Today I took my two daughters to a movie. The theater was located in a large suburban shopping mall in Southwest St. Louis County, “Crestwood Plaza.” I had not been to this mall for several years, and I was shocked at what I saw. Approximately 40% of the stores have been shuttered and the entire place was like a ghost town. A lonely security guard told me that the stores have been rapidly failing over the past two years. That comports with my recollection. Two years ago, this mall was a packed and thriving shopping area located in a solidly middle-class community. Crestwood Plaza is not an isolated story; shopping malls are failing all across America.
[I've posted a gallery of today's images many of these shuttered stores along with this post. If you don't see that gallery, click the title to this post to go to the permalink, where you will see those thumbnails.]
I sometimes get snarkish when someone tells me they’re going to a shopping mall. I sometimes ask the Intrepid shopper to do me a favor and buy something practical for me, “Could you please buy me a hammer.” I usually get the same reaction, a puzzled look accompanied by a response “They don’t sell practical things like hammers at shopping malls.” Now I’m not denying that malls sell clothes or that we need clothes. Most mall clothes are for far more than staying warm or covering up. They are much more often than not, for impressing others.
For that reason, I’m not shedding tears for the shattering of dozens of mall stores at Crestwood Plaza or anywhere else. The failure of most of the stores means that we won’t be buying things we don’t actually need. Because Hallmark no longer sells its commercial greeting cards, we might be “forced” to create and send our own personalized cards and letters to each other. Now that Libby Lu gone, our pre-teen daughters can get back to being children rather than obsessing about their sex appeal. In my mind, many of these store closings are mostly good things, although I am saddened by the thought that so many people have lost their jobs due to these shutdowns. See these terrific videos by Josh Golin of CCFC regarding the dangers of turning our children into rampant consumers.
Another silver lining is that the mall owners have been forced to do something different with their space in order to survive (assuming they do survive). What they’ve done at Crestwood Plaza is to lease out many of the “store” spaces to art galleries, educational facilities, community theaters and other arts and crafts workshops for children and adults. In other words, it appears that the mall owners are opening up their malls for people who want to develop their minds and skill-sets rather than simply their pocketbooks.
When I saw this shocking and sudden change at Crestwood Plaza, it immediately occurred to me that art education facilities serve many of the same functions as the sales of knickknacks and other unnecessary consumer goods: both of these allow people to display who they are to others, not in a trite sense, but for deep evolutionarily-honed reasons. Buying consumer products is a terribly inefficient way to display one’s character to others; in fact, runaway consumerism is a mind-boggling waste of the Earth’s dwindling resources.
There’s no better way to explain the functional similarity between doing things (to impress others) and buying things (to impress others) than by quoting a few passages from Geoffrey Miller’s excellent new book: Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior (2009). If you’re going to make one last fling of buying consumer goods for yourself and your friends, I recommend buying a stack of copies of Miller’s Spent (as I did) and distributing them to your friends. I predict that it will affect your outlook on consumerism, and consequently your lives, dramatically. Further, Spent is a clearly written, insightful and wildly entertaining book. Here are a few passages to illustrate this post:
How can we as individuals live happily in a post-consumerist style that still lets us show off our personal traits, so that we obtain the social and sexual attention we crave? . . . One problem with [conspicuous consumption] is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle, so there’s not much of ourselves left for lovers or friends to discover in the longer term. This could be called the centrifugal-soul effect; runaway consumerism leaves us feeling superficial and empty because we project ourselves outward to observers too promiscuously and desperately. (255) …
Consider which kind of Valentine’s Day gift you would rather receive from someone whose affection you crave yet doubt: 1) A dozen red roses ordered online and delivered with a generic “loads of love” computer-printed note, or 2) A customized sonnet … you can tell that the latter is more compelling because it also makes a better story to tell your family and friends. (272)
Miller warns that we are all hypocrites and that we ridicule others for showing off by purchasing consumer goods, but we rarely see our own expressions of “consumer narcissism.”
We’re all hypocrites these days, one way or another–but rather my point is that we cannot track our ever shifting forms of consumer narcissism if we do not clearly understand how ancient human instincts interact with the modern economy, and how people display their ancient psychological traits through this week’s hot new products. (60).
How bad have things gotten? Essentially, we are laughable and desperate beings, working so hard to display our worth to others by ringing up large debts we can’t pay and by exhausting our planet’s resources. Something’s gotta give, and change is on the way:
Something else is also replacing the current system of consumerist capitalism and its key features: credentialism, workaholism, conspicuous consumption, single-family housing, fragmented kin and social networks, weak social norms, narrowly economic definitions of social progress and national status, and indirect democracy distorted by corporate interests and media conglomerates. These seemingly natural features of contemporary society will seem as alien to our great grandchildren as mammoth hunting, field plowing, and typewriting now seem to us. (305)
But won’t our economy collapse into ruin once we stop buying all those things that we don’t actually need? Miller describes this commonly articulated concern:
First recession, then depression, then economic collapse. The next steps are predictable: governments fall, police vanished, riots flare, anarchy spreads, services and collapse, utilities fail, people starve, babies cry, gangs rape, plagues spread, warlords rise, armies clash, nukes explode . . . such fears would be reasonable if the changes happened too quickly for markets, companies and governments to adapt. .. . but over the longer term, economies are astonishingly resilient. (327)
Consumerist capitalism is largely an exercise in gilding the lily… . we rely on goods and services acquired through education, work, and consumption to advertise our personal traits to others. These costly signals are mostly redundant or misleading so others usually ignore them. . . . this is an absurd way to live . . . runaway consumerism alone offers little more than narcissism, exhaustion, and alienation. We need the freedom to explore different ways of displaying our traits to the people we care about. (329)
[For a listen of several other DI posts regarding runaway consumerism, see here]
[I'm adding this link, DeadMalls.com, to the body of the post - It is a terrific resource on this topic. Thanks to Erika Price for the rec.]
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Nanny’s Gone Wild | Dangerous Intersection | February 14, 2010