adventures in eco-outsourcing with a startup founder

The founder of Soylent is trying to make outsourcing your carbon footprint an accomplishment. It’s not.

low poly factory

Today’s startup founders can be a wacky bunch, often set on turning personal problems into a company with a massive valuation to repeat the success of Uber and Airbnb, or to some extent, the trajectory of Soylent, the love-it-or-hate-it food substitute invented by Rob Rhinehart to sate his need for calories while avoiding cooking. Personally, as a programmer who will far too often forget to eat when working away on some complicated piece of code, I find the concept a more scientific take on earlier efforts in meal replacements, and would be willing to try it for breakfast and lunch when I’m in the office. However, unlike its predecessors, Soylent is actually meant as a substitute for food in general because Rhinehart seems to take some of his ideas way too far, starting off with a sound notion, then running with it way after it crosses the line into mania. Just consider his meme-worthy ode to sustainability waiting to become a manifesto for hipsters who grew tired of sipping PBR and knitting in bars, and are just waiting for their next obsession…

As mentioned earlier, the basic idea is sound. We waste too much energy and much of it is still coming from fossil fuels instead of clean renewable sources. Coal and oil are dirty, and burning them fills the air with harmful particles. Replacing them soon should be right up there on the list of priorities for anyone with an eye on the future, and in the meantime we can all do our part by putting up solar panels where it will make sense, wiring up more wind farms, switching to smart, energy-efficient appliances which can use big data to better manage the flow of electricity, and seriously considering LEDs for lighting. Technology for eco-friendly homes exists and its prices will keep falling as it becomes more and more common. Even in places where people proudly proclaim their disdain for the science of climate change, renewables are heavily favored. If that was the extent of Rhinehart’s commitment to hepling the environment, that would be great, but as the introduction hopefully made obvious, he goes off the rails with gems like this…

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat.

If you’re cooking the same thing over and over, so much so that you might as well consider the process to be robotic, you’re doing it wrong. Rhinehart doesn’t like cooking, doesn’t know what to do in the kitchen, and can’t imagine why he should bother, therefore, he concludes, kitchens are just a waste of time an energy and dismantled his, vividly comparing it to a torture chamber filled with knives and electronic monsters growling at the hapless humans who try to tame them long enough to extract some sustenance to go on living for another day. If it sounds like a pitch for his product, well, it is. But keep in mind that this is exactly why he invented Soylent. He’s not just trying to pour his slurry down your throat, he’s completely genuine in his disdain for cooking and food in general. Which is fine, I suppose, we’re all entitled to our opinion about what should go in our mouths. The problem comes when he frames it from an environmental angle.

Soylent is mass produced in industrial quantities and shipped around the world. The footprint of this production and delivery is not at all trivial. Vast quantities of water and fuel are used around the clock to keep making it and moving it around into consumers’ hands, and this is before we’ll start adding the footprint of the supply chain necessary to ship enough raw ingredients to keep the factory churning out more Soylent. Same goes for restaurants. Rhinehart may not cook, but he sure goes out to eat, meaning that restaurants have to spend said unconscionable amounts of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning with the aforementioned panoply of expensive tools. I could play Devil’s advocate and say that one kitchen making food for hundreds of people is far more efficient than hundreds of them making food for one to four people at a time, but whether the savings per person really add up to anything serious is a big question since restaurants far too seldom hesitate to just toss anything not visually appealing or done right in the trash.

But rather than consider whether the waste generated by a professional kitchen and one in our homes may cancel each other out, or consider a study on how efficiently restaurants distribute food between customers vs. home chefs where the question of leftovers may tilt the field to our humble dwellings, Rhinehart decides to give us a peek into how he sees grocery stores. Spoiler alert, it sounds like an omitted level of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, probably in the City of Dis…

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that would make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet. […] I buy my staple food online like a civilized person.

Aside from the histrionic description and the implication that my desire to actually see the food I will later consume apparently makes me a feral savage, we see Rhinehart again make the leap to advocating a third party distributing his needs more efficiently. On its face, the idea makes a modicum of sense, however, it fails to consider that a delivery truck will optimize a route among its customers, not necessarily in the most efficient way for the environment and fuel usage, and that goes double for where Rhinehart and I live: LA. Traffic jams on the 101 and the 405 waste immense quantities of gas for minimal gain. Meanwhile, when I go to the grocery store, I simply pick the nearest one and arrive by back roads with few stoplights and no traffic. So believe it or not, just going to the closest grocery store may be more efficient in midsize to bigger cities than ordering your staples online, relying on the delivery service to find the optimal fuel economy for dropping off the goods. But hold on folks, it gets even worse when it comes to his clothes…

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me… [I]t takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments. The overwhelming majority of clothing that Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

While he does acknowledge that container ships do go through immense amounts of fuel in the part of this excerpt left out for brevity, he still thinks he makes less of an ecological footprint with buying new clothes instead of doing laundry, clothes that mind you, are made from a petroleum derivative he praises as being more efficient than natural fabrics like cotton. This is his common theme; instead of doing things himself, he outsources his ecological footprint to others and then credits himself with expanding less stress on the environment. The only place where he is really doing the planet any favors is in his house, with solar panels and LED lighting. Otherwise, what he’s actually doing can best be described as eco-outsourcing. Restaurants, delivery trucks, the army of Uber drivers, buses, container ships, and factories that meet all of his needs are eating the environmental costs of his consumption. If we ignore them, Rhinehart’s eco-minimalism is a good faith effort in sustainability. But when we take them into account as we should, it becomes an exercise in strenuously patting oneself on the back for delegating much of life to others.

# tech // emissions / energy / global warming / sustainability


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