The first fully enclosed shopping mall in America, and probably the world, was the Southdale Center in Edina, outside Minneapolis. Built in 1956, it is credited to Austrian immigrant architect Victor Gruen, who wanted to re-create the intimate scale and feel of the traditional Viennese plaza. Ironically, the opposite has happened. In this climate-controlled bubble, Gruen used an aviary, an orchestra, a hanging garden, and artificial trees to entice people and keep them shopping. “More people — for more hours,” he wrote in 1973, “means cash registers ringing more often and for longer periods.” So successful was he in this that today’s malls are bought and sold on the basis of their “Gruen transfer” factor. This is a measure of the seconds or nanoseconds it takes, from the moment of entry, for the mall to slow a shopper’s purposeful gait to the ambling stroll that signifies “scripted disorientation,” for the hunter to become the gatherer, the wolf to become the sheep.
We all do it. It is impossible to imagine, as you wander the halls of the latest gargantuan Westfield or Wal-Mart, that all this stuff — endless supplies of wine thermometers and shower radios, in-car phone sets and TV screens wider than your bed — is necessary, or even genuinely desired. Who could possibly buy it all? And yet, somehow, mysteriously, it gets sold. It’s not population-driven. Most Western populations are barely growing, scarcely replacing themselves without immigration. And yet each week we take home mountains and mountains of stuff. Like the gut flora of some poor, fixed creature, addicted to this bulimic cycle of buying, getting, and getting-rid-of, we extract what we want, or think we might want sometime, and excrete the excess — the packaging, the recycling, the half-digested junk.
Even in the throes of our addiction, however, we are increasingly aware that possession itself can become burdensome. Not-having can be stressful, but having can be more stressful still. The “endowment effect” underpins what happens when the negative effect of loss, or of fear-of-loss, outweighs both the pleasure of having and the negative of not-having-had. Once you’ve climbed the peak, there’s only one way to go. Down.
But that’s not all. As psychologist William James noted back in 1898, “lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or on being.” This has been the essential message not just of Christianity, but of many of the world’s major philosophies and religions for millennia. Now much contemporary study is devoted to finding scientific proof, or at least concurrence, for what we are no longer prepared, or able, to take on faith.