Soylent: It’s Not People

My life revolves around food, and it pretty much always has. When I was a little kid, I gravitated to instances of food and eating in books and TV shows and movies the way other kids get excited about cars, say, or ponies. When my parents took me to a restaurant, I always wanted to see the kitchen. I was the opposite of a picky eater, ever eager to try new things and experiment with novel flavor combinations. I ate briny nori sheets with Nutella and raw oats with cream. Whenever I went somewhere with my parents, I was disappointed – crushed, even – when there was no food. I sought the reassurance of a gumball machine or a little dish of hard candy in the midst of the grim sterility of banks, car dealerships, doctors’ offices.

These days, my routine is punctuated by the pleasure of mealtimes. My disposable income gets spent at restaurants and bars. Cooking is a joy that never grows tiresome. I love reading about food, talking about it, writing about it. I think about it incessantly. As with any obsession, sometimes it’s slightly burdensome. But, for better or worse, it’s my thing: Food is inextricable from my identity and my experience of the world.

That’s why I felt personally affronted when I read a recent New Yorker article entitled “The End of Food,” about a food replacement substance called Soylent, created by a twenty five-year-old tech entrepreneur. When I started seeing stuff about Soylent popping up on my Facebook feed, I assumed it was a joke and didn’t give it a second thought. I grew up with the understanding that “Soylent Green is people!”, and it didn’t occur to me that someone might try to market a real product under that name.

But, as I learned from the New Yorker article, Soylent, is, in fact, a thing. Rob Rhinehart and a few of his buddies had funds for a tech startup, but their plans to make inexpensive cell phone towers fell through. Instead, Rhinehart, who finds food – procuring, cooking, and eating it – an onerous chore, came up with the idea of a food substitute. According to the article, before the advent of Soylent, he and his roommates subsisted on frozen quesadillas and the like, purchased in bulk from Costco. But they were broke and unhealthy; despite their best efforts at frugality, food was a major part of their budget. Wanting to cut costs, save time, and optimize his nutrition, Rhinehart decided to make a food replacement from vitamins and minerals procured in bulk from the internet.

Soylent’s formula is open-source, meaning that anyone can access the recipe, tinker with it, and come up with their own version. The New Yorker article describes a group of engineering students at Cal Tech who subsist almost entirely on their own iterations of Soylent.

Can you live on Soylent alone? The evidence suggests that you can. According to the article, Rhinehart has been consuming Soylent pretty much exclusively for a year, and is in glowing health.

My visceral reaction to the piece – feelings of anger and defensiveness – don’t have to do with the health claims made by Soylent’s proponents. If anything, I find the idea of a nutritionally complete meal-replacement slurry more compelling than the numerous fad diets that extol the life-changing health benefits of ditching gluten or dairy or corn. Instead, I felt that Rhinehart was attacking the thing I love most, dismissing it as inefficient and superfluous.

Don’t get me wrong: I can see how eating can be perceived as inefficient. Sipping all the nutrients and calories you need, without having to take the time to prepare and eat a meal, is a huge time-saver. Food can be troublesome: Many people, me included, have complicated relationships with food and eating. Food is messy: ethically, health wise, literally. Agriculture accounts for many of our contemporary environmental woes. Many diseases are the result of improper eating – too much, not enough, the wrong kind. In my own life, I struggle to strike a balance between enjoyment and health. Sometimes I eat too much and loathe myself for it. I eat more sugar and butter and refined flour than I probably should. But these challenges are far outweighed by the pure joy of food, and vastly preferable to the bland utilitarianism of drinking beige sludge.

I know that there are many people who feel differently than I do. People like Rhinehart, engineers, scientists, artists, so caught up in their work that eating is a distraction. Or, people like a former coworker of mine, who claimed that he just didn’t like to eat. Unlike me (and most of the people I’m close to), they eat food as a strict necessity, consuming it for fuel, rather than for pleasure. I, on the other hand, would eat even if I didn’t have to (and often do).

Some people are obsessed with optimizing their nutrition and perfecting their bodies. I can understand that too; as a person who loves to be physical, to feel strong and stay active, (not to mention one possessed of a mile-wide vain streak), the allure of a diet that lets you precisely control your caloric intake while giving your body exactly what it needs to stay strong and healthy is not lost on me. There have even been times in my life when I’ve resented my body’s need for food, and wished I didn’t have to eat.

Here’s the thing, though: The times when I haven’t cared about food have been my lowest times. Deep in mourning for a lost friend, crushed by the end of a long relationship, reeling from the loss of a job I loved, I felt disconnected from my self, from my body. I didn’t want to eat, just smoke cigarettes and get high.

My true self, my healthy self, the one that embraces joy and wants to be in community and is kind and empathetic and seeks justice and strives to drop judgment in favor of compassion, loves food. The sensual enlivenment it brings, the power it has to solidify allegiances and bring people together and bridge differences, the love that’s expressed through it.

I don’t deny that food is problematic, that food insecurity could be (at least partially) addressed with a product like Soylent (although that in itself is an extremely dicey proposition, as thoughtfully addressed in this article), that there are some who might legitimately choose to give up eating in favor of pursuits that are more meaningful to them. My argument is with the idea of food as the enemy, food as a sub-optimal, inefficient anachronism, or as a guilty indulgence.

At one point, the author (who experiments with a Soylent-only diet as part of her research) sees someone at a coffee shop ordering her former regular breakfast, a bagel with butter, and remarks on “how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.” Sure, I guess you can look at eating a bagel as an unnecessary indulgence (you could, after all, have a kale smoothie or a bowl of quinoa or a glass of Soylent instead).

By that logic, though, romantic love is also a mere indulgence that’s not that great for us. It’s highly distracting. It is responsible for a massive amount of inefficiency and grief and hardship and poor decision-making. It causes people to lose their minds! And yet, it’s an irreplaceable part of the human experience, one I wouldn’t want to forgo, despite the pain and disruption it often causes.

Soylent represents an asceticism that seeks to systematize a feature of human life that is unfathomably complex. Food is central to culture, to memory, to a sense of family and home and identity. It is freighted with profound meaning, a barometer of our collective preoccupations and aesthetic tendencies. It is a rich vein running through literature and art and science.

In this way, Soylent is a posthuman project. It aims to optimize something we need and obviate all of its inefficient trappings. People could drink Soylent in space. Soylent could feed a hungry, resource-scarce, culturally and aesthetically impoverished Earth. But food and eating are an intrinsic feature of our humanity, and the end of food also represents the end of an essential feature of human life. Soylent isn’t people; without food, neither are we.

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