Maul of America

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 03, 2007

Jason just forwarded a thread on the skyscraper page about plans to double the size of the Mall of America.

Click the image to see it full size

From the originating post:

The new addition will be four stories mostly, and measure 1,567 feet north-south by 1,312 feet east-west. The cost is approx. $1 Billion US and will add 5.6 million square feet to the existing 4.2 million square feet. Construction will begin in 2007.

With this addition, the Mall of America will become the largest single shopping complex in the Western Hemisphere.

In his remarkable book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter, a Cambridge professor of anthropology and history, makes a compelling case that societies start to collapse when the return on investment in added complexity goes negative.

His thesis is that societies respond to challenges by adding complexity - going from hunting-gathering to farmimg; or from villages to towns, with centralized authority and craft specialization; and so on.

Added complexity generates returns in net increases to labour productivity, which enriches the society.

However, complexity also generates problems - e.g. the need for legal systems, formal mechanisms of accountability, property laws, dispute settlement, unintended consequences of innovations.

Societies repond by adding still more complexity - e.g. irrigation depletes local water sources, requiring the society to construct a big canal to bring water from farther away - which also generates problems.

At some point, added complexity generates new problems that are bigger than its benefits, resulting in a negative net return on investment.

Since societies only know how to generate complexity, additional efforts beyond this to remedy the problems of complexity only make the problems still worse. Eventually, the society collapses under the combined weight of all its problems and undergoes a sudden, traumatic simplification leading to a dark age.

When I look at American society responding to the problems generated by the vast scale and complexity of its elaborate consumer economy by making it more vast and complex still, I can't help but think about Tainter's thesis and wonder whether we have passed the point of negative returns on investment.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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