jared Diamond to analyze and chronicle.

In which case MOA will be an abandoned hulk, overgrown by the returning north woods and perhaps used for shelter by animals and the occasional homeless human.

The few witnesses who wander past may well think of us, "In their time, they lived like king." Then again, they may wonder, "What the hell were they thinking?" Maybe both.

 

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