Man cannot live by bread alone — but we can survive on Soylent, a powdered meal replacement that’s getting press in articles portending the “end of food.” Developed by Robert Rhinehart, an electrical engineer turned amateur biochemist, the product is something like Ensure on steroids, containing thirty-five essential nutrients in one tiny pouch. Mix it with water and an oil blend and you have not just a substitute for a single meal, but a cocktail you could live on for all eternity.
Rhinehart and his small team are straight out of Silicon Valley. They not only discuss their startup with the hyperoptimism of the TED set, but its early consumers are “lifehacking” tech types who find drinking meals at their desk a fine way to maximize their productivity.
This is the reason many commentators fear the rise of Soylent and products like it. Under capitalism, we spend most of our waking hours under the direction of our bosses. We’re under pressure to produce ever more efficiently — not for more pay, but simply to keep our jobs. With stable 9-to-5 employment increasingly scarce, companies are not only making the workday longer, they’re making sure workers achieve peak productivity throughout it.
Pervasive surveillance of employees, the division of work into mundane and tedious component tasks, and the relentless pace of production have always been associated with labor under capitalism. But in the unionless cubicle of the future, workers have even less of a chance to push back against these trends.
For those of us still lucky enough to have it, a lunch break is one of the last reprieves from the tyranny of the workplace. It doesn’t matter that we’re spending half of it standing in line for Chipotle — socializing with others and having time away from the grind has tremendous value.
Our biological need for food to perform effectively as workers is one of the few things employers have to respect. A labor force sipping Soylent all day at their desks would satisfy that need without disruptive pauses for food preparation, consumption and cleanup. Lunch breaks could come to be seen as an antiquated luxury, relics from a bygone era of 40-hour workweeks, paid vacation and sick days, and “Cadillac” health and dental plans.
But the line between dystopia and utopia is a thin one. Widespread use of Soylent today may keep us all glued to our desks until we die (perhaps they’ll innovate a way out of bathroom breaks next), but that’s just part of capitalism’s tendency to use technological advances to maximize profit at the employee’s expense.
Soylent itself, however, is a product with a radically egalitarian core. In a different context, it could facilitate human flourishing and freedom.
Major food trends — from urban farming to the organic food and farm-to-table movements — struggle with the problem of scale. A quick look through the Instagram accounts of self-described foodies alone reveals that these are largely movements of the privileged.
But we have more than 7 billion people to feed; 842 million of them don’t have enough to eat. Even among many of those who do, the food they consume often lacks essential nutrients. Malnutrition kills 3.1 million children every year and leaves millions more underdeveloped. Climate change will only make matters worse, with experts warning of a coming era of food insecurity.
Food today is more expensive and environmentally inefficient than it needs to be. Agricultural production saps 70 percent of our fresh water. Livestock generates around 20 percent of greenhouse gases from human sources. Combined, both sides of the food production system dominate 40 percent of the world’s land surface.
The proliferation of meal replacements can change that equation. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” Rhinehart told The New Yorker. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Soylent is already fairly cheap, but with economies of scale through more centralized, public-driven production, it could be made for pennies. This would not only free up land and resources to comfortably sustain more human life, but it could provide a way out of backbreaking farm work for the first time since the Neolithic revolution.
Having access to nutrition will no longer be the result of luck. The poor today have processed meals foisted upon them by corporate producers, while the rich can enjoy eating their food slow and organic. Obesity and diabetes affect the low-income more than anyone else in the developed world, and liberal solutions offer little more than patronizing nudges and the politics of personal choice to curb the epidemic. In a world of powdered food, all people could have access to the same subsistence.
Of course, there will always be conventional food. But it will be transformed into something we consume for leisure and pleasure, for socialization and entertainment. We need not rely on it to survive.
This development would have feminist implications as well. A world without food would also be a world without cooking — part of unpaid household work that’s disproportionately left to women. Overcoming it is, in addition to everything else, a victory against the sexual division of labor.
Soylent also has the virtue of being open source. Its ingredients aren’t proprietary and can be easily wrested from corporate supply chains and put into the public sphere. Yet we can imagine a hundred different scenarios of how developments like it could hurt rather than help people. After all, without powerful political and social movements shaping its implementation, technological progress has a spotty record.
But consider for a moment how those movements could reshape the way we view food and usher in a new era of freedom: freedom from the gendered tyranny of the kitchen, dangerous conditions in fields and slaughterhouses, the plight of starvation and malnutrition and senseless conflict over resources that need not be scarce.
With some luck and plenty of political fortitude, we could be living on a planet with that kind of freedom before long. Abolish food so that everyone can eat.